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Junta that seized power claims Paris is aiming to reinstate deposed president as regional tensions grow
Supporters of the junta wave Russian flags and a placard with an anti-France slogan as they rally in Niamey on Sunday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Image
Mon 31 Jul 2023 17.28 BST
The military junta that seized power in Niger has accused France of plotting military intervention to reinstate the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, as tensions in the region continued to grow in the wake of the coup.
The junta said on national TV that France was searching “for ways and means to intervene militarily in Niger” and had held a meeting with the chief of staff of Niger’s national guard “to obtain the necessary political and military authorisation”.
The French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, denied any alleged intention of military intervention in the west African country. “It’s wrong,” she told BFMTV news channel on Monday night, adding that it was still possible to return Niger’s democratically elected president to power. “And it’s necessary because destabilisation is perilous for Niger and its neighbours,” she said.
Bazoum, an ally of western powers, was toppled on 26 July in a coup by Niger’s elite presidential guard. Gen Abdourahamane Tchiani declared himself leader but his claim has been shunned internationally.
On Monday, Bazoum’s party said several ministers in his ousted government had been arrested, including the mines minister. Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.
The Chadian president, Mahamat Idriss Déby, who flew to Niger to try to mediate, on Monday posted what appeared to be the first images of Bazoum since the takeover, showing him smiling and apparently unharmed.
Déby said he had met Bazoum and coup leader Tchiani to explore ways “to find a peaceful solution”, without going into further detail.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given the junta a week to give back power, warning in a statement that if Bazoum was not reinstated it would take “all measures” to restore constitutional order, which “may include the use of force”.
ECOWAS has suspended all commercial and financial transactions, while France, the EU and the US, which has about 1,000 troops in Niger, have either cut off support or threatened to do so.
Germany suspended financial aid and development cooperation, and UN humanitarian operations have been put on hold. 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”.
Niger, with a population of 26 million, frequently ranks at the bottom of the UN’s human development index benchmark of prosperity. The country, which became independent from France in 1960, is a landlocked state, and strict economic sanctions against it could affect many supplies, including electricity.
The 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 difficulties.
As Niger struggles with two jihadist campaigns – one in the south-west, which swept in from Mali in 2015, and the other in the south-east, involving jihadists from north-eastern Nigeria – the coup has shone a spotlight on France’s reduced and contested military presence in the Sahel region of Africa after 10 years fighting jihadist insurgencies.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, chose unusually strong language towards the junta in Niger, vowing there would be “immediate and uncompromising” action if French citizens or interests were attacked, after thousands rallied outside the French embassy.
News agencies reported anti-French and pro-Russian slogans were shouted at the rallies on Sunday, which were televised. Protesters, some carrying Russian flags, said France, the country’s traditional ally, had failed to shield them against the jihadists, whereas Russia would be a stronger ally.
The coup is a serious threat to French strategy in the Sahel, after several military coups in other countries had already forced France to rethink its decade-long military presence and anti-jihadist mission.
France first deployed troops against jihadists in Mali in 2013 under the Socialist president François Hollande, but in the past three years several military coups in the region, as well as a continued jihadist presence, have exposed the limitations of the military strategy and forced France to scale back its presence and focus its efforts in Niger, with Bazoum as a firm ally. It has 1,500 troops in the country and an airbase near Niamey.
In Mali a coup in 2020 led to a diplomatic standoff with France, which withdrew its troops last year. France also quit Burkina Faso after two coups last year brought in a junta that adopted a nationalist line.
Niagalé Bagayoko, a political scientist and defence expert, told France Inter radio that the G5 Sahel group of nations set up to combat jihadist insurgency now featured a majority of military juntas. She said France could not continue its military engagement in Niger under the current circumstances, adding that France had been rethinking its presence in the region for more than two years. She said foreign troops, including the US and other Europeans as well as the French, were seen as unpopular and people wanted their withdrawal.
The writer and analyst Seidik Abba told France Inter that the broader problem for Paris was that the poor results of its military and security drive against jihadists had made France a scapegoat. He said the strategy in the Sahel had been a security and military one, when in fact “it wasn’t just a security and military issue, it was also a question of development, justice and governance”.