By SAM MEDNICK (Associated Press)
NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Mutinous soldiers who staged a coup in Niger declared their leader the new head of state on Friday, hours after the general asked for national and international support despite rising concerns that the political crisis could hinder the nation’s fight against jihadists and boost Russia’s influence in West Africa.
Spokesman Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane said on state television that the constitution was suspended and Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani was in charge.
Various factions of Niger’s military have reportedly wrangled for control since members of the presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum, who was elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France.
Niger is seen as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence in the fight against extremism. France has 1,500 soldiers in the country who conduct joint operations with the Nigeriens, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
The coup sparked international condemnation and the West African regional group ECOWAS, which includes Niger and has taken the lead in trying to restore democratic rule in the country, scheduled an emergency summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Sunday.
The U.N. Security Council, which is charged with ensuring international peace and security, held emergency closed consultations Friday morning.
Britain’s deputy U.N. ambassador James Kariuki, who chaired the meeting, told reporters afterward that all 15 members condemned the military’s action and expressed “the need to restore constitutional democracy.” He said an official council statement is expected. Russia is a veto-wielding member.
Extremists in Niger have carried out attacks on civilians and military personnel, but the overall security situation is not as dire as in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso — both of which have ousted the French military. Mali has turned to the Russian private military group Wagner, and it’s believed that the mercenaries will soon be in Burkina Faso.
Now there are concerns that Niger could follow suit. Before the coup, Wagner, which has sent mercenaries around the world in support of Russia’s interests, already had its sights set on Niger, in part because it’s a large producer of uranium.
“We can no longer continue with the same approaches proposed so far, at the risk of witnessing the gradual and inevitable demise of our country,” Tchiani, who also goes by Omar Tchiani, said in his address. “That is why we decided to intervene and take responsibility.”
“I ask the technical and financial partners who are friends of Niger to understand the specific situation of our country in order to provide it with all the support necessary to enable it to meet the challenges,” he said.
If the United States designates the takeover as a coup, Niger stands to lose millions of dollars of military aid and assistance.
The mutinous soldiers, who call themselves the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, accused some prominent dignitaries of collaborating with foreign embassies to “extract” the deposed leaders. They said it could lead to violence and warned against foreign military intervention.
Bazoum has not resigned and he defiantly tweeted from detention on Thursday that democracy would prevail.
It’s not clear who enjoys majority support, but the streets of the capital of Niamey were calm Friday, with a slight celebratory air. Some cars honked in solidarity at security forces as they drove by — but it was not clear if that meant they backed the coup. Elsewhere, people rested after traditional midday prayers and others sold goods at their shops and hoped for calm.
“We should pray to God to help people come together so that peace comes back to the country. We don’t want a lot of protests in the country, because it is not good … I hope this administration does a good job,” said Gerard Sassou, a Niamey shopkeeper.
A day earlier, several hundred people gathered in the city chanting support for Wagner while waving Russian flags. “We’re fed up,” said Omar Issaka, one of the protestors. “We are tired of being targeted by the men in the bush. … We’re going to collaborate with Russia now.”
That’s exactly what many in the West likely fear. Tchiani’s criticism of Bazoum’s approach and of how security partnerships have worked in the past will certainly make the U.S., France, and the EU uneasy, said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute.
“So that could mark potentially some shifts moving forward in Niger security partnerships,” he said.
Even as Tchiani sought to project control, the situation appeared to be in flux. A delegation from neighboring Nigeria, which holds the ECOWAS presidency and was hoping to mediate, left shortly after arriving, and the president of Benin, nominated as a mediator by ECOWAS, has not arrived.
Earlier, an analyst who had spoken with participants in the talks said the presidential guard was negotiating with the army about who should be in charge. The analyst spoke on condition they not to be named because of the sensitive situation.
A western military official in Niger who was not authorized to speak to the media also said the military factions were believed to be negotiating, but that the situation remained tense and violence could erupt.
Speaking in Papua New Guinea, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the coup as “completely illegitimate and profoundly dangerous for the Nigeriens, Niger and the whole region.”
The coup threatens to starkly reshape the international community’s engagement with the Sahel region.
On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said the country’s “substantial cooperation with the Government of Niger is contingent on Niger’s continued commitment to democratic standards.”
The United States in early 2021 said it had provided Niger with more than $500 million in military assistance and training programs since 2012, one of the largest such support programs in sub-Saharan Africa. The European Union earlier this year launched a 27 million-euro ($30 million) military training mission in Niger.
The United States has more than 1,000 service personnel in the country.
Some military leaders who appear to be involved in the coup have worked closely with the United States for years. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the head of Niger’s special forces, has an especially strong relationship with the U.S., the Western military official said.
While Russia has also condemned the coup, it remains unclear what the junta’s position would be on Wagner.
The acting head of the United Nations in Niger said Friday that humanitarian aid deliveries were continuing, even though the military suspended flights carrying aid.
Nicole Kouassi, the acting U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator, told reporters via video from Niamey that 4.3 million people needed humanitarian aid before this week’s military action and 3.3 million faced “acute food insecurity,” the majority of them women and children.
Jean-Noel Gentile, the U.N. World Food Program director in Niger, said “the humanitarian response continues on the ground.” He said the U.N. is providing cash assistance and food to people in accessible areas and that the agency is continuously assessing the situation to ensure security and access.
This is Niger’s fifth coup and marks the fall of one of the last democratically elected governments in the Sahel.
Its army has always been very powerful and civilian-military relations fraught, though tensions had increased recently, especially with the growing jihadist insurgency, said Karim Manuel, an analyst for the Middle East and Africa with the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Associated Press reporters John Leicester in Paris; Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations in New York contributed to this report.
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