Soldiers claimed to have overthrown the Niger government on Thursday following an apparent coup in the fragile state, after members of the Presidential Guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum.
Disgruntled members of the elite Presidential Guard sealed off access to the president’s residence and offices in the capital Niamey on Wednesday, and after talks broke down “refused to release the president,” a presidential source said.
“We, the defence and security forces… have decided to put an end to the regime” of President Bazoum, said Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane in a televised address, surrounded by nine other uniformed soldiers.
They said “all institutions” in the country would be suspended, borders were closed, and a curfew had been imposed “until further notice”.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union both decried what they called an “attempted coup d’etat”.
A source close to Bazoum used the same term, saying the bid was “doomed to fail”.
The head of ECOWAS said Benin President Patrice Talon was heading to Niger in a mediation bid, after the latest bout of turbulence to hit the region.
President Talon was expected to arrive in Niamey Thursday to speak with both sides to resolve the crisis, after a meeting in Abuja Wednesday with Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
The Nigerian leader said President Talon would mediate with both the Presidential Guard and Bazoum with a view to finding an agreement.
One of a dwindling group of pro-Western leaders in the Sahel, Bazoum was elected in 2021, taking the helm of a country burdened by poverty and a history of chronic instability.
In a message on Twitter, which is being rebranded as X, the president’s office said “elements of the Presidential Guard (PG) had a fit of temper… (and) tried unsuccessfully to gain the support of the national armed forces and the national guard”.
“The army and national guard are ready to attack the elements of the PG who are involved in this fit of temper if they do not return to a better disposition,” the presidency said.
“The president and his family are well,” it added. The reason for the guards’ anger was not disclosed.
– ‘Madness’ –
UN chief Antonio Guterres was able to talk to the Niger president on Wednesday afternoon, his spokesman said, and “expressed his full support and solidarity”.
The United States has demanded Bazoum’s release, saying it was “deeply concerned”.
Hours after his detention, Bazoum’s supporters tried to approach the complex where he was being held, but were dispersed by members of the Presidential Guard who fired warning shots, an AFP reporter saw.
One person was hurt, but it was not immediately clear if he was injured by a bullet or from falling as the crowd scattered.
The parties of Niger’s ruling coalition in Niamey denounced “a suicidal and anti-republican madness” in a statement, saying that “certain elements of the presidential guard sequestered the President” and his family, as well as the interior minister.
ECOWAS called for Bazoum’s immediate and unconditional release, and warned all those involved would be held responsible for his safety.
The European Union said it “associates itself” with the ECOWAS statement and attacked “any attempt to destabilise democracy and threaten the stability” of Niger.
France — Niger’s former colonial power — and neighbouring Algeria also issued condemnations, as did the World Bank which said it “strongly condemns any attempt to seize power by force” or “destabilise” Niger.
– Coup-prone –
The landlocked Sahel state has experienced four coups since independence from France in 1960, and numerous other attempts.
Bazoum, a former interior minister, was right-hand man to former president Mahamadou Issoufou, who voluntarily stepped down after two terms.
Their handover in April 2021, after elections won by Bazoum in a two-round contest against former president Mahamane Ousmane, marked Niger’s first peaceful transition of power since independence.
But reminders of the troubled past have never been far away.
An attempted coup took place just days before Bazoum’s inauguration, according to a security source at the time.
Several people were arrested, including the suspected ringleader, an air force captain named Sani Gourouza, and former interior minister Ousmane Cisse.
Five people, including Gourouza, were jailed in February for 20 years while Cisse was acquitted.
A second bid to oust Bazoum occurred last March “while the president… was in Turkey”, according to a Niger official, who said an arrest was made. The authorities have never commented publicly on the incident.
– Poverty and jihadism –
Niger is two-thirds desert and frequently ranks at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.
It has a surging population of 22.4 million, driven by a birthrate averaging seven children per woman.
Niger is struggling with 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.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, stoking a humanitarian crisis and further straining the economy.
The poorly equipped military is receiving training and logistical support from the United States and France, which have bases there.
Niger last year became the hub of France’s anti-jihadist Sahel operations.
The mission was reconfigured after French forces quit Mali and Burkina Faso after falling out with the ruling juntas in those countries.