Supporters wave Niger and Russia flags as Ecowas deadline for military to cede power approaches
Thousands of coup supporters in Niger gathered on Sunday for a rally to cheer on the generals claiming power, as a deadline set by the west African bloc for the military to relinquish control or face possible armed intervention was due to elapse.
The Ecowas bloc, chaired by regional military powerhouse and Niger’s neighbour Nigeria, had given the troops that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum on 26 July a week to return him to power.
But on Sunday afternoon in the capital Niamey thousands of backers of the now ruling National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) gathered at a stadium draped in Russian flags and carrying portraits of CNSP leaders.
At the 30,000-seat Seyni Kountche stadium, named after Niger’s first coup d’etat leader in 1974, CNSP leaders including General Mohamed Toumba greeted a jubilant crowd, and showed no sign of willingness to cede power.
On Friday, Ecowas military chiefs of staff agreed a plan for a possible intervention to respond to the crisis, the latest of several coups to hit Africa’s Sahel region since 2020.
“We want diplomacy to work, and we want this message clearly transmitted to them [the military] that we are giving them every opportunity to reverse what they have done,” Ecowas commissioner Abdel-Fatau Musah said.
But he warned that “all the elements that will go into any eventual intervention have been worked out”, including how and when force would be deployed. Niger’s military leaders have said they will meet force with force.
In the alleyways of Niamey’s Boukoki neighbourhood, residents were defiant at the prospect of an armed intervention by Ecowas.
“We’re going to fight for this revolution. We’re not going to retreat faced with the enemy – we’re determined,” said Boukoki resident Adama Oumarou. “We were waiting for this coup for a long time.”
Algeria, itself an economic and military power on the continent, and which shares a long land border with Niger, has warned against a military solution.
“We categorically refuse any military intervention,” Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune said in a television interview on Saturday, saying it would be “a direct threat to Algeria” as it shares “nearly a thousand kilometres” of border with Niger.
Former colonial power France, with which Niger’s new rulers broke military ties after taking power, said it would “firmly” back whatever course of action Ecowas took after the deadline expired.
Niger has played a key part in western strategies to combat jihadist insurgencies that have plagued the Sahel since 2012, with France and the United States stationing about 1,500 and 1,000 troops in the country respectively.
France has already evacuated hundreds of its citizens from Niger since the coup, and on Sunday, Italy’s defence ministry said it had 65 military personnel from Niger, along with 10 US military personnel.
Anti-French sentiment in the region is on the rise, while Russian activity, often through the Wagner mercenary group, has grown. Moscow has warned against armed intervention from outside Niger.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, relies heavily on foreign aid that could be pulled if Bazoum is not reinstated as head of state, Paris has warned.
Bazoum, 63, has been held by the coup leaders with his family in his official Niamey residence since 26 July. He won an election in 2021 that ushered in Niger’s first ever transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
Nigeria has already cut electricity supplies to its neighbour, raising fears for the humanitarian situation, while Niamey has closed the vast Sahel country’s borders, complicating food deliveries.
Senior Nigerian politicians have urged President Bola Tinubu to reconsider the threatened military intervention.