Biden calls for immediate release of Niger's president amid apparent coup

ByMorgan Winsor ABCNews logo
Thursday, August 3, 2023

U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday called for the immediate release of Niger's democratically elected head-of-state amid an apparent coup there.

Biden released the statement on the 63rd anniversary of Niger's independence from its former colonial ruler, warning that the West African nation is now "facing a grave challenge to its democracy."

"In this critical moment, the United States stands with the people of Niger to honor our decades-long partnership rooted in shared democratic values and support for civilian-led governance," Biden said. "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."

"Defending fundamental democratic values, and standing up for constitutional order, justice and the right of peaceful assembly, are essential to the partnership between Niger and the United States," he added. "I call for President Bazoum and his family to be immediately released, and for the preservation of Niger's hard-earned democracy."

On July 26, a group of mutinous soldiers led by the commander of Niger's presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, placed Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and his family under house arrest in the capital of Niamey. They then announced on Nigerien state television that they have "put an end to the regime" of Bazoum due to "the continuing degradation of the security situation, the bad economic and social governance." The group, which calls itself the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, said "all institutions" have been suspended, aerial and land borders have been closed and a curfew has been imposed until the situation is stabilized.

"The defense and security forces are managing the situation. All external partners are asked not to interfere," Tchiani, flanked by soldiers, said in the televised statement.

Bazoum's apparent ousting marks the seventh attempted coup in West and Central Africa since 2020 and throws into question the future of Niger, a landlocked country that has had four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. Bazoum was elected to office in 2021 in Niger's first peaceful democratic transfer of power.

Over the past week, the streets of Niger's capital have erupted in chaos as hundreds of people have marched in support of the president while chanting "No coup d'etat." Thousands of others have also come out in support of the junta, waving Russian flags and holding signs that read "Down with France." Protesters have also burned down a door and smashed windows at the French embassy in Niamey before being dispersed by Nigerien soldiers. France has since evacuated its citizens from Niger.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional body comprised of 15 West African countries, announced sanctions against Niger on July 30 and threatened to use force if the coup leaders don't reinstate Bazoum within one week. The African Union and the United Nations have also issued statements condemning the apparent coup.

Senior officials within the U.S. Department of State told ABC News on Thursday that ECOWAS is creating plans for military action if it becomes necessary but sees it as a very last resort. While large-scale demonstrations are taking place in Niamey, the protests have been largely peaceful and paid demonstrators may be involved, according to the officials.

Guinea, a nearby nation that has been under military rule since 2021, issued a statement on July 30 expressing support for Niger's junta and urging ECOWAS to "come to its senses." On July 31, the military-ruled governments of Burkina Faso and Mali, which share borders with Niger, released a joint statement denouncing the ECOWAS sanctions as "illegal, illegitimate and inhumane," refusing to apply them, and also warned that "any military intervention against Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali."

The U.S. government has said the ongoing situation in Niger remains "fluid," describing it as an "attempted takeover." Since the events unfolded, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken via telephone with Bazoum several times -- most recently on Wednesday -- as well as with other leaders in West Africa.

"We've seen a military junta attempt to seize control of the country and attempt to remove the democratically elected leader from power. We have been trying our utmost to reverse that situation," U.S. Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a press briefing on Wednesday. "We are trying to resolve this situation peacefully."

Later Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State announced it was "ordering the temporary departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and eligible family members from the U.S. Embassy in Niamey" out of an "abundance of caution." The embassy, however, would remain open for limited, emergency services to U.S. citizens there. Routine consular services were suspended and Americans were being advised not to travel to Niger.

"Commercial flight options are limited," Miller said in a statement on Wednesday evening. "We updated our travel advisory to reflect this and informed U.S. citizens that we are only able to provide emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Niger given our reduced personnel."

Senior officials within the U.S. Department of State told ABC News on Thursday that the current plan is to evacuate non-essential staff and relatives as well as some private citizens on a private charter plane departing Niamey on Friday afternoon. There is expected to be space for all Americans requesting to leave Niger, according to the officials.

Nigerien authorities have been cooperative thus far in coordinating departing flights for European countries and that is expected to be the case for the U.S., the officials said.

U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder issued a statement on Thursday, clarifying that the U.S. Department of State's ordered departure has no impact on American forces in Niger.

There are currently 1,100 U.S. military personnel in Niger as part of a long-running counterterrorism mission that trains the Nigerien military and runs drone operations from a large base in the city of Agadez, located in the Sahara desert. Those operations have been suspended in the wake of the apparent coup, namely the drone activity since Niger's airspace has been closed below 24,000 feet.

Bazoum's government has been a key ally to both the U.S. and Europe in the fight against violent extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa's Sahel region. The U.S. Department of Defense said it has provided $500 million in military assistance to Niger since 2012, "one of the largest" security assistance and training packages in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso and Mali, have ousted the French military and instead enlisted the help of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization.

In a voice message posted last Thursday on social media channels linked to Wagner, the group's founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, appeared to endorse the coup in Niger and offer the services of his fighters to the junta.

So far, there has been no indication that Prigozhin's mercenaries have arrived in Niger, but the U.S. Department of State is aware of unverified reports that leaders of the Nigerien junta have traveled abroad to seek assistance from Wagner, according to Miller.

"I would not be surprised to see Wagner attempt to exploit this situation to their own advantage, as they've attempted to exploit other situations in Africa to their own advantage," Miller told reporters during Wednesday's press briefing. "And when I say to their own advantage, I mean to their own personal financial advantage as well as their attempt to expand their influence on the continent. But I would add that any attempt by the military leaders in Niger to bring the Wagner forces into Niger would be a sign -- yet another sign -- that they do not have the best interests of the Nigerien people at heart."

ABC News' Shannon K. Crawford, Aicha El Hammar Castano, Luis Martinez, Emma Ogao and Joe Simonetti contributed to this report.

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