Niger’s Bazoum ‘held by guards’ in apparent coup attempt

Presidency says army ready to attack if guards do not back down, as regional bloc sends diplomat to Niger on mediation mission.

Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum gather to show their support for him in Niamey
Supporters of President Bazoum gather to show their support for him in Niamey on July 26, 2023 [AFP]

Niger’s presidency has said members of the presidential guard tried to move against President Mohamed Bazoum in an apparent coup attempt, warning that the army was ready to attack them if they did not back down.

The presidency’s official Twitter account said on Wednesday that presidential guards engaged in an “anti-Republican demonstration” and tried “in vain” to obtain the support of the other security forces.

It added that Bazoum and his family were well after news agencies quoted security sources as saying that the guards were holding Bazoum inside the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey.

The palace and ministries next to it had been blocked off by military vehicles on Wednesday morning. Staff inside the palace were also unable to access their offices, according to reports.

Bazoum supporters tried to approach the presidential complex but were dispersed by members of the presidential guard who fired warning shots, according to an AFP reporter.

One person was hurt, but it was not immediately clear if he was injured by a bullet or from falling as the crowd scattered. Al Jazeera, however, could not independently verify the incident.

But there was calm elsewhere in Niamey.

Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Abuja in neighbouring Nigeria, said there was a directive from the army for troops loyal to Bazoum to move in to quell what seemed to be a coup attempt.

He said there were reports from the Nigerien capital signifying that there was “some form of negotiations”, with one report suggesting that the coup plotters wanted Bazoum to “surrender power”.

“Right now, we also heard about mobilisation in the outskirts of Niamey where military barracks are situated,” he added.

In a statement, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, “strongly” condemned what he called a coup attempt “by members of the military acting in total betrayal of their republican duty”.

West Africa’s 15-nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called for Bazoum’s immediate and unconditional release, warning that all those involved would be held responsible for his safety.

Bola Tinubu, president of Nigeria and chair of ECOWAS, said he was already in “close consultation” with other leaders in the region about the situation.

Benin’s President Patrice Talon was on his way to Niger after the “military misbehaviour” there, Tinubu said.

“The ECOWAS leadership will not accept any action that impedes the smooth functioning of legitimate authority in Niger or any part of West Africa,” he said in a statement. “We will do everything within our powers to ensure democracy is firmly planted, nurtured, well rooted and thrives in our region.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned any effort to seize power by force in Niger and called on all actors to exercise restraint.

The UN chief spoke later on Wednesday with President Bazoum and offered his “full support” to the leader who has apparently been detained in a coup attempt, a UN spokesman said.

“This afternoon @antonioguterres spoke to @mohamedbazoum. He expressed his full support and solidarity to the Nigerien President,” the spokesman said in a statement on Twitter, the social media site rebranded as X.

The United States, France and the European Union also condemned the power grab.

France joined calls to restore the integrity of democratic institutions, a spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry said.

The US was deeply concerned and condemned any effort to detain or subvert the functioning of Niger’s democratically elected government, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.

“We specifically urge elements of the presidential guard to release President Bazoum from detention and refrain from violence,” Sullivan said in a statement, adding the White House was monitoring to ensure the safety of US citizens.

Niamey streets
Streets in Niamey are deserted as members of the presidential guard moved against President Mohamed Bazoum on Wednesday [Sam Mednick/AP Photo]

Military takeovers

It remains uncertain why there was a revolt, but analysts said the rising cost of living and perceptions of government incompetence and corruption may have driven the guards’ move.

“The [attempted] coup fits into a long pattern of inability by the political class to speak to the economic challenges and the security and political instabilities in the country,” Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, professor of peacekeeping practice at Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana, told Al Jazeera. “That, nevertheless, does not justify the attempted coup,” he said.

“Corruption is the big elephant in the room, plus a fight against violent extremists. This is a challenge that almost all West African governments are facing,” he added.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Dakar, Senegal, said the incident potentially has “huge implications”.

“Western members of the international community have been piling in lots of money into Niger, seen by many as one of the last bastions of potential security against … a huge security threat across the Sahel region,” Stratford said.

Bazoum was elected president in a 2021 election that was the first democratic transition of power in a state that has witnessed four military coups since independence from France in 1960.

Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum demonstrate in Niamey
Supporters of President Bazoum demonstrate in Niamey [Sam Mednick/AP Photo]

There have been four military takeovers in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020.

Those coups were spurred in part by frustrations over authorities’ failure to stem a rebel uprising blighting the Sahel region – which includes Niger – that was once derided as the “coup belt”.

There was also a thwarted coup attempt in Niger in March 2021, when a military unit tried to seize the presidential palace days before Bazoum, who had just been elected, was due to be sworn in.

Ulf Laessing, an analyst with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Mali, described the current situation as “more of a mutiny of members of the presidential guards than a coup attempt”.

“The army still seems to be loyal to him. There are reinforcements expected,” Laessing said.

While Niger appeared to be stable, this has always been “a bit of an illusion – it’s a very poor, fragile country,” Laessing added.

“There is a lot of aid now coming in from Western countries … It gives the impression like it’s like a hub, a security anchor,” he said. “But … the state is very weak, it’s very poor, and it doesn’t take much to overthrow a president in Niger.”

Niger is a key ally to Western powers seeking to support local troops fighting a conflict which took root in Mali in 2012 and has spread to neighbouring countries including Burkina Faso and the southern coastal states.

France moved troops to the country from Mali last year after its relations with the military government there soured – an emerging pattern in former French colonies in the region.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies