General declares himself Niger’s leader, citing ‘insecurity’ as reason for coup

The head of Niger’s presidential guard declared himself the leader of the West African nation on Friday, two days after soldiers detained the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani said the “harsh reality of insecurity in Niger” had led the soldiers to overthrow the president. Tchiani criticized the government for not cooperating with neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in tackling the Islamist insurgency roiling the Sahel region of Africa and vowed to work with both nations, which are also led by military juntas. Bazoum had been a key ally of the United States and other Western countries in confronting the insurgents.

Nigerien state television identified Tchiani as the head of the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, which is what the coup makers calls themselves. The soldiers said they have suspended the constitution and the country’s institutions.

Tatiana Smirnova, a researcher at Centre FrancoPaix in conflict resolution and peace missions, said that the security situation in Niger has not been deteriorating — and may have slightly improved — in recent years, in contrast to the spiraling violence in Mali and Burkina Faso.

“The narrative that the military put into the discourse about the declining security situation is not really relevant,” she said. “It’s a pretext.”

Adam Sandor, a researcher based at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, described the rationale for the takeover as “pro forma theatrical coup politics.”

“They need to give this narrative that ‘we need to correct the course,’” he said. “This was really about micro politics within the Nigerien Armed Forces.”

Niger army backs coup, casting fight against Islamist militants into doubt

Sandor and Smirnova said that one of the possible motivations for the coup was that Bazoum wanted to replace Tchiani in his role in the presidential guard. She said that much remains uncertain about the direction of the coup government, noting there have rumors of tension within the armed forces.

“What I am really afraid is what will happen with Western partners,” she said. “It is not clear whether he will follow Mali and Burkina Faso as examples or whether he will preserve cooperation with the West.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday said the U.S. condemns “in the strongest possible terms the attempt to seize power by force”

“We remind those attempting this power grab by force than an overthrow of the democratically elected president places U.S. substantial cooperation with the government of Niger at risk,” Kirby said.

The Sahel, which stretches across Africa below the Sahara Desert, has been rocked by Islamist insurgencies waged by groups linked with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. This violence took root in Mali in 2012 before spreading to its neighbors. Western governments, led by the former colonial power France, had for years been helping the Sahelian countries try to beat back the militants.

But rising anti-Western — and especially anti-French — sentiment has contributed to a reduced Western presence in the region. Mali experienced its most recent coup in 2021 and is led by a populist junta that has isolated the country from the West. The Malian junta has welcomed the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Government soldiers and Wagner contractors have been accused of atrocities against civilians.

Burkina Faso, which experienced its most recent coup last year, has been seeking help from the West to combat the insurgency. The country is now at the epicenter of the violence, and officials estimate that 40 to 60 percent of its territory has been lost.

Niger has been an important American and French ally in the region, with about 800 U.S. soldiers stationed there and a large drone base.

Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow focused on the Sahel at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said that compared to the armies in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger’s military under Bazoum had been better at reaching out to civilians, been accused of fewer human rights abuses and had refrained from arming civilians. Now, he said, its “initiatives are all under threat.”

French’s foreign ministry said in a statement Friday that it reiterated “in the strongest terms the international community’s clear demand for the immediate restoration of constitutional order and democratically elected civilian power.”

The future of Bazoum, who had been detained with his family Wednesday, remained unclear as of Friday.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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