Coup leaders in Niger who say they have overthrown the elected government won broad army support and called for calm on Thursday after young demonstrators ransacked the ruling party headquarters.
The latest target of a coup in Africa’s turbulent Sahel region, President Mohamed Bazoum has been confined at his residence since Wednesday by his own presidential guard.
Bazoum had defiantly stood his ground as condemnation of the putsch swelled from African and international organisations and allies France, Germany, and the United States.
“The hard-won (democratic) gains will be safeguarded,” Bazoum said on Twitter, which is being rebranded as X.
“All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom would want this.”
But Armed forces chief General Abdou Sidikou Issa on Thursday swung his weight behind the putschists.
“The military command… has decided to subscribe to the declaration made by the Defence and Security Forces… in order to avoid a deadly confrontation,” he said in a statement.
The landlocked state is one of the world’s poorest, experiencing four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960, as well as numerous other attempts — including two previously against Bazoum.
The 63-year-old is one of a dwindling group of elected presidents and pro-Western leaders in the Sahel, where since 2020 a rampaging jihadist insurgency has triggered coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Their juntas have forced out French troops and in Mali, the ruling military has woven a close alliance with Russia.
The coup leader Colonel Amadou Abdramane appeared on national television Thursday urging “the population to remain calm” after youths peeled off from a gathering in support of the putschists in Niamey and ransacked the headquarters of Bazoum’s PNDS party, setting fire to vehicles in the carpark.
About 1,000 people, mostly youngsters, had turned out before the National Assembly in the capital as well as several hundred in the town of Dosso, AFP journalists saw.
Some held Russian flags and chanted anti-French and pro-Russian slogans.
“We want the same thing as in Mali and Burkina Faso,” shouted 19-year-old student Alassane Alhousseini.
“We want to take our destiny in our own hands.”
The Niger coup leaders — 10 men in military uniform — had appeared on television overnight.
Colonel Abdramane announced they were taking power following “the continued deterioration of the security situation, poor economic and social governance”.
Under the banner of the Defence and Security Forces (FDS), they had “decided to put an end to the regime,” and all institutions were being suspended, the borders closed and a night-time curfew imposed.
Party political activity has also been suspended.
The president of neighbouring Benin, Patrice Talon, had been expected in the capital to mediate, but there was no further news of the mission.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Thursday “demanded the immediate release of president Mohamed Bazoum who remains the legitimate and legal President of Niger.”
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the “military forces responsible for a coup in Niger should immediately restore fundamental human rights and protect people from harm”.
The latest coup effort raises fears of further instability and a “risk of disengagement” on the security front, said Alain Antil, head of the Sub-Saharan Africa Centre at France’s International Relations Institute (IFRI).
“Bazoum was very fragile. His election was contested by the opposition .. and it was known that a certain number of army officers were fairly unhappy with the situation,” said Antil.
The statement from the army “seems to confirm that the coup is in the process of succeeding,” he added.
The parties in Niger’s ruling coalition denounced “a suicidal and anti-republican madness” and condemnation poured in from regional and global leaders.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced alarm at instability in the Sahel, saying he is “extremely worried” about the extremism and military upheaval.
“We are seeing a disturbing trend. Successive unconstitutional changes of government are having terrible effects on the development and lives of civilian populations,” he said.
UN humanitarian operations have been suspended in Niger following the coup, a spokesman said.
The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in the country climbed from 1.9 million in 2017 to 4.3 million in 2023, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken to Bazoum to offer support from Washington, which deploys about 1,100 troops in Niger.
France, a key ally which has 1,500 soldiers in Niger, called for “the restoration of the integrity of Nigerien democratic institutions.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock branded the coup a “slap in the face” for Nigeriens.
Russia — isolated since invading Ukraine in February 2022 — joined nations appealing for Bazoum’s release and peaceful dialogue.
Bazoum took office after elections two years ago, in Niger’s first-ever peaceful transition since independence.
He had been interior minister and right-hand man to former president Mahamadou Issoufou, who voluntarily stepped down after two terms.
But an attempted coup took place just before Bazoum’s inauguration, according to a security source at the time.
A second bid to oust him occurred last March “while the president… was in Turkey”, according to a Niger official.
The country of 22 million is two-thirds desert and frequently ranks at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.
Niger faces two jihadist campaigns — one in the southwest, which swept in from Mali in 2015, and the other in the southeast, involving jihadists from northeastern Nigeria.
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