The situation in Niger “remains fluid” a day after mutinous soldiers detained toppled President Mohamed Bazoum and announced they had seized power in a coup because of the West African country’s deteriorating security situation.
Tensions remain high between supporters of the coup and people loyal to the deposed government, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, who has reported extensively on Niger, said.
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Supporters of the coup ransacked and set fire to the headquarters of the governing party in the capital Niamey on Thursday. Plumes of black smoke billowed from the building after hundreds of coup supporters who had gathered in front of the National Assembly moved there.
A statement tweeted by the army command’s account declared that it would back the coup to avoid a “murderous confrontation” that could lead to a “bloodbath”.
Meanwhile, Bazoum defiantly declared that democracy would prevail in the country.
Bazoum – who was elected in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960 – appeared to have the backing of several political parties. He is a key ally in the West’s efforts to battle a rebellion linked to al-Qaeda in Africa’s Sahel region.
“The hard-won achievements will be safeguarded. All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom will see to it,” Bazoum tweeted early on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou issued a similar call on news network France 24, asking “all Nigerien democratic patriots to stand up as one to say no to this factious action”.
He demanded the president’s unconditional release and said talks were continuing.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who spoke to Bazoum by phone on Wednesday, told reporters on Thursday that he was “extremely worried” about the situation in Niger and warned of the “terrible effects on development” and civilians due to “successive unconstitutional changes of government in the Sahel region”.
The Economic Community of West African States sent Benin President Patrice Talon to lead mediation efforts.
Russia and the West have been vying for influence in the region through the fight against the rebel groups. Armed groups in Niger have carried out attacks on civilians and military personnel, but the overall security situation is not as dire as in neighbouring nations.
Bazoum has been viewed by many as the West’s last hope for partnership in the Sahel after Mali turned away from former colonial power France and sought support from the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Wagner appears to be making inroads in Burkina Faso as well.
The US is “gravely concerned” about the situation in Niger, said Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel during a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and continue to be in close touch with the embassy,” Patel said.
Western countries have poured aid into Niger, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in March, seeking to strengthen ties. American, French and Italian troops train the country’s soldiers, while France also conducts joint operations.
But the threat to Bazoum has raised concerns that Niger could also turn away from the West.
On Thursday, several hundred people gathered in the capital and chanted support for Wagner while waving Russian flags. Later, they began throwing rocks at a passing politician’s car.
“If Mohamed Bazoum resigns from the presidency, Niger will probably move to the top of the list of countries where the Wagner Group will seek to expand,” said Flavien Baumgartner, an Africa analyst at Dragonfly, a security and political risk consultancy.
Wagner already had its sights set on Niger, in part because it’s a large producer of uranium. But Bazoum posed an impediment because of his pro-French and pro-Western stance, said Baumgartner.
The US Department of State is not aware of any signs that the Wagner Group was involved in the coup, Patel said.
Underscoring the importance of Niger to the West, Blinken said that he had spoken with the president, saying that he “made clear that we strongly support him as the democratically elected president of the country”.
Blinken, who was in New Zealand, repeated the US condemnation of the mutiny and said his team was in close contact with officials in France and Africa.
If designated a coup by the United States, Niger could lose millions of dollars of military support and aid.
Members of the presidential guard surrounded Bazoum’s house and detained him on Wednesday morning.
The mutinous soldiers, who call themselves the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, took to state television and announced they had seized control because of deteriorating security and poor economic and social governance in the nation of 25 million people. They said they had dissolved the constitution, suspended all institutions and closed all the borders.
More than four million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and hundreds of thousands are internally displaced, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters after speaking to senior UN officials in Niger.
The international community denounced the coup in Niger, which has undergone multiple coups since independence in 1960.
“We firmly condemn the coup that took place in Niger against the country’s civilian democratic authorities,” the French foreign ministry said Thursday. It called for the liberation of Bazoum and his family, and for their security to be ensured. It also called for the immediate restoration of the integrity of Niger’s democratic institutions.
France has 2,500 troops in Niger and Chad, conducting anti-rebel operations in the Sahel region.
UN Human Rights chief Volker Türk called for Bazoum’s release and said “all efforts must be undertaken to restore constitutional order and the rule of law.”
Russia also called for the president’s release. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday in televised remarks that “it’s necessary to restore the constitutional order in Niger.”
“We believe that the coup is unconstitutional, and we always take a principled and clear position on that,” he said.