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The head of Niger’s presidential guard has declared himself leader of the west African country after instigating the coup this week that deposed its pro-western leader.
Abdourahmane Tchiani, who has headed the presidential guard since 2015, led the revolt in Niger by barricading President Mohamed Bazoum inside his residence and demanding his resignation.
Tchiani appeared briefly on television on Friday to say that he had taken over the country because of deteriorating security, economic hardship and corruption.
The removal of Bazoum’s elected government snuffs out one of the last democracies in the “coup belt” across the semi-desert Sahel region, while dealing a blow to the west who invested heavily in keeping him in power.
The naming of Tchiani, 62, came as Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner Group, welcomed the coup in Niger and offered its new leaders the services of his mercenary group.
Speaking on a Wagner-associated Telegram channel, Prigozhin characterised the coup as “a battle by the people of Niger against their colonisers”, and said Wagner would do a better job of restoring order and destroying terrorists than French or US troops.
The removal of Bazoum, who was elected in 2021, spells the political end of an important western ally in the fight against a spreading threat from groups linked to Isis and al-Qaeda. Large swaths of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, both also controlled by military juntas, have been overrun by jihadist insurgents.
Bazoum had doubled down on Niger’s policy of allowing western military to operate inside the country. France has a large base in Niamey and the US maintains two drone bases, one near the desert city of Agadez, and 1,100 soldiers in the country. Germany has trained soldiers.
However, observers in the capital Niamey say Tchiani’s move was triggered after Bazoum sought to remove him from office as he approached retirement age. Bazoum, a former schoolteacher who comes from a minority Arab clan, has a weak political base and has struggled to assert his independence from his political mentor and predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou.
The coup in Niger has been strongly condemned by regional and international governments. Bazoum, who is still believed to be held inside his residence, has refused to sign a resignation letter, according to Nigerian diplomats and a person in regular contact.
The UN Security Council on Friday night called for Bazoum’s immediate and unconditional release.
“The members of the Security Council expressed concern over the negative impact of unconstitutional changes of government in the region, increase in terrorist activities and the dire socio-economic situation,” the body said in a statement.
But Ibrahim Yahaya, senior Sahel analyst at the Crisis Group think-tank, said: “There’s a pretty good chance that the coup is a done deal,” adding that diplomatic efforts to reverse this week’s events were unlikely to succeed. Foreign military intervention was also unlikely, he said.
The coup posed a dilemma to western leaders, Yahaya said. If they pushed too hard to isolate the military junta through sanctions — as had happened in Mali and Burkina Faso — they risked pushing the new leaders towards Moscow. In Mali, following the 2021 coup, the new regime expelled French troops and signed a contract with Wagner operatives.
“Western countries have to really go easy and try to find ways to collaborate with these countries just for the sake of not pushing them to the other side — which is Russia,” Yahaya said.