Thousands of supporters of Niger’s coup leaders flocked to a stadium in the capital Niamey on Sunday, apparently undaunted by the threat of military intervention from West Africa’s regional bloc as its ultimatum to reinstate the president expires.
On Niamey’s streets there were also sporadic displays of support for the junta, which has said it will not cave in to external pressure to stand down following the July 26 power grab. There were no signs of opposition.
The seventh coup in West and Central Africa in three years has rocked the Sahel region, one of the poorest in the world. Given its uranium and oil riches and its pivotal role in a war with Islamist militants, Niger holds importance for the U.S., Europe, China and Russia.
Rippling cheers greeted every sentence of a speech read by a representative of the new army-led administration to the packed crowd at the stadium, who stressed the junta’s determination to stay in power.
“The obscurantist forces that oppose Niger’s progress are lurking in the shadows,” Mohamed Toumba said. “We will stand with you against them.”
Defence chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have agreed on military action, including when and where to strike, if the detained President, Mohamed Bazoum, is not released and reinstated by Sunday.
ECOWAS did not respond to a request for comment on what its next steps would be, or when exactly on Sunday its deadline expires. A spokesman said it would issue a statement at the end of the day.
Blasting military tunes and tooting vuvuzela horns, over 100 junta supporters earlier set up a picket near an air base in Niamey – part of a citizen movement to offer non-violent resistance in support of the junta if needed.
As organisers led chants of ‘Vive Niger’, much of the emotion appeared directed against ECOWAS as well as former colonial power France, which said on Saturday it would support regional efforts to overturn the coup, without specifying if that included military assistance.
“The Nigerien people have understood that these imperialists want to bring about our demise. And God willing, they will be the ones to suffer for it,” said pensioner Amadou Adamou.
Sunday’s television broadcasts included a roundtable debate on encouraging solidarity in the face of ECOWAS sanctions, which have led to power cuts and soaring food prices.
The bloc’s military threat has triggered fears of further conflict in a region already battling the deadly Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and forced millions to flee.
Any military intervention could be complicated by a promise from juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso to come to Niger’s defence if needed.
Bazoum’s Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou said on Saturday in Paris that the ousted regime still believed a last-minute agreement was possible.
On Sunday, Italy said it had reduced its troop numbers in Niger to make room in its military base for Italian civilians who may need protection if security deteriorates.