Thousands of people rallied on Thursday in Niger’s capital in support of the coup that toppled the democratically elected government, as security concerns mounted among Western nations.
Protesters hold a Niger flag during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey. Hundreds of people backing the coup in Niger gathered on for a mass rally in the capital Niamey with some brandishing giant Russian flags.
The demonstrators converged at Concertation Square in the heart of the city, following a call by a coalition of civil society associations on a day marking the country’s 1960 independence from France.
Demonstrators in the heart of Niamey, some brandishing giant Russian flags, chanted anti-French slogans at the rally called to mark the anniversary of the west African nation’s 1960 independence from France.
Issiaka Hamadou, one of the protesters, said that it was “only security that interests us”, irrespective of whether it came from “Russia, China, Turkey, if they want to help us”.
“We just don’t want the French, who have been looting us since 1960 — they’ve been there ever since and nothing has changed,” he said.
The crowd at the rally around him was shouting “Down with France”, “Long live Russia, long live (Vladimir) Putin”.
A week after the toppling of elected President Mohamed Bazoum, European citizens have been evacuating from Niger, which has had a key role in French and Western strategies to combat a jihadist insurgency that has plagued the Sahel since 2012.
The clock is ticking down on Sunday’s ultimatum from West African regional bloc ECOWAS for the coup leaders to restore Bazoum to power within a week or face the possible “last resort” of military intervention.
Niger is the fourth member of the group to undergo a putsch since 2020.
Senegal said Thursday it would send soldiers to join ECOWAS if it decided to intervene militarily in Niger.
“It is one coup too many,” said Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall.
Bazoum has been held by the coup plotters since July 26, prompting US President Joe Biden to call for his immediate release Thursday, urging the “preservation of Niger’s hard-earned democracy”.
Britain and the United States have announced the pulling back of embassy personnel in Niger as a precaution.
Paris — which said Thursday it had completed its evacuation flights — urged the junta led by General Abdourahamane Tiani to “fully guarantee” the safety of embassies in Niamey ahead of Thursday’s protests.
– Sanctions –
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders have imposed trade and financial sanctions, with Nigeria cutting off the electricity supplies that account for some 70 percent of Niger’s grid.
West African military chiefs were meeting in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Thursday to discuss the possibility of military intervention if diplomatic negotiations fail.
An official from the Nigerian defence ministry told AFP those talks were set to end Friday.
As tensions rise across the region, an ECOWAS team headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar was also in Niger for talks.
Nigeria, West Africa’s pre-eminent military and economic power, is the current chair of ECOWAS. It has vowed a firm line against coups that have proliferated across the region since 2020.
Junta-ruled Mali and Burkina Faso have that warned any military intervention in their neighbour would be tantamount to a “declaration of war” against them.
Anti-French sentiment in the region has only continued to rise, often whipped up by Russia which over the last years has taken an increasingly prominent presence via the Wagner mercenary group.
A French diplomatic source said there was “no evidence that Russia played a role in the coup” in Niger, but that it had an “opportunistic attitude” which meant it could seek to capitalise on events.
Publicly, Russia has called for “urgent national dialogue” in Niger, warning that threats of intervention “will not help ease tensions”.
– ‘Refuse to give in’ –
Bazoum, 63, was feted in 2021 after winning elections that ushered in Niger’s first-ever peaceful transition of power.
He took the helm of a country burdened by four previous coups since independence from France in 1960.
But after surviving two attempted putsches, Bazoum was overthrown on July 26 when members of his own guard detained him at the presidency.
Their commander, Tiani, has declared himself leader, but his claim has been condemned internationally.
In a televised address Wednesday, Tiani rejected the international sanctions imposed and said he “refused to give in to any threat”.
France still has around 1,500 troops in Niger, where it refocused its anti-jihadist mission after pulling out of Mali and Burkina Faso last year.
After joining a regional revolt in northern Mali, armed Islamists advanced into Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015 and now carry out sporadic attacks on fragile states on the Gulf of Guinea.
Countless civilians, troops and police have been killed across the region, while around 2.2 million people in Burkina Faso alone have fled their homes.
The impact has contributed to army takeovers in all three Sahel countries and devastated economies at the very bottom of the world’s wealth table.
France’s anti-jihadist Burkina Faso mission had at its peak about 5,400 troops, supported by fighter jets, helicopters and drones.