Niger soldiers went on television late on Wednesday night to say they had removed President Mohamed Bazoum from power several hours after the presidential guard had barricaded the pro-western leader in his residence.
Colonel Amadou Abdramane, dressed in a blue uniform and surrounded by nine other officers, said defence and security forces had decided to “put an end to the regime due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance”.
If the coup is successful it would be the latest in a succession of military overthrows in a region that has turned against France and the west and, in some cases, towards Russia.
Bazoum was an important western ally in the fight against a spreading jihadist insurgency in the Sahel region and had also co-operated with the EU in stemming the flow of people who use Niger as a transit country on their journey towards Europe.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, is a huge landlocked state in the Sahel, a semi-desert region beneath the Sahara.
Speaking before soldiers took to the airwaves, a political analyst and resident of the capital Niamey said: “If a coup goes through, that would change the dynamic. He’s almost the only western ally in the region still standing.”
It was not clear whether the coup leaders had the support of all the armed forces. Earlier in the day, the army had said it stood by the president and by “legality” and was ready to fight the presidential guard if it did not release the president.
Abdramane said on television that the army had suspended the constitution, shut the international airport and declared a curfew. It was keeping Bazoum safe, he said.
He warned foreign powers not to intervene after a succession of statements from regional and international leaders condemning the moves against Bazoum and calling for the preservation of democracy.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, tweeted that he had spoken to Bazoum and conveyed his support for democracy in the country. The EU issued a statement calling for Bazoum’s immediate release, adding: “Niger is a pole of stability in the region and it must remain so.”
A few hours before soldiers declared they had completed a coup a senior general and Bazoum ally had told the Financial Times that “the jury was still out” on how the crisis would end.
The coup against Bazoum comes after a number of military takeovers in the region, including in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. The leaders of Mali’s 2021 coup expelled French troops and invited Russia’s Wagner Group to help fight an Islamist insurgency that has taken over swaths of the country.
Bazoum, who was elected in 2021 in Niger’s first democratic transfer of power since independence, had by contrast welcomed French troops and courted European and US help in combating jihadist attacks in Niger’s border regions. In an interview with the Financial Times in May, he defended France’s presence.
He has also paraded his pro-democracy credentials and progressive attitudes on women’s rights and education to court western support, though these were not always popular domestically. Bazoum was one of several African leaders who decided not to attend Vladimir Putin’s Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg this week.
Earlier, the Economic Community of West African States had denounced the “attempted coup d’état”, saying it condemned “in the strongest terms the attempt to seize power by force and calls on the coup plotters to free the democratically elected president”.
A close associate of Bazoum who was in contact with him on Wednesday said the president had woken and had his breakfast as normal but was then prevented by the presidential guard from leaving his home. He said he was “shocked” by the turn of events.
Since his election, Bazoum, who comes from a minority Arab clan, had been slowly consolidating a fragile power base by making his own appointments to important positions in the security apparatus.
Several people appointed by Mahamadou Issoufou, Bazoum’s predecessor, had been quietly sidelined or retired. A move to retire the head of the presidential guard, which was to have been announced on Wednesday morning, might have triggered the rebellion, observers said.
“Bazoum has been navigating a delicate political path,” said Paul Melly, a specialist on the Sahel region at the Chatham House think-tank.
Under Bazoum, he said, the army had received money, equipment and training from Europe and the US, and had been far more effective at keeping the jihadi insurgency at bay than counterparts in Mali or Burkina Faso.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy from Brussels