Supporters of the junta that took over Niger in a coup last week marched through the capital and attacked the French Embassy on Sunday, as a regional bloc raised the possibility of military intervention if the president of the West African country was not reinstated soon.
Video on social media shows protesters attempting to smash the door of the embassy. There are unconfirmed reports the door was lit on fire.
Thousands of supporters of the military could been seen in the streets, some waving Russian flags, chanting “Long live Russia,” “Long live [Vladimir] Putin,” Russia’s president, and “Down with France,” Niger’s former colonial administrator — before the Nigerien army dispersed the crowd.
Russian mercenary group Wagner is already operating in neighbouring Mali, and Putin would like to expand his country’s influence in the region. However, it is unclear yet whether the new junta leaders are going to move toward Moscow or stick with Niger’s Western partners.
“The president will not tolerate any attack against France and its interests,” President Emmanuel Macron’s office said in a statement, specifying that it would respond to attacks against French diplomats, armed forces or businesses.
In a separate statement, the French Foreign Ministry said France condemns all violence against diplomatic missions and that authorities in Niger are obliged to ensure their security under international law.
Macron has spoken with ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and former president of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou in the last few hours, the statement from the president’s office said, adding that both of them condemned the coup and called for calm.
Leaders from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS held an emergency summit on Sunday and imposed financial and travel sanctions against Niger’s military leader, who ousted Bazoum on July 26. The bloc also said it had authorized the use of force if the president was not reinstated within a week. Its leaders demanded Bazoum’s reinstatement, saying the junta had him in a “hostage situation.”
France announced on Saturday it was cutting all development aid to the country and called for Bazoum to be returned to office. Niger has been a security partner of France, and the United States, which have used it as a base to fight an Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa’s wider Sahel region.
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 country 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.
“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, Issoufou, and that sparked the problems, Boubacar said.