Soldiers declare Niger general who led coup as head of state
Mutinous soldiers who ousted Niger’s president declared Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the coup leader, as head of state Friday, hours after the general defended the takeover and asked for support from the nation and international partners.
As concerns grew that the political crisis could set back Niger’s fight against jihadists and increase Russia’s influence in West Africa, spokesman Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane said on state television that the constitution was suspended and Tchiani was in charge. State TV identified Tchiani as the leader of the soldiers who said they staged the coup.
Various factions of Niger’s military have reportedly wrangled for control since members of the presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum, who was elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France.
Niger is seen as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence in the fight against extremism. France has 1,500 soldiers in the country who conduct joint operations with the Nigeriens, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
Extremists in Niger have carried out attacks on civilians and military personnel, but the overall security situation is not as dire as in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso — both of which have ousted the French military. Mali has turned to the Russian private military group Wagner, and it’s believed the mercenaries will soon be in Burkina Faso.
Now there are concerns Niger could follow suit. Even before the coup, Wagner, which has sent mercenaries around the world in support of Russia’s interests, already had its sights set on Niger, in part because it’s a large producer of uranium.
Russian private military contractor Wagner is busy boosting its brand as its fighters try to subdue Ukraine, trading secrecy for war propaganda movies.
“We can no longer continue with the same approaches proposed so far, at the risk of witnessing the gradual and inevitable demise of our country,” Tchiani, who also goes by Omar Tchiani, said in the address. “That is why we decided to intervene and take responsibility.
“I ask the technical and financial partners who are friends of Niger to understand the specific situation of our country in order to provide it with all the support necessary to enable it to meet the challenges,” he said.
If the takeover is designated a coup by the United States, Niger stands to lose millions of dollars of military aid and assistance.
Later, state TV aired a statement from the mutinous soldiers, who call themselves the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, accusing some prominent dignitaries of collaborating with foreign embassies in an effort to “extract” the deposed leaders. The statement warned that would lead to violence and also warned against foreign military intervention.
Bazoum has said he will not resign and he defiantly tweeted from detention on Thursday that democracy would prevail.
Niger’s president defiantly declared that democracy would prevail, a day after mutinous soldiers detained him.
It’s not clear who enjoys the support of most of the population, but the streets of the capital, Niamey, were calm Friday, with a slight celebratory air. Some cars honked in solidarity at security forces as they drove by — but it was not clear if that meant they backed the coup. Elsewhere, people rested after traditional midday prayers and others sold goods at their shops.
A day earlier, several hundred people gathered in Niamey and chanted support for Wagner while waving Russian flags.
“We’re fed up,” said Omar Issaka, one of the protesters. “We are tired of being targeted by the men in the bush. ... We’re going to collaborate with Russia now.”
That’s what many in the West fear. Tchiani’s criticism of Bazoum’s approach and of how security partnerships have worked in the past will certainly make the U.S., France and the European Union uneasy, said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute.
“So that could mark potentially some shifts moving forward in Niger security partnerships,” he said.
Even as Tchiani sought to project control, the situation appeared to be in flux. A delegation from neighboring Nigeria hoping to mediate left shortly after arriving, and the president of Benin, nominated as a mediator by West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS, had not arrived.
Members of Niger’s presidential guard surrounded the presidential palace in what African organizations called an attempted coup.
The bloc scheduled an emergency meeting for Sunday in Nigerian capital of Abuja.
Earlier, an analyst who had spoken with partici-pants in the talks said that the presidential guard was negotiating with the army about who should be in charge. The analyst spoke on condition they not to be named because of the sensitive situation.
A Western military official in Niger who was not authorized to speak publicly to the media also said that the military factions were believed to be negotiating and that the situation remained tense and violence could erupt.
Speaking in Papua New Guinea, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the coup as “completely illegitimate and profoundly dangerous for the Nigeriens, Niger and the whole region.”
The coup threatens to starkly reshape the international community’s engagement with the Sahel region.
Fighting in Sudan between forces loyal to two top generals has put that nation at risk of collapse and could have consequences far beyond its borders.
On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement that the United States’ “substantial cooperation with the Government of Niger is contingent on Niger’s continued commitment to democratic standards.”
The U.S. in early 2021 said it had provided Niger with more than $500 million in military aid and training since 2012, one of the largest such support programs in sub-Saharan Africa. The EU this year launched a $30-million military training mission in Niger. The U.S has more than 1,000 service personnel in the country.
Some military leaders who appear to be involved in the coup have worked closely with the U.S. for years, including Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the head of Niger’s special forces, the Western military official said.
Though Russia has also condemned the coup, it remains unclear what the junta’s position with regard to the Wagner Group will be.
The acting head of the United Nations in Niger said Friday that humanitarian aid deliveries were continuing, even though the military suspended flights carrying aid.
Nicole Kouassi, the acting U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator, told reporters via video from Niamey that 4.3 million people needed humanitarian aid before this week’s military action and 3.3 million faced “acute food insecurity,” most of them women and children.
Jean-Noel Gentile, the U.N. World Food Program director in Niger, said “the humanitarian response continues on the ground.” He said that the U.N. is providing cash assistance and food to people in accessible areas and that the agency is continuously assessing the situation to ensure security and access.
This is Niger’s fifth coup since independence and marks the fall of one of the last democratically elected governments in the Sahel.
Its army has always been very powerful and civilian-military relations fraught, though tensions had increased recently, especially with the growing jihadist insurgency, said Karim Manuel, an analyst for the Middle East and Africa with the Economist Intelligence Unit.
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