Abuja – African leaders on Sunday gave the junta in Niger one week to cede power or face the possible use of force, and slapped financial sanctions on the putschists, after the latest coup in the jihadist-plagued Sahel region raised alarm on the continent and in the West.
In the third coup in as many years to fell a leader in the Sahel, Niger’s elected president and Western ally, Mohamed Bazoum, has been held by the military since Wednesday.
General Abdourahamane Tiani, the head of the powerful presidential guard, has declared himself leader.
Bazoum is one of a dwindling group of elected presidents and pro-Western leaders in the Sahel, where since 2020 a jihadist insurgency has triggered coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Former colonial ruler France and the European Union have suspended security cooperation and financial aid to Niger following the coup, while the United States warned that its aid could also be at stake.
At an emergency summit in Nigeria, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc demanded Bazoum be reinstated, within a week.
Otherwise, the bloc said it would take “all measures” to restore constitutional order.
ECOWAS rejects potential forced resignation of President Mohammed Bazoum of Niger republic. pic.twitter.com/B2Rwgcdw2I
— NTA News (@NTANewsNow) July 30, 2023
“Such measures may include the use of force for this effect,” it said in a statement, adding that ECOWAS defence chiefs were to meet on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear how ECOWAS could use force. Last year, the bloc agreed to create a regional security force to intervene against jihadists and prevent military coups, but details on the force and its funding were still unclear.
The bloc also slapped financial sanctions on the junta leaders and on the country, freezing “all commercial and financial transactions” between member states and Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, often ranking last on the UN’s Human Development Index.
In a statement read out on national television on Saturday evening, Niger junta member Amadou Abdramane said the summit’s aim was to “approve a plan of aggression against Niger, in the form of an imminent military intervention in Niamey”.
The intervention would be “in cooperation with African countries who are not members of the regional body and certain Western nations”, he added.
In the capital Niamey on Sunday, thousands of people waving Russian and Niger flags rallied outside the national parliament in Niamey on Sunday in a show of support for the junta.
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They then moved on to the French embassy, shouting “long live Putin” and “down with France”, before being dispersed by soldiers with tear gas, an AFP journalist saw.
Some tried to storm the embassy but were dispersed with tear gas.
A soldier standing in a pick-up truck waved to the crowd, shouting “Russia, Russia, Russia!”, “long live Niger’s army!” and “Tiani, Tiani, Tiani!”.
A number of demonstrators headed for the embassy of the United States.
France condemned the assault on its embassy, warning it would retaliate if its citizens or interests were attacked, and said it would support all regional initiatives to restore order in Niger.
“Should anyone attack French nationals, the army, diplomats and French interests, they will see France respond in an immediate and intractable manner,” the French presidency said.
Niger’s neighbours and fellow former French colonies Mali and Burkina Faso have both been beset by military coups since 2020, fuelled by anger at the civilian authorities’ failure to quash long-running insurgencies by jihadists linked to the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda.
Tiani said the putsch in Niger was a response to “the degradation of the security situation” linked to jihadist bloodshed, as well as corruption and economic woes.
Turbulent political history
After a wave of condemnation for the coup, punitive measures have already begun in the West.
France — which has 1,500 soldiers in Niger — said on Saturday it was suspending development aid and budgetary support to the West African nation.
It called for “an immediate return to constitutional order” and President Bazoum’s reinstatement.
European Union diplomatic chief Josep Borrell meanwhile said the EU would not recognise the putschists, and announced the indefinite suspension of security cooperation with Niger with immediate effect, as well as budgetary aid.
Borrell said the EU was ready to support future decisions taken by ECOWAS, “including the adoption of sanctions”, echoing a statement by France’s foreign minister.
The United States – which has about 1,000 troops in Niger – has offered Bazoum Washington’s steadfast support and warned those detaining him that they were “threatening years of successful cooperation and hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance”.
And the African Union has given the military in Niger two weeks to restore “constitutional authority”.
It condemned the coup in “the strongest terms possible” and expressed deep concern over the “alarming resurgence” of military overthrows in Africa.
Landlocked Niger often ranks last in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, despite vast deposits of uranium.
It has had a turbulent political history since gaining independence in 1960, with four coups as well as numerous other attempts — including two previously against Bazoum.