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US sees ‘narrow opportunity’ to restore democratic order in Niger after attempted coup, senior official says

Written by on August 1, 2023

US sees ‘narrow opportunity’ to restore democratic order in Niger after attempted coup, senior official says
Aldo Pavan/Getty Images

(NIGER) — High-ranking officials at the U.S. Department of State are trying to restore democratic order in Niger, a key U.S. ally on counterterrorism.

There may be a “narrow opportunity” to reverse an attempted coup in the West African nation, according to one senior U.S. official.

The official told ABC News on Monday that the U.S. does not believe the military general behind the recent events, Col. Maj. Abdourahmane Tchiani, has widespread support among Niger’s public.

Military leaders in Niger are hesitant to act against Tchiani over fear that any intervention will prompt the Nigerian presidential guard — led by the general — to turn on the democratically elected head-of-state, Mohamed Bazoum, and his family, the official said.

As Tchiani continues to try to demonstrate control, U.S. officials have not with engaged him out of concern that communicating directly with the general could lend him legitimacy, according to the official.

The situation remains wildly fluid, the official said, but the unrest appears to be confined to the area immediately surrounding the presidential palace in Niger’s capital of Niamey.

Last Wednesday, a group of mutinous soldiers led by Tchiani announced on Nigerian state television that they have “put an end to the regime” of Bazoum due to “the continuing degradation of the security situation, the bad economic and social governance.” The group, which calls itself the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, said “all institutions” have been suspended, aerial and land borders have been closed and a curfew has been imposed until the situation is stabilized.

“The defense and security forces are managing the situation. All external partners are asked not to interfere,” Tchiani, flanked by soldiers, said in the televised statement.

Bazoum’s apparent ousting marks the seventh attempted coup in West and Central Africa since 2020 and throws into question the future of Niger, a landlocked country that has had four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. Bazoum was elected to office in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power.

The streets of Niger’s capital have erupted in chaos over the past week. Hundreds of people have marched in support of the president while chanting “No coup d’etat.” But thousands of others have also come out in support of the junta, waving Russian flags and holding signs that read “Down with France.” Protesters have also burned down a door and smashed windows at the French embassy in Niamey before being dispersed by Nigerien soldiers.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional body comprised of 15 West African countries, announced sanctions against Niger on Sunday and threatened to use force if the coup leaders don’t reinstate Bazoum within one week. The African Union and the United Nations have also issued statements condemning the apparent coup.

Guinea, a nearby nation that has been under military rule since 2021, issued a statement on Sunday expressing support for Niger’s junta and urging ECOWAS to “come to its senses.” On Monday, the military-ruled governments of Burkina Faso and Mali, which share borders with Niger, released a joint statement denouncing the ECOWAS sanctions as “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane,” refusing to apply them, and also warned that “any military intervention against Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.”

Since the apparent coup, Bazoum is believed to have been held at his residence in Niamey. The first images of Bazoum surfaced on Sunday, showing him smiling and sitting on a couch beside Mahamat Deby, the president of neighboring Chad, who traveled to Niamey to mediate between the Nigerien government and military.

Nigerien Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou told French media on Sunday that Bazoum will not resign and “is in high spirits” despite the “seizure of power by force.” He also warned that any sanctions imposed on Niger would be a “disaster” for the country.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, spoke via telephone last Thursday to the Niger Armed Forces Chief of Defense, Lt. Gen. Issa Abdou Sidikou, about the developing situation in the West African nation and the safety of Americans there.

Milley also had a call with his French counterpart on Monday to discuss “the security situation in Niger,” according to a government report.

“The long-standing alliance between the U.S. and French militaries plays a critical role in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and other regions around the world,” the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesperson, Col. Dave Butler, said in a statement.

On Tuesday morning, France announced that it is preparing to evacuate French and European nationals from Niger, citing the recent violence that targeted the French embassy in Niamey as one of the reasons for the decision. The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the evacuation “will happen rapidly,” without providing additional details.

Bazoum’s government has been a top ally to both Europe and the U.S. in the fight against violent extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region. The U.S. Department of Defense said it has provided $500 million in military assistance to Niger since 2012, “one of the largest” security assistance and training packages in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso and Mali, have ousted the French military and instead enlisted the help of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization.

In a voice message posted last Thursday on social media channels linked to Wagner, the group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, appeared to endorse the coup in Niger and offer the services of his fighters to the junta.

A senior official at the U.S. Department of State told ABC News on Monday that Washington continues to assess the recent events in Niger — a result of long-term tensions between power players. The U.S. government, however, still sees Wagner as attempting to take advantage of the situation, one official said.

While the security posture of the U.S. embassy in Niamey remains unchanged, the overall U.S. posture will depend on what transpires in the days and weeks ahead, according to the official. Currently, it appears unlikely that Washington will support any intervention attempts in Niger out of concern that it could trigger open conflict.

The official also lamented that the U.S. ambassador to Niger was only confirmed by the Senate last week, finally filling a 14-month vacancy the official described as a hinderance to diplomacy.

ABC News’ James Bwala, Will Gretsky, Matt Seyler and Joe Simonetti contributed to this report.

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