NIAMEY – If mutinous soldiers who ousted Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum succeed, it will threaten democracy and security across the region and the continent, a high-ranking member of Bazoum’s political party warned in an interview with The Associated Press.
Boubacar Sabo, deputy secretary general for the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, said Bazoum had been “kidnapped” by members of the presidential guard who overthrew him on July 26 and have since kept him under house arrest.
“What is happening in Niger, if it succeeds, is the end of democracy in Africa. It’s over. … If we fight today, it is to prevent these kind of things from happening and to ensure a future for our continent,” Sabo said on Thursday.
In a region rife with coups, Niger was seen as one of the last democratic countries that Western nations could partner with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. The overthrow of the president nearly one month ago has been a big blow to the United States, France and other European nations, which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance into training Niger’s army and — in the case of the French — conducting joint military operations.
Since the military seized power, in what analysts and locals say was triggered by an internal struggle between Bazoum and the head of the presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who says he’s now in charge, it’s been shoring up support among the population, exploiting grievances toward its former colonial ruler France and silencing opposers.
Sabo is one of the few openly outspoken critics of the junta still in the country and not in hiding.
Several ministers and high-ranking politicians are detained, with human rights groups saying they are unable to access them, while others have been threatened, he said. Sabo called the groundswell of support for the regime in the capital deceptive, because the junta was paying people to rally in its favor. Niamey was also never a stronghold for Bazoum and the junta is being opportunistic, he said.
Pro junta rallies happen almost daily with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people marching through the streets, honking cars and waving Nigerien and Russian flags and chanting “down with France.” The junta has severed military agreements with France and asked Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group for help.
But although there was real frustration from political parties and civil society organizations toward Bazoum’s party, including disagreements with its military alliance with France, it’s unclear how much genuine support the junta has in the capital and across the country, Sahel experts say.
“While many of those protesters may support the transition, it is probably the case that a sizeable amount of them are present only for monetary reasons or out of curiosity and the thrill of being part of the crowd,” said Adam Sandor, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bayreuth.
The junta could face challenges with its support base across the country if it can’t financially appease local elites and if the army continues to suffer losses from growing jihadi violence, he said.
Attacks by jihadis are increasing since the coup, with at least 17 soldiers killed and 20 injured earlier this week during an ambush by jihadis. It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months.
Militants are taking advantage of a gap in support by France and the United States, which have both suspended military operations in the country, as well as Niger’s distracted security forces, which are focusing on the capital and concerned about a potential invasion from regional countries, say conflict experts.
The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS has threatened to take military action if Niger doesn’t release and reinstate Bazoum. It has activated a ‘standby’ force and on Friday its defense chiefs are wrapping up a two-day meeting about next steps.
Meanwhile, in Niamey and across the country, a volunteer recruitment drive is expected Saturday where people can register to fight and help with other needs so the junta has a list in case it needs to call on people for help.
“We know that our army may be be less in terms of numbers than the armies (coming),” said Amsarou Bako, one of the organizers. “Those who are coming, they have information about our army,” he said.
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