NIAMEY - Thousands of supporters of the junta that took over Niger in a coup this week marched through the streets of the capital on Sunday denouncing the country’s former colonial power and lighting a door at the French Embassy ablaze before the army broke up the crowd. Black smoke could be seen across the city from the burning of the door. The Russian mercenary group Wagner is operating in neighboring Mali, and President Vladimir Putin would like to expand his country’s influence in the region. The new junta’s leaders have not said whether they would move toward Moscow or stick with Niger’s Western partners.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday that attacks on France and its interests would not be tolerated. Anyone who attacked French nationals, the army, diplomats and French authorities would see an immediate response, he said. Meanwhile, West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS on Sunday gave Niger coup leaders one week to reinstate ousted President Mohammed Bazoum or face sanctions and the possible use of force.
The regional leaders meeting in Nigeria’s capital Abuja said punitive measures against Niger’s new military leaders could include financial and travel sanctions and a no-fly zone. With military action a possibility too, ECOWAS defence chiefs would meet immediately, they said in a communique, also condemning support for the coup from some foreign nations and military contractors. The coup in Niger has been widely condemned by neighbours and international partners including the United States, the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and former colonial power France.
But the boss of Russia’s private Wagner mercenary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin hailed the coup as good news and offered his fighters’ services. Niger, a French colony until 1960, had been seen as the West’s last reliable partner battling jihadists in Africa’s Sahel region. France has 1,500 soldiers in the country who conduct joint operations with the Nigeriens. The United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops. At an emergency meeting Sunday in Abuja, Nigeria, the West African bloc known as ECOWAS said that it was suspending relations with Niger, and authorized the use of force if President Mohamed Bazoum is not reinstated within a week. The African Union has issued a 15-day ultimatum to the junta in Niger to reinstall the democratically elected government. Bazoum was democratically elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence from France in 1960.
Members of the Niger military announced on Wednesday they had deposed Bazoum and on Friday named Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani as the country’s new leader, adding Niger to a growing list of military regimes in West Africa’s Sahel region.
Some leaders of the mutiny said they overthrew Bazoum because he wasn’t able to secure the nation against growing jihadi violence. But some analysts and Nigeriens say that was a pretext for a takeover driven by internal power struggles.
“We couldn’t expect a coup in Niger because there’s no social, political or security situation that would justify that the military take the power,” said Prof. Amad Hassane Boubacar, who teaches at the University of Niamey.
He said Bazoum wanted to replace the head of the presidential guard, Tchiani. Tchiani, who also goes by Omar, was loyal to Bazoum’s predecessor, and that sparked the problems, Boubacar said.
Niger’s dire security situation is not as bad as that in neighboring Burkina Faso or Mali, which have also been battling an Islamic insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Last year, Niger was the only one of the three to see a decline in violence, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Some taking part in Sunday’s rally warned outside bodies to stay away.