Hundreds of people rallied in support of Niger’s junta in the capital on Thursday, drawing condemnation from France and others who have criticized the recent coup – as the country’s military leaders stoked anti-West sentiment to fuel their takeover. Tried to take advantage of it. As numbers swelled in demonstrations organized by the junta and civil society groups on Niger’s independence day, protesters in Niamey waved their fists in the air and chanted slogans in support of the neighbouring country, which has also seen a military takeover in recent years.
Some waved Russian flags, and one man waved Russian and Nigerian flags stitched together. Last week’s coup ousted President Mohamed Bazoum – whose ascent to power marked Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France. This is compounded by intense anti-French sentiment and has raised questions about the future of the fight against insurgency in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and the West compete for influence.
The coup has been strongly condemned by Western countries and the West African regional bloc called ECOWAS, which has threatened to use force to oust the junta if Bazoum does not hand over power. As tensions rise in the capital and region, several European countries have moved to evacuate their citizens. At Thursday’s protests, many expressed support for the coup leaders and others condemned the intervention.
“For more than 13 years, Nigerians have suffered injustice,” said protester Moctor Abdu Issa. The junta “will get us out of this, God willing… they will set Nigerians free.” He added, “We are fed up with the French.”It is not clear whether a majority of the population supports the coup – and in many parts of the capital, people went about their lives as normal on Thursday. In an address to the nation on Wednesday, the new military ruler, General Abdurrahman Tchiyani, lashed out at those who condemned the coup and called on the people to prepare to defend the nation.
Tchiyani said Niger would face difficult times in the coming days and that the “hostile and radicalizing” attitude of those opposing his regime would not add any added value. He described the harsh sanctions imposed last week by ECOWAS as illegal, unfair, inhumane and unprecedented. The bloc has set an August 6 deadline for the junta to reinstate Bazoum, who is under house arrest. Its sanctions include blocking energy transactions with Niger, which gets 90 per cent of its electricity from neighbouring Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
In a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, dozens of people from civil society organizations, professional groups and trade unions spoke to the coup leaders about their vision for the country. “We are talking about the immediate departure of all foreign forces,” Mahaman Sanousi, interim coordinator of the anti-French political coalition M62, which organized Thursday’s protests, told The Associated Press. “The dignity of the Nigerian people will be respected by all without exception.” But another member of civil society at the gathering declined to be named for security reasons and told the AP they were feeling anxious. He was of the strong belief that the French military would soon be ousted and that members of civil society groups would assist the junta in this.
France has 1,500 troops in Niger conducting joint operations with its army against jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the country’s troops. Niger was seen as the West’s last reliable partner in the region, but some in the country see Russia and its Wagner mercenary group as a powerful alternative, which operates in a handful of African countries. The new junta has not said whether it intends to cooperate with Moscow or stick with Niger’s Western partners, but the question has become central to the unfolding political crisis. Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso – both ruled by the junta – have turned to Moscow.
Even if Niger’s military ruler demands the withdrawal of French troops – as happened in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso – it will not matter, said Anne-Claire Legendre, spokeswoman for the French foreign minister, during a press briefing on Wednesday. “We do not answer to the putschists. We only recognize one constitutional mandate and one legitimacy, that of President Bazoum,” he said.
Ahead of Thursday’s demonstration, the French embassy in Niamey asked Niger’s government to take all measures to ensure the security of its compound after it was attacked by protesters and one of the doors was set on fire. The French army said five flights using its planes have evacuated more than 1,000 people this week, and France’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that its evacuation operation was over.