Head of Presidential Guard Claims Power in Niger Coup
The commander of Niger’s presidential guard claimed the leadership of the West African country with a televised address on Friday, two days after his military unit detained the democratically elected president and threw the future of a key Western ally in the region into uncertainty.
“We have decided to intervene and seize our responsibilities,” Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who goes by the first name, Omar, said on state television. “We can’t continue with the same approaches.”
Niger, a poor country rich in uranium, lies in the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara that has faced growing insecurity amid the worsening effects of climate change, political instability and armed insurgencies. The United States has 1,100 troops and two drone bases in Niger. France, the former colonial power, more than 1,500 troops.
The military takeover in Niger is the sixth in West Africa in less than three years, following Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, and threatening to upend regional efforts to fight Islamist insurgencies by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The coup, Niger’s fifth since gaining independence from France in 1960, could deal a fatal blow to the country’s nascent democracy: It had its first peaceful, democratic transition of power only a few years ago when President Mohamed Bazoum took office from another elected president.
An aide to Mr. Bazoum and analysts said in interviews in the last two days that the president had been planning to remove General Tchiani as the presidential guard’s leader.
General Tchiani, however, said his soldiers had unseated Mr. Bazoum because of poor management of the economy and the fight against militants.
While saying he appreciated the “support of our external partners” — an apparent reference to the United States and European countries — he also faulted Niger’s leadership for not partnering with the military juntas in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, which have moved close to Russia in recent years.
“The current security approach hasn’t enabled us to secure our country,” he said.
A military officer later announced on Friday that Niger’s Constitution had been suspended and that a new transitional body was taking charge of executive and legislative powers. The officer said General Tchiani would be the president of the new body.
The general himself briefly appeared on national television, standing in a group of military officers in the new transitional council, with cheerful music in the background.
A source close to Mr. Bazoum, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was in good health despite three days in detention, and that he still had access to his telephone.
“He and his family are a bargaining chip now,” said Nathaniel Powell, an Africa analyst with Oxford Analytica, a risk analysis firm based in Britain.
Niger, a country of 26 million and the world’s third poorest, according to the United Nations, has also been a favored recipient of humanitarian aid and Western funding as one of the last democracies run by a civilian president in the region.
The future of these efforts now appears to be in doubt. A decorated and influential official, General Tchiani, who is 59, had been named as the head of the presidential guard in 2011 by Mr. Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou.
General Tchiani joined the Nigerien military in 1985 and served in United Nations’ peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Sudan. He was accused of participating in a coup attempt in 2015, but denied any involvement and ultimately remained close to Mr. Issoufou, who named him general in 2018 and stayed in power until 2021, when Mr. Bazoum took office.
The presidential guard comprises hundreds of well-equipped and -trained troops, according to Nigerien and Western security analysts.
The United States, the United Nations and the West African economic bloc, known as ECOWAS, have all condemned the military takeover, and the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday afternoon that it did not recognize new leaders of Niger.
A senior White House spokesman, John Kirby, warned Friday that the United States could end financial support and security cooperation for Niger if diplomacy is not able to reverse the military takeover of the African nation. He said the United States and its allies were “doing everything we can” to ensure that Mr. Bazoum remains the leader of Niger.
The streets of Niamey, the capital, remained mostly calm following General Tchiani’s television address, with banks closed but many businesses open. The generals supporting the coup had closed the country’s borders, ordered political activities suspended and imposed a nighttime curfew.
Residents appeared divided over the takeover. Salifou Mahamdou, a clothes seller, said that he welcomed the coup because insecurity had long slowed development. “Even if the military stays in power forever, who cares, as long as they grant us security,” he said.
Aïcha Habibou, a 20-year-old nurse, said she thought little would change. “Whenever there’s a coup,” she said, “the officers give us the same speech about change, but they also come to steal public money.”
In Niamey on Thursday, hundreds of demonstrators had gathered in support of the military. Some shouted “Bazoum has fallen, we’re free.” Others waved Russian flags in a scene reminiscent of recent coups in Burkina Faso and Mali.
Military officers in Mali have partnered with Russia’s Wagner mercenary company to fight Islamist insurgents, and Burkina Faso’s prime minister traveled to Moscow a few months after a military junta.
A shift in alliances could have major implications for Western countries and international bodies. The United Nations has planned to use Niger as a logistical hub for the withdrawal of its 13,000-personnel peacekeeping operation in Mali, which is scheduled to depart at the end of the year. France depends on Niger’s uranium mines for about 15 percent of the resources to fuel its nuclear power plants.
Mr. Powell called Mr. Bazoum’s leadership one of the best in the region, mixing a strong military response to security crises with development projects and partnerships with Western countries.
Niger had taken advantage of the collapses of civilian order in Burkina Faso and Mali, he said, to strengthen ties with the West. But he added that Western countries working with Niger had turned a blind eye to long-running dysfunctions within the country’s military.
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington.