Niger’s leaders defiant as coup unfolds
SAM MEDNICK THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Supporters of mutinous soldiers hold a Russian flag as they demonstrate Thursday in Niamey, Niger. (CAP/Scott Green)
NIAMEY, Niger — Niger’s president defiantly declared Thursday that democracy would prevail, a day after mutinous soldiers detained him and announced they had seized power in a coup because of the West African country’s deteriorating security situation.
While many people in the capital of Niamey went about their usual business, it remained unclear who was in control of the country and which side the majority might support. A statement tweeted by the army command’s account declared that it would back the coup to avoid a “murderous confrontation” that could lead to a “bloodbath.” It was not possible to confirm that the statement was genuine. President Mohamed Bazoum — who was elected in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960 — appeared to have the backing of several political parties. Bazoum is a key ally in the West’s efforts to battle jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region.
“The hard-won achievements will be safeguarded. All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom will see to it,” Bazoum tweeted early Thursday.
Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou issued a similar call on news network France 24, asking “all Nigerien democratic patriots to stand up as one to say no to this factious action.” He demanded the president’s unconditional release and said talks were ongoing. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who spoke to Bazoum by phone on Wednesday, told reporters Thursday that he was “extremely worried” about the situation in Niger and warned of the “terrible effects on development” and civilians due to “successive unconstitutional changes of government in the Sahel region.” The Economic Community of West African States sent Benin President Patrice Talon to lead mediation efforts. Russia and the West have been vying for influence in the fight against extremism in the region. Extremists in Niger have carried out attacks on civilians and military personnel, but the overall security situation is not as dire as in neighboring nations.
Bazoum is seen by many as the West’s last hope for partnership in the Sahel after Mali turned away from former colonial power France and sought support from the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
Wagner appears to be making inroads in Burkina Faso as well.
The U.S. is “gravely concerned” about the situation in Niger, said State Department spokesman Vedant Patel during a briefing with reporters Thursday.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and continue to be in close touch with the embassy,” Patel said.
Western countries have poured aid into Niger, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in March, seeking to strengthen ties. American, French and Italian troops train the country’s soldiers, while France also conducts joint operations.
But the threat to Bazoum has raised concerns that Niger could also turn away from the West. On Thursday, several hundred people gathered in the capital and chanted support for Wagner while waving Russian flags.
“If Mohamed Bazoum resigns from the presidency, Niger will probably move to the top of the list of countries where the Wagner Group will seek to expand,” said Flavien Baumgartner, an Africa analyst at Dragonfly, a security and political risk consultancy.
Information for this article was contributed by Tracy Brown, Rebecca Santana, John Leicester, Angela Charlton, Edith Lederer and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.