Leaders of a coup in Niger declared Abdourahamane Tiani, a General as the new head of state on Friday days after saying they had ousted President Mohamed Bazoum in the seventh military takeover in West and Central Africa in less than three years.
The upheaval has raised concerns about the security of a region where Niger has been a key ally of Western powers seeking to contain insurgencies by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Tiani was the head of the presidential guard whose soldiers shut Bazoum inside his palace on Wednesday, leaving confusion over who was in control.
The general appeared on state television on Friday with a banner on the screen that described him as the president of a newly formed military body, the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP).
“The President of the CNSP is the head of state,” an officer said, reading out a statement.
The constitution has been suspended, all government institutions dissolved and the CNSP will exercise all legislative and executive power until constitutional order returns, the statement added. It gave no timelines.
African countries, Western powers, regional and international organizations have reacted with alarm, insisting that Bazoum be freed and democracy restored.
Former colonial power France said on Friday it still recognized Bazoum as the legitimate leader.
One of the few to welcome the takeover was Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who remains active despite leading a failed mutiny against the Russian army’s top brass last month. He described the coup as an uprising against colonizers and offered his fighters’ services to bring order.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said constitutional order should be restored.
UNCERTAIN MILITARY FUTURE
Before the uprising, Niger was seen as the West’s most stable ally in an unstable region. It borders three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad – hit by coups in the last two years.
France, Germany, Italy and the United States have troops in Niger on military training and counter-insurgency missions.
Niger is also the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and in nuclear weapons, as well as for treating cancer.
Like the military rulers of Mali and Burkina Faso, Tiani justified the coup by saying that the government had been failing to contain the Islamist insurgency.
Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have been spreading across West Africa’s Sahel region for years. Niger so far has held them off better than Mali and Burkina Faso, where violence has only worsened since the military takeovers.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said the situation was still dynamic and his priority was the safety of his country’s soldiers on the ground.
“It is not yet clear how the leadership will position itself on the engagement of Western partners in the future,” he told Spiegel news magazine.
The juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso have increasingly turned toward Russia as a strategic ally and distanced themselves from traditional partners such as France, which has faced a growing wave of resentment towards its influence in the Sahel.
Bazoum has not made a statement since Thursday morning when he vowed to protect “hard-won” democratic gains in a post on social media.
Several world leaders said that they have spoken to him since the coup and that he is being detained with his family in the presidential palace but is “fine”.
Foreign countries have not announced any plan to intervene in Niger but Tiani warned against any attempts to extract Bazoum, saying a foreign military intervention would result in “the massacre of the Niger population and chaos”.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold an emergency summit in Nigeria on Sunday to discuss the situation.
Niger will be another test for the regional bloc, which has struggled to convince soldiers to give back power after the latest wave of coups in member states Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.
ECOWAS has wrangled with the juntas on transition timelines it deemed too lengthy and imposed sanctions on Mali and Guinea over their reluctance to cooperate.
The European Union has already threatened to cut budgetary support to Niger, while the United States said its cooperation with Niger’s government was contingent on “democratic standards”.
The United Nations said it would still deliver aid in Niger even though it had not had any contact with the military since the coup.
Some 4.3 million people are in need of humanitarian aid in Niger, according to the United Nations. More than 370,000 people are displaced within the country and it also hosts more than 250,000 refugees – mainly from Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso.