Niger leader detained but defiant amid "coup bid" in African nation

11 months ago 12

Niamey — Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum on Thursday defiantly vowed to protect "hard-won" democratic gains after he was detained by elite troops who declared they had taken power in the troubled West African nation. Bazoum was confined in Niamey on Wednesday by members of his presidential guard, who hours later announced that "all institutions" in the country would be suspended, the borders closed and a night-time curfew imposed.

Amid fierce condemnation from African and international organizations and Niger's Western allies, Bazoum has stood his ground.

"The hard-won gains will be safeguarded," Bazoum said in a social media post. "All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom would want this."

TOPSHOT-NIGER-POLITICS Demonstrators gather to protest the detention of President Mohamed Bazoum by the Presidential Guard in Niamey, Niger, July 26, 2023.  AFP/Getty

Bazoum's supporters hours later tried to approach the official complex, 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.  

Niger Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou said the country's "legal and legitimate power" was the one exercised by its elected president. He told the France24 TV channel that Bazoum was "in good health."

There had been a "coup bid" but "the whole of the army was not involved," Massoudou stressed.

"We ask all the fractious soldiers to return to their ranks," he said. "Everything can be achieved through dialogue but the institutions of the republic must function."

The president of neighboring Benin, Patrice Talon, was heading to Niamey Thursday for mediation efforts, the head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said.

U.S. condemns "unconstitutional change" in Niger

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken to Bazoum to offer Washington's support, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he "strongly condemns the unconstitutional change in government" in Niger.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called Niger a "critical partner" of the U.S. and condemned any impediments to the functioning of the country's democratically elected government. 

"We specifically urge elements of the presidential guard to release President Bazoum from detention and refrain from violence," Sullivan said. 

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said he couldn't provide an estimate of the number of Americans currently in Niger, but he advised U.S. nationals there to use caution.

Rebellious troops declare their intentions

Disgruntled members of the elite Presidential Guard sealed off access to the president's residence and offices in the capital Niamey on Wednesday morning, and after talks broke down "refused to release the president," a presidential source said.

TOPSHOT-NIGER-POLITICS Demonstrators gather to protest the detention of President Mohamed Bazoum by the Presidential Guard in Niamey, Niger, July 26, 2023.  AFP/Getty

The coup leaders appeared on television overnight, declaring they were suspending "all institutions" and imposing other measures "until further notice."

"We, the defense and security forces... have decided to put an end to the regime" of President Bazoum, said their leader, Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane, flanked by nine other uniformed soldiers.

"This follows the continued deterioration of the security situation, poor economic and social governance."

Niger's tumultuous recent history

Landlocked Niger, in the northern African region known as the Sahel, is one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. It has experienced four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960, as well as numerous other attempts — including two previously against Bazoum.

Bazoum, 63, is one of a dwindling group of pro-Western leaders in the Sahel, where a rampaging jihadist insurgency has triggered coups against elected presidents in Mali and Burkina Faso. Their juntas, taking a nationalist stance, have forced out French troops and in the case of Mali have woven a close alliance with Russia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Niger U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Niger President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey, Niger, March 16, 2023. Presidency of Niger/Handout/Getty

Bazoum took office after elections two years ago, in Niger's first-ever peaceful transition since independence. He was a former 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 days before Bazoum's inauguration, according to a security source at the time.

Several people were arrested, including the suspected ringleader. Five people were jailed in February for 20 years.

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.

The nation of 22 million is two-thirds desert and frequently ranks at the bottom of the U.N.'s Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.

Niger is also 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.

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