Hundreds rally in Niger, denouncing France, as the country’s new junta seeks to justify its coup

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Niamey: Hundreds of people rallied in support of Niger’s ruling junta in the capital on Thursday, denouncing France and others who have criticised a recent coup — as the country’s military leaders sought to exploit anti-Western sentiment to shore up their takeover.

As numbers began to swell at a demonstration organised by the junta and civil society groups on Niger’s independence day, protesters in Niamey pumped their fists in the air and chanted out support for neighboring countries that have also seen military takeovers in recent years.

Some waved Russian flags, and one man brandished a Russian and Nigerien flag sewn together.

Last week’s coup toppled President Mohamed Bazoum — whose ascendency marked Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France.                 It has been accompanied by strident anti-French sentiment and raised questions about the future of the fight against extremism in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia and Western countries have vied for influence.

The coup has been strongly condemned by Western countries and the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which has threatened to use force to remove the junta if they don’t hand back power to Bazoum. As tensions have grown in the capital and the region, many European countries have moved to evacuate their citizens.

At Thursday’s protest, many expressed support for the coup leaders and denounced interference from others.

“For more than 13 years, the Nigerien people have suffered injustices,” said protester Moctar Abdou Issa. The junta “will get us out of this, God willing … they will free the Nigerien people.”

“We’re sick of the French,” he added.

It remains unclear whether the majority of the population supports the coup — and in many parts of the capital, people went about their lives on Thursday as normal.

In an address to the nation on Wednesday, the new military ruler, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, lashed out at those who have condemned the coup and called on the population to be ready to defend the nation.

Tchiani said Niger will face difficult times ahead and that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value.

He called harsh sanctions imposed last week by ECOWAS illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented.

The bloc has set a deadline of August 6 for the junta to reinstate Bazoum, who remains under house arrest.

Its sanctions include halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90 per cent of its power from neighbouring Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

In a closed door meeting on Wednesday, dozens of people from civil society organizations, professional groups and trade unions spoke with the coup leaders about their vision for the country.

“We are talking about the immediate departure of all foreign forces,” Mahaman Sanoussi, interim coordinator for M62, an anti-French political alliance that organized Thursday’s protest, told The Associated Press.

“The dignity of the Nigerien people will be respected by all without exception.”

But another civil society member at the gathering who refused to be named for security reasons told the AP they left feeling concerned. They had a strong impression that the French military was going to be ousted soon and that members of civil society groups would help the junta do it.

France has 1,500 soldiers in Niger who conduct joint operations with its military against jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.

Niger was seen as the West’s last reliable partner in the region, but some in the country see Russia and its Wagner mercenary group, which operates in a handful of African countries, as a powerful alternative.

The new junta has not said whether it intends to ally with Moscow or stick with Niger’s Western partners, but that question has become central to the unfolding political crisis. Neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso — both ruled by juntas — have turned toward Moscow.

Even if Niger’s military rulers demand the withdrawal of French troops — as happened in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso — it wouldn’t make a difference, said Anne-Claire Legendre, a spokesperson for the French foreign minister during a press briefing on Wednesday.

“We don’t answer to the putschists. We recognize one constitutional order and one legitimacy only, that of President Bazoum,” she said.

Ahead of Thursday’s demonstration, the French Embassy in Niamey asked Niger’s government to take all measures to ensure the security and protection of its premises after it was attacked by protesters a door was set on fire.

The French military said that five flights using its planes had evacuated more than 1,000 people this week, and France’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that its evacuation operation has ended.

The State Department on Wednesday ordered what it said was the temporary departure of nonessential embassy staff and some family members from Niger as a precaution. It said its embassy would remain open. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said that the State Department had not requested U.S. military assistance for the departure.

US President Joe Biden used the occasion of Niger’s independence day to call for Bazoum to be released and democracy restored.

“The Nigerien people have the right to choose their leaders. They have expressed their will through free and fair elections — and that must be respected,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Earlier this week, Nigeria cut off power transmission to Niger, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to comment on the issue.

The official did not clarify how much of Niger’s power the cut represented, but any reduction would further squeeze citizens in the impoverished country of more than 25 million people where the electricity supply is already unreliable.

On Wednesday, the president’s party accused the junta of cutting off electricity to his residence since that morning. “As a result, the president of the republic and his family no longer benefit from the rotating supply of energy,” said Kalla Ankourao, the ruling party’s general secretary.

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