NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Thousands of supporters of the junta that took over Niger in a coup earlier this week marched Sunday through the streets of the capital, Niamey, waving Russian flags, chanting the name of the Russian president and forcefully denouncing former colonial power France.
The protesters marched through the city to the French Embassy, where a door was lit on fire, according to someone who was at the embassy when it happened and videos seen by The AP. Black smoke could be seen rising from across the city. The Nigerien army broke up the crowd of the protesters.
Russian mercenary group Wagner is already operating in neighboring Mali, and Russian President Vladimir Putin would like to expand his country’s influence in the region. However, it is unclear yet whether the new junta leaders will move toward Moscow or stick with Niger’s Western partners.
On Sunday at an emergency meeting in Abjua, Nigeria the West African bloc said it was suspending relations with Niger and authorized the use of force if the president was not reinstated within a week.
“In the event the authorities’ demands are not met within one week, take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger. Such measures may include the use of force. To this effect, the chiefs of defense staff of ECOWAS are to meet immediately,” Omar Alieu Touray, president of the ECOWAS commission, said after the meeting.
Days after the coup, uncertainty is mounting about Niger’s future, with some calling out the junta’s reasons for seizing control.
President Mohamed Bazoum was democratically elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence from France in 1960.
The mutineers said they overthrew him because he wasn’t able to secure the nation against growing jihadi violence.
But some analysts and Nigeriens say that’s just a pretext for a takeover that is more about internal power struggles than securing the nation.
“Everybody is wondering: why this coup? That’s because no one was expecting it. We couldn’t expect a coup in Niger because there’s no social, political or security situation that would justify that the military take the power,” Prof. Amad Hassane Boubacar, who teaches at the University of Niamey, told The Associated Press.
He said Bazoum wanted to replace the head of the presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who is now in charge of the country. Tchiani, who also goes by Omar, was loyal to Bazoum’s predecessor and that sparked the problems, Boubacar said. The AP cannot independently verify his assessment.
While Niger’s security situation is dire, it’s not as bad as neighboring Burkina Faso or Mali, which have also been battling an Islamic insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Last year, Niger was the only one of the three to see a decline in violence, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Niger had been seen as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle the jihadists in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence. France has 1,500 soldiers in the country who conduct joint operations with the Nigeriens. The United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
Regional bodies, including the West African economic bloc ECOWAS, have denounced the coup. Some taking part in Sunday’s rally warned them to stay away. “I would like also to say to the European Union, African Union and ECOWAS, please, please stay out of our business,” said Oumar Barou Moussa, who was at the demonstration.
“It’s time for us to take our lives, to work for ourselves. It’s time for us to talk about our freedom and liberty. We need to stay together, we need to work together, we need to have our true independence,” he said.
Conflict experts say out of all the countries in the region, Niger has the most at stake if it turns away from the West, given the millions of dollars of military assistance the international community has poured in. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the continued security and economic arrangements that Niger has with the U.S. hinged on the release of Bazoum — who remains under house arrest — and “the immediate restoration of the democratic order in Niger.”
On Sunday, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron said attacks on France and its interests would not be tolerated. Anyone who attacked French nationals, the army, diplomats and French authorities would see an immediate response, he said.
Macron said he’d spoken to Bazoum and his predecessor as Nigerien President, Mahamadou Issoufou, hours earlier, who both condemned the coup and appealed for calm.
The attack follows France’s move on Saturday to suspend all development and financial aid for Niger.
The African Union has issued a 15-day ultimatum to the junta in Niger to reinstall the country’s democratically elected government. ECOWAS is holding an emergency summit Sunday in Abuja, Nigeria.
The 15-nation ECOWAS bloc has unsuccessfully tried to restore democracies in nations where the military took power in recent years. Four nations are run by military regimes in West and Central Africa, where there have been nine successful or attempted coups since 2020.
If ECOWAS imposes economic sanctions on Niger, which is what normally happens during coups, it could have a deep impact on Nigeriens, who live in the third-poorest country in the world, according to the latest U.N. data.
However, in a televised address Saturday, Col. Major Amadou Abdramane, one of the soldiers who ousted Bazoum, accused the meeting of making a “plan of aggression” against Niger and said the country would defend itself.
Niger experts say it’s too soon to know how things will play out.
“Tensions with the military are still ongoing. There could be another coup after this one, or a stronger intervention from ECOWAS, potentially military force, even if it is difficult to foresee how specifically that may happen and what form that may take,” said Tatiana Smirnova, a researcher in conflict resolution and peace missions at the Centre FrancoPaix.
“Many actors are also trying to negotiate, but the outcome is unclear,” she said.
Associated Press reporters Angela Charlton in Paris and Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria contributed.