BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – The United States is warning mutineers who have seized control of Niger that U.S. support for the Western African nation will dry up unless President Mohamed Bazoum is released and returned to power.
The threat Saturday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to pull hundreds of millions of dollars in aid followed Friday’s announcement by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, that he is Niger’s new leader.
“Let me be very, very clear,” Blinken said at a news conference in Brisbane, Australia, following consultations with his Australian counterpart.
“Our economic and security partnership with Niger, which is significant, hundreds of millions of dollars, depends on the continuation of the democratic governance and constitutional order that has been disrupted,” he said.
Just this past March, during a visit to Niger, Blinken announced the country would get part of a $150 million humanitarian aid package.
Niger has also benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. military aid and counterterrorism training and has been hosting about 1,100 U.S. troops.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Friday the military takeover in Niger “may cause the United States to cease security and other cooperation with the government of Niger.”
Kirby said, though, that while the U.S. is “deeply concerned,” it was still holding out hope for a peaceful resolution.
“We believe that there is still a space for diplomacy here, and that that diplomacy is actively being pursued not just by the United States, but by our allies and partners and our African partners as well,” he said.
Already, however, the Nigerien mutineers have declared the government dissolved and suspended the country’s constitution. They previously closed the country’s borders and airspace and imposed a nationwide curfew.
Leaders of Niger’s army declared their support for Wednesday’s overthrow of Bazoum, who was democratically elected two years ago, defying international calls for his immediate release and appeals for the general to respect the rule of law and Niger’s democratic order.
Tchiani warned foreign governments not to intervene in Niger or try to extract Bazoum and his family, saying it would result in “the massacre of the Niger population and chaos.”
He added that soldiers ousted the president because of deteriorating security in the West African country, which is fighting an Islamist militant insurgency.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Bazoum on Friday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told Agence France-Presse. According to Colonna, Macron said Bazoum is “reachable” and “in good health.”
Reports say Bazoum is being held in the presidential palace.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield also spoke with Bazoum and expressed Washington’s strong condemnation of any effort to seize power by force. Her spokesperson said in a statement Thursday that the “United States is steadfast in its support for Niger’s democracy and supports taking action at the U.N. Security Council to de-escalate the situation, prevent harm to civilians, and ensure constitutional order.”
In a message posted Thursday to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Bazoum said democracy would prevail in his country. “The hard-won gains will be safeguarded,” he said. “All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom would want this.”
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS will hold a summit Sunday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on the situation.
The regional bloc has condemned the events in Niger and called on what it described as coup plotters to free the president “immediately and without any condition.”
Abdel Fatau Musah, commissioner for political affairs and security of ECOWAS, told VOA that “Bazoum remains the legitimate and legal president and must be reinstated as soon as possible.”
Kenyan President William Ruto said in a video message that the army takeover is “a serious setback” for Africa.
“The aspirations of the people of Niger for constitutional democracy were subverted by an unconstitutional change of government,” he said.
In Paris, the French presidency said Macron will chair a defense meeting Saturday on the situation. France, the former colonial power in Niger, has about 1,500 troops in the country.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council met Friday behind closed doors to discuss the evolving situation. The U.N. representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simão, briefed the council from Dakkar.
“All council members expressed their concern about the situation,” said British Deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki after the meeting. His government holds the council’s rotating presidency this month. “All council members expressed the need to restore the constitutional democracy. All council members condemned the action. So we have a very strong sense that the council is united in seeking to condemn and act.”
The council is discussing a draft statement put forward by its three African members — Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique — that strongly condemns the unconstitutional change of government and expresses support for the efforts of ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations.
There are 4.3 million people who need humanitarian assistance in Niger. The U.N. said aid flights have been temporarily suspended because of the closure of the country’s airspace, but humanitarian assistance continues to be delivered.
“The humanitarian response continues on the ground and has never stopped since the events occurred in Niger,” Jean-Noel Gentile, the World Food Program representative in Niger, told reporters on a video call Friday.
The coup began Wednesday, when a group of soldiers from the presidential guard detained Bazoum at the presidential palace and later announced his ouster on state television.
In a statement on social media, the army said it had decided to back the coup to prevent “a deadly confrontation” that could lead to a “bloodbath” in Niger.
U.N. officials in the capital, Niamey, said the situation was calm Friday, after reports of looting and cars being set on fire the day before.
Bazoum’s government is a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist insurgents in Africa’s Sahel. Germany, Italy, France and the United States have troops in Niger on military training and counterinsurgency missions.
Russia has established a foothold in Niger’s neighbors through its Wagner mercenary group. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who recently challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin, welcomed the military’s attempted takeover. In a voice message believed to be Prigozhin on the Telegram app, he hailed the coup attempt and offered the services of his mercenaries to help bring order.
Niger is one of the region’s most unstable countries. If successful, Wednesday’s coup would be the fifth military takeover since the country won independence from France in 1960.
VOA’s Carol Van Dam Falk, Margaret Besheer and French to Africa Service contributed to this report. Some information came from Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters.