NIAMEY – Niger's president defiantly declared Thursday that democracy would prevail, a day after mutinous soldiers detained him and announced they had seized power in a coup because of the West African country’s deteriorating security situation.
While many people in the capital of Niamey went about their usual business, it remained unclear who was in control of the country and which side the majority might support. 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.” It was not possible to confirm that the statement was genuine.
President Mohamed 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. Bazoum is a key ally in the West’s efforts to battle jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group 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 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 ongoing.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who spoke to Bazoum by phone on Wednesday, told reporters 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 U.N. Security Council scheduled emergency closed consultations on the situation Friday at the request of its three African members, Ghana, Gabon and Mozambique.
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 fight against extremism in the region. Extremists in Niger have carried out attacks on civilians and military personnel, but the overall security situation is not as dire as in neighboring nations.
Bazoum is seen 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 U.S. is “gravely concerned” about the situation in Niger, said State Department spokesman Vedant Patel during a briefing with reporters 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 U.S. 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.
Wagner's head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, weighed in on Thursday, describing the developments as part of Niger’s fight against the “colonizers.”
“It effectively means winning independence. The rest will depend on the people of Niger, on how efficient they could govern,” Prigozhin, who led a brief mutiny against the Kremlin last month, said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department isn't aware of any signs that the Wagner Group was involved in the coup, Patel said. He declined to speculate, saying the “situation continues to be quite fluid.”
Former Wagner mercenary, Marat Gabidullin, told the AP that if Niger's new rulers wanted the group's help, they'd do the same job as in the Central African Republic, where it's been operating for five years. Advocacy groups have accused Wagner of hijacking state resources and committing human rights atrocities in the Central African Republic and other countries where it operates.
Underscoring the importance of Niger to the West, Blinken said Thursday 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 U.S. 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.
Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said the coup deals a blow to democratic culture in the Sahel.
"Western governments are left without a strong partner in the region, and may shift even more towards attempting to contain the region’s problems, rather than helping to solve them,” Thurston said.
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.
Military experts say some of the people who appeared on state television were high-ranking officers, including Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the head of Niger's special forces who has a strong relationship with the United States.
According to someone close to the president who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation, the president has not and will not resign and is safe in his residence.
In a statement Wednesday, several political parties expressed their support for him, calling the coup “suicidal and anti-republican madness.”
The “country, faced with insecurity, terrorism and the challenges of underdevelopment, cannot afford to be distracted,” they said. Protesters also came out in support of Bazoum that day.
More than 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and hundreds of thousands are internally displaced, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters after speaking to senior U.N. officials in Niger.
The international community denounced the coup in Niger, where there have been 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-terror operations in the Sahel region
U.N. 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.
This story has been updated to correct that Benin President Patrice Talon is not the head of ECOWAS. He was tapped as their mediator.
Associated Press reporters Tracy Brown and Rebecca Santana in Washington, D.C.; John Leicester and Angela Charlton in Paris; Edith Lederer at the United Nations in New York; and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.