An attempted coup was underway Wednesday in the Sahel state of Niger as President Mohamed Bazoum was being held by members of his guard, who in turn were given an ultimatum by the army, sources said.
The West African bloc ECOWAS, the African Union and the European Union condemned what they called an “attempted coup d’etat,” a description echoed by a source close to Bazoum who also predicted the bid would fail.
A close ally of France, Bazoum was elected in 2021, taking the helm of a country mired in poverty and burdened by a history of chronic instability.
Members of the elite Presidential Guard on Wednesday morning sealed off access to the president’s residence and offices, and after talks broke down “refused to release the president,” another presidential source said.
“The army has given them an ultimatum,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a message on Twitter, which is being rebranded as X, the president’s office said “elements of the Presidential Guard (PG) had a fit of temper… (and) tried unsuccessfully to gain the support of the national armed forces and the national guard.”
“The army and national guard are ready to attack the elements of the PG who are involved in this fit of temper if they do not return to a better disposition,” the presidency said.
“The president and his family are well,” it added.
The reason for the guards’ anger was not disclosed.
Access was blocked off to the presidential complex in Niamey, although there was no abnormal military deployment or sounds of gunfire in the area, and traffic was normal, an AFP journalist saw.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and AU issued separate statements condemning an “attempted coup d’Etat”.
ECOWAS called for Bazoum’s immediate and unconditional release, and warned that all those involved would be held responsible for his safety.
The source close to Bazoum, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the attempt to seize power was “doomed to fail.”
The EU said it “associates itself” with the ECOWAS statement, with foreign policy chief Josep Borrell posting online: “The EU condemns any attempt to destabilise democracy and threaten the stability of Niger”.
– Coup-prone –
The landlocked Sahel state has experienced four coups since independence from France in 1960 as well as numerous other attempts on power, including against Bazoum himself.
The country’s last coup occurred in February 2010, overthrowing then president Mamadou Tandja.
There was an attempted coup just days before Bazoum’s inauguration in April 2021, according to a security source at the time.
Several people were arrested, including the suspected ringleader, an air force captain named Sani Gourouza.
He was arrested in neighbouring Benin and handed over to the Niger authorities.
Ousmane Cisse, a former interior minister under a military government of transition that ran from 2010-2011, was detained in April 2022 for his suspected role.
He was acquitted in February this year, but five others, including Gourouza, were jailed for 20 years.
A second bid to oust Bazoum occurred in March this year “while the president… was in Turkey”, according to a Niger official, who said an arrest was made.
The authorities have never commented publicly on the incident.
In January 2018, nine soldiers and a civilian were sentenced by a military court to jail terms ranging from five to 15 years for having attempted to topple Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, in 2015.
Those convicted included General Souleymane Salou, a former army chief of staff and a member of the junta that had forced out Tandja in 2010.
– Poverty and jihadism –
Lying in the heart of West Africa’s arid Sahel, Niger is two-thirds desert and persistently ranks at the bottom, or near it, in the UN’s Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.
It has a surging population of 22.4 million, driven by a birthrate averaging seven children per woman.
The country is struggling with two jihadist campaigns — one in the southwest, which swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015, and the other in the southeast, involving jihadists based in northeastern Nigeria.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, stoking a humanitarian crisis and further straining the economy.
Niger’s military has received training and logistical support from the United States and France, which have military bases there.
The country is also the hub of France’s anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel, which were reconfigured after French forces quit Mali and Burkina Faso following political bust-ups with those countries.