Hundreds of people rallied in support of Niger’s ruling junta in the capital on Thursday, denouncing France and others who have criticized a recent coup — as the country’s military leaders sought to exploit anti-Western sentiment to shore up their takeover.
As numbers began to swell at a demonstration organized by the junta and civil society groups on Niger’s independence day, protesters in Niamey pumped their fists in the air and chanted support for neighbouring countries that have also seen military takeovers in recent years.
Some waved Russian flags, and one man brandished a Russian and Nigerien flag sewn together.
Last week’s coup toppled President Mohamed Bazoum — whose ascendency marked Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from France in 1960. It has been accompanied by strident anti-French sentiment and raised questions about the future of the fight against extremism in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence.
The coup has been strongly condemned by Western countries and the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which has threatened to use force to remove the junta if they don’t hand back power to Bazoum. As tensions have grown in the capital and the region, many European countries have moved to evacuate their citizens.
Some see takeover as push for freedom
At Thursday’s protest, many expressed support for the coup leaders and denounced interference from others.
“For more than 13 years, the Nigerien people have suffered injustices,” said protester Moctar Abdou Issa. The junta “will get us out of this, God willing — they will free the Nigerien people.
“We’re sick of the French.”
Another protester, who did not give his name, told Reuters that Niger is “in the process of freeing itself from the yoke of colonization.”
France has between 1,000 and 1,500 troops in Niger, helping to fight an insurgency by groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that has spread across the region.
After last year’s coup in Burkina Faso and Mali’s in 2021, both countries kicked out French troops, many of whom are now stationed in Niger.
Junta suspends French broadcasts
Niger on Thursday suspended broadcasts of French state-funded international news outlets France 24 and RFI — drawing condemnation from the French Foreign Ministry.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday, the new military ruler, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, lashed out at those who have condemned the coup and called on the population to be ready to defend the nation.
Tchiani said Niger will face difficult times ahead and that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value. He called harsh sanctions imposed last week by ECOWAS illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented.
Talk of regional military intervention
The bloc has set a deadline of Sunday for the junta to reinstate Bazoum, who remains under house arrest. Since Wednesday, ECOWAS’s defence chiefs have been discussing a possible plan for military intervention in the country, according to a statement by Fidele Sarassoro, executive secretary of the national security council in Ivory Coast, which is a member of the bloc.
Senegal’s foreign minister, Aissata Tall Sall, said Thursday that if there is a military intervention in Niger by ECOWAS, his country would participate.
The bloc’s sanctions include halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90 per cent of its power from neighbouring Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Western countries are concerned that Niger could emulate neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in turning toward Russia as an ally and that the unrest could allow Islamists to gain ground.
Ahead of Thursday’s demonstration, the French Embassy in Niamey asked Niger’s government to take all measures to ensure the security and protection of its premises after it was attacked by protesters and a door was set on fire last weekend.
Foreigners airlifted out
The French military said that five flights using its planes had evacuated more than 1,000 people this week, and France’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that its evacuation operation has ended. The flights brought out people from 50 nationalities.
Global Affairs Canada on Thursday said it’s aware of at least 11 Canadians who left the country on flights organized by France.
The department said the Canadian government does not have such flights for its nationals “at this time.” The international airport in Niamey is set to reopen to commercial flights on Saturday, and Global Affairs said “a number of airlines” have already booked departures.
The Canadian government said on its travel advisory website that any of its citizens who are in the capital of Niger should make contingency plans to leave the country and have evacuation plans “that do not rely on Canadian government assistance.”
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday ordered what it said was the temporary departure of non-essential embassy staff and some family members from Niger as a precaution. It said its embassy would remain open.
U.S. President Joe Biden used the occasion of Niger’s Independence Day to call for Bazoum to be released and democracy restored.
“The Nigerien people have the right to choose their leaders. They have expressed their will through free and fair elections — and that must be respected,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Nigeria cuts off power transmission
Earlier this week, Nigeria cut off power transmission to Niger, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the issue.
The official did not clarify how much of Niger’s power the cut represented, but any reduction would further squeeze citizens in the impoverished country of more than 25 million people where the electricity supply is already unreliable.
On Wednesday, the Niger president’s party accused the junta of cutting off electricity to his residence since that morning. “As a result, the president of the republic and his family no longer benefit from the rotating supply of energy,” said Kalla Ankourao, the ruling party’s general secretary.