NIAMEY, Niger — Security in Niger took a turn for the worse Sunday, as protesters marched through the capital in support of the recent military coup, the French embassy was attacked, and a regional economic bloc raised the possibility of military intervention if the president was not reinstated within a week.
Thousands of junta supporters surged through the streets of Niamey, the capital, 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.
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 the Nigerian capital, Abuja, the West African ECOWAS 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, (we will) 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.
It was not immediately clear how the bloc would use force in Niger. In December, it proposed creating a regional force that would intervene in case of necessity to help restore peace and constitutional order in member countries. However, that proposal has not yet come to fruition.
On Sunday, the bloc said it continued to recognize Bazoum as Niger’s president and would reject any form of his resignation. It demanded for his immediate release and reinstatement, saying that the junta had him in a “hostage situation.”
If the bloc uses force, this would be catastrophic for civilians, said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan-based think tank. “Economic sanctions are the ones to be imposed but (I) don’t see a military intervention happening because of the violence that could trigger not only between Niger and ECOWAS forces, but also civilians from the both sides,” he said.
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.
“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.
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 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.
Niger receives millions in international military assistance. Conflict experts say out of all the countries in the region, Niger has the most at stake if it turns away from the West.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the continuation of Niger’s security and economic arrangements 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, French President Emmanuel Macron said attacks on France and its interests would not be tolerated. Anyone who attacked French nationals, its army, diplomats or the French authorities would see an immediate response, he said.
The attack on the embassy in Niamey followed 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 to reinstall Niger’s democratically elected government. ECOWAS held 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.
In the 1990s ECOWAS intervened in Liberia during its civil war and in 2017 it intervened in The Gambia to prevent the new president’s predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, from disrupting the handover of power. Approximately 7,000 troops from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal entered, according to the Global Observatory, which provides analysis on peace and security issues.
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, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria contributed.