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Two years ago, the president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was elected in the West African country’s first peaceful, democratic change of government since independence from France in 1960.
He almost didn’t make it – a coup was attempted to thwart him from taking office, but was reportedly stopped by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the commander of the Presidential Guard, according to Al Jazeera.
Last week, a few days after that same guard ousted Bazoum in a coup, army commanders suspended Niger’s constitution, all political parties, closed all borders, and declared Tchiani – who led Wednesday’s coup – the new head of the transitional council, and de facto head of the country, reported the Associated Press.
“(We decided to) put an end to the regime that you know due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance,” he said on television, adding it was “necessary” to avoid “the gradual and inevitable demise” of the country.
There has been no talk of returning to civilian rule.
The turn of events has caused concern and dismay across Africa, and elsewhere.
The stakes are high because landlocked Niger sits amid some of the most unstable parts of the planet: war-torn Libya for one, while regions of Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, and the vast and dangerous Sahara Desert of southern Algeria host jihadists who have gained in strength over the past few years.
Thousands have been killed and six million displaced in the region due to jihadist insurgencies.
Niger, one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world, hosts some of those refugees displaced by the insurgents. At the same time, the country is Africa’s second-biggest uranium producer.
Still, Niger is especially important to the US and the West, wrote National Public Radio, because the country hosts US drone bases, around 1,100 American troops, 1,500 French soldiers, and other foreign personnel. It is vital to America and Europe’s counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State and other militant forces in the Sahel.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the coup on Twitter, saying he opposed “any effort to seize power by force and to undermine democratic governance, peace & stability in Niger,” noted NBC News. American and French officials have also signaled their support for Bazoum and the democratic process that elected him to office in 2021, Politico reported.
But American and French generals have also been working closely with the Nigerien military for years and probably would very much like to continue that cooperation, especially in light of rising anti-French sentiment and coups in the region, often assisted by the Russian military contractor and mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group. For example, France moved its soldiers to Niger from Mali after a military coup last year that was assisted by Wagner.
Meanwhile, as the Intercept explained, the US military trained one of the officers who organized the coup. An unnamed American official told the Intercept that their training adhered to US and international law, but they had no control over foreign military personnel.
In the meantime, the leader of the Wagner Group, an arm of Kremlin influence in Africa, took credit for the coup. In a statement posted on the social media site Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin suggested that Wagner had supported the military junta and would now help Niger deal with terrorists rather than the US and France.
“What happened is the struggle of the people of Niger against the colonialists,” Prigozhin said. “This is actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonialists.”
On Sunday, thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital Niamey denouncing France, waving Russian flags, and some even set a door at the French Embassy ablaze, Africanews wrote.
Some have suggested that there is a connection between the coup and Niger’s ousted president declining to attend Putin’s Africa summit earlier this month. But others say coups are nothing new in a region that regularly sees them.
Niger has had five successful coups since 1960. This latest one is the sixth – after one in Guinea and two each in Burkina Faso and Mali – in West Africa in the past three years, underscoring the region’s moniker, the “coup belt.”
Still, the powerful regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has threatened military action against the junta if it doesn’t reinstate Bazoum as president in a week, and imposed sanctions on those involved in the coup or working for its institution. The European Union has cut off aid and the US is considering doing so.
And there isn’t peace in the coup household either. Government officials loyal to Bazoum, as well as French diplomats, have said the coup was “not final,” with infighting beginning to break out between the plotters, CNN added.
The palace intrigue is not yet over.