Niger’s new junta on Monday accused France of seeking to “intervene militarily” to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum as tension mounted with the country’s former colonial power and neighbours.
Bazoum, a western ally whose election just over two years ago was a watershed in Niger’s troubled history, was toppled on July 26 by the elite Presidential Guard.
Guards chief General Abdourahamane Tiani declared himself leader — but his claim has been shunned internationally and the West African bloc ECOWAS has given him a week to hand back power.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed “immediate and uncompromising” action if French citizens or interests were attacked after thousands rallied outside the French embassy.
Some of them tried to enter the compound but were dispersed by tear gas.
The junta on Monday accused France of plotting an intervention.
“In its search for ways and means to intervene militarily in Niger, France with the complicity of some Nigeriens, held a meeting with the chief of staff of the Nigerien National Guard to obtain the necessary political and military authorisation,” it said on national TV.
The putschists also said six people needed hospitalisation after the embassy security services fired tear gas against the rally.
On Sunday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sounded a tough warning.
The bloc demanded that Bazoum be reinstated within a week, failing which it would take “all measures” to restore constitutional order, which “may include the use of force.”
“No more time for us to send a warning signal… It’s time for action,” said ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu, president of Nigeria — Niger’s neighbour to the southeast and the regional superpower.
Russia called for the swift return of “the rule of law” and “restraint from all parties so that this doesn’t result in human casualties.”
– Crucial ally –
Niger became the third Sahel country in less than three years, following neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, to be shaken by a military coup.
In all three nations, a jihadist insurgency strained fragile governments, stoked anger in the military and rained economic blows on some of the world’s poorest countries.
The overthrow of elected presidents has been accompanied by anti-French, pro-Russian demonstrations.
Protestors say France, the country’s traditional ally, has failed to shield them against the jihadists, whereas Russia would be a stronger ally.
In Mali, a 2020 putsch led to a bustup with France which last year withdrew its troops as the junta brought in Russian paramilitaries.
France also quit Burkina Faso after two coups last year brought in a junta that adopted a nationalist line.
The withdrawals prompted France to reconfigure its decade-long anti-jihadist strategy in the Sahel, concentrating its efforts in Niger, where it has 1,500 troops and a major air base near Niamey.
The latest coup, according to the putschists, was a response to “the degradation of the security situation” linked to the jihadist conflict, as well as corruption and economic woes.
International critics have ratcheted up pressure, targeting trade and development aid.
ECOWAS has suspended all commercial and financial transactions, while France, the European Union and the United States, which has about a thousand troops in Niger, have either cut off support or threatened to do so.
Germany suspended financial aid and development cooperation on Monday, and UN humanitarian operations have also been put on hold.
– Unstable nation –
The landlocked Sahel state has experienced four coups since independence from France in 1960 and numerous other attempts, including two previously against Bazoum.
The 62-year-old is a former interior minister and right-hand man to erstwhile 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.
The arid landlocked state frequently ranks at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.
It 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.