Two days after mutinous soldiers detained Niger’s democratically elected president, it was still unclear Friday morning who was running the country and what mediation efforts were underway, as analysts warned that political chaos could set back the country’s fight against jihadists and increase Russia’s influence in West Africa.
Niger is seen as the last partner in the West’s efforts to battle jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and the west have been vying for influence in the fight against extremism.
On Thursday, several hundred people gathered in the capital, Niamey, and chanted support for the Russian private military group Wagner while waving Russian flags. Later, they burned cars and ransacked the headquarters of the president’s political party. “We’re fed up,” said Omar Issaka, one of the protestors.
“We are tired of being targeted by the men in the bush … Down with the French people. We’re going to collaborate with Russia now,” he said.
The mutinous soldiers have not announced a leader and President Mohamed Bazoum, who was elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960, has not resigned.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French media Friday that President Emmanuel Macron has spoken several times to Bazoum since what she described as an “attempted coup,” and that he is in good health.
“If you are hearing me speak of an attempted coup, that’s because we do not regard things as definitive,” French media quoted Colonna as saying. She also spoke of “possible exists if those responsible for this attempt hear the message from the international community.”
Some of the last public communications from the government included a defiant tweet by the president Thursday declaring that democracy would prevail and a call by the Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, on media outlet France 24, for Nigeriens to stand against the mutiny.
Someone close to the president who is not authorized to speak about the situation, told The Associated Press that Bazoum has no intention of resigning and talks were ongoing.
However, it’s unclear who’s involved in these dialogues, the nature of the discussions or how they’re proceeding.
Earlier this week, The Economic Community of West African States said it was sending Benin President Patrice Talon to lead mediation efforts, but as of Friday Talon was not in the country. During their first address to the nation Wednesday night, the mutineers urged “external partners” not to interfere.
Analysts say the coup threatens to starkly reshape the international community’s engagement with the Sahel region.
On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, said the country’s “substantial cooperation with the Government of Niger is contingent on Niger’s continued commitment to democratic standards”.
Niger could lose millions of dollars in military aid and assistance, which the United States and European countries have recently poured in an attempt to help in the fight against Islamic extremism.
The United States in early 2021 said it had provided Niger with more than $500 million in military assistance and training programs since 2012, one of the largest such support programs in sub-Saharan Africa. The European Union earlier this year launched a 27 million-euro ($30 million) military training mission in Niger.
The United States has more than 1,000 service personnel in the country. France has 1,500 soldiers, which conduct joint operations with the Nigeriens.
The coup has dashed hopes of collaboration between Sahelian countries and Western powers, which offered a more robust response to the jihadist insurrection when compared with the strategies to arm civilians in Burkina Faso or the responsibility given to Wagner in Mali, said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, senior Sahel analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have both ousted the French military, which previously provided aid in their fight against jihadists. Mali has contracted Wagner, and it’s believed the mercenaries will soon be in Burkina Faso. Now, concerns are mounting that Niger will follow in their footsteps.
As uncertainty lingers about who’s in charge, insecurity could worsen. “The army officers will be busy positioning themselves in power struggles and abandon the fight against jihadists,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Rights groups also warn that civilians usually bear the brunt of these mutinies.
“During a coup, the first victims are always the same: the most vulnerable, women and children,” said Drissa Traore, secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights.
On Thursday the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it has paused operations in Niger, where more than 370,000 people are internally displaced and more than 4 million rely on aid.