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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Niger’s president vows to save democracy as army says it backs coup



By DECLAN WALSH and ELIAN PELTIER


Hours after soldiers seized power in the West African nation of Niger, the country’s ousted president sounded a defiant note Thursday morning, vowing to protect his “hard-won” democratic gains, even as he was being held by his own guards.


But a statement by the army high command later Thursday poured cold water on such hopes. The army was backing the mutineers “to avoid bloodshed” and prevent infighting in the security forces, it said in a statement signed by its chief, Gen. Abdou Sidikou Issa.


The president, Mohamed Bazoum, appeared to be still in detention at the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey, where his guards turned on him early Wednesday, prompting a crisis in the vast, largely desert nation twice the size of France.


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


If the coup succeeds, it will be West Africa’s sixth military takeover in less than three years, following in the footsteps of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. It would also be a serious blow to democracy efforts in a region that is regaining its unwanted reputation as the “coup belt” of Africa.


Bazoum has been a key Western ally in the fight against surging Islamic militancy in the arid Sahel region, which is also plagued by the ravages of climate change and the failure of fragile states to provide much for their exploding, youthful populations.


By Thursday morning, a full 24 hours after Bazoum disappeared from public view, power still hung in the balance in Niger. A huge sandstorm rolled through the deserted streets of Niamey, where many businesses remained closed, adding to the sense of uncertainty.


Along with remarks by Niger’s foreign minister, who told a television station that the army was divided, Bazoum’s morning statement suggested that the military coup announced late Wednesday was incomplete, and that Niger’s beleaguered civilian leaders still hoped they might find a way to reverse it.


“Everything can be achieved through dialogue,” Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou told France24 television.


There was no sign of hesitancy from the officers holding Bazoum, however, who seemed determined to push ahead.


On television, the group of soldiers, calling itself the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, announced that Niger’s borders would be closed, its government suspended and a nighttime curfew imposed. On Thursday, they suspended all political activity in the country.


One notable exception to that ban were the hundreds of people who gathered before the national parliament — the same location where a crowd of similar size came out for Bazoum on Wednesday. Some of the military supporters waved Russian flags, in scenes reminiscent of the January 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, where military rulers have moved closer to Moscow in recent months.


Bazoum, who has maintained phone contact through the crisis, is relying heavily on support from Western and regional allies to remain in charge. In a call Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the beleaguered leader that he had Washington’s “unconditional support.”


At least 1,100 U.S. troops are stationed in Niger, one of the few countries in the Sahel that remains a staunch Western ally in the fight against the Islamic militant groups that are spreading chaos across the region.


It was unclear in the early part of the crisis how much support the mutineers enjoyed in other branches of the armed forces. Some Western and African officials claimed that their support was weak, and that a clash with rival armed factions was possible.


But by the time of the mutineers’ late-night address Wednesday, several senior officers appeared on television, including the deputy army chief, the deputy head of the national guard and the head of Niger’s special forces. Col. Amadou Abdramane of the air force read the statement announcing the coup.


Bazoum was freely elected two years ago in the country’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power since independence from France in 1960. He allied closely with the West to combat the militant groups that sprang up in the far reaches of Niger’s vast deserts, often spilling over from Mali and northern Nigeria.


As Mali and Burkina Faso turned to Russia’s Wagner private military company for help to fight the militants, Bazoum stuck with France and the United States. As well as troops, the Pentagon has two drone bases in Niger that have been used to carry out airstrikes in Libya.


When the last French troops departed Mali this year, after a collapse in relations between Paris and Mali’s ruling junta, some of them redeployed to bases in Niger.


The president of neighboring Benin, Patrice Talon, said he was flying to Niamey on Thursday in an effort to mediate the crisis.

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