Hours after soldiers seized power in the West African nation of Niger, the country’s ousted president sounded a defiant note on Thursday morning, vowing to protect his “hard won” democratic gains, even as he was being held hostage in the presidential palace by his own guards.
But his army chief poured cold water on such hopes, saying in a statement that the army was backing the mutineers to avoid bloodshed and prevent infighting among the security forces.
The military command was supporting the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum “to avoid a deadly confrontation between the different forces which could provoke a blood bath and impinge on the security of the population,” Gen. Abdou Sikikou Issa, the army chief, said in the statement.
Mr. Bazoum, elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power, has been a key Western ally against surging Islamist militancy in the Sahel, an arid region plagued by the ravages of climate change and the failure of fragile states to provide opportunities for their exploding, youthful populations.
By Thursday evening, 36 hours after Mr. Bazoum disappeared from public view, power still hung in the balance in Niger, although his chances of reversing the coup appeared to be receding. Earlier in the day, a huge sandstorm rolled through the deserted streets of Niamey, where businesses remained closed, adding to the sense of uncertainty.
Some of Mr. Bazoum’s minister clung to hopes the coup could be reversed. “Everything can be achieved through dialogue,” the foreign minister, Hassoumi Massaoudou, told France24.
But the soldiers holding the president, who called themselves the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, made it clear they intended to press ahead with their plan.
After announcing on Wednesday that Niger’s borders would be closed, the government suspended and a nighttime curfew imposed, on Thursday the soldiers suspended all political activity in the country.
One notable exception to that ban: Hundreds of people who gathered to support the coup-makers in front of the national Parliament — the same location where a crowd of similar size came out for Mr. Bazoum on Wednesday. Some of the coup supporters waved Russian flags. The scene was reminiscent of the January 2022 coup in neighboring Burkina Faso, where the military has have moved closer to Moscow in recent months.
One prominent figure in Russia appeared to view the coup as an opportunity.
In an audio statement, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the mercenary leader whose Wagner private military company has spearheaded the Kremlin’s push into Africa in recent years, characterized the coup in Niger as “a battle by the people of Niger against their colonizers.”
Mr. Prigozhin, in a lengthy tirade, claimed that “colonizers” — an apparent reference to soldiers from France — wanted to keep Nigeriens “in the conditions that were in Africa hundreds of years ago.”
Mr. Prigozhin’s statement more closely resembled a business pitch: If foreign soldiers couldn’t bring order to Niger, he said, Wagner’s fighter could “bring about order” and protect civilians from terrorists.
Mr. Bazoum is relying partly on his Western allies to get through the crisis. In a call on Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken assured the beleaguered leader that he had Washington’s “unconditional support.”
The United States has at least 1,100 American troops and two drone bases in Niger, a cornerstone of the American campaign against Islamist militants in the Sahel. U.S. forces in Niger have been ordered to stay on their bases or headquarters unless it’s an emergency, said a U.S. military official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Bazoum was freely elected two years ago in the country’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power since independence from France in 1960.
As Islamist militant groups spread across the Sahel region in recent years, some based in Niger’s remote deserts, neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso turned to mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company to help push them back. But Mr. Bazoum stuck with France and the United States.
The coup had caught many by surprise.
A senior West African intelligence official said he was struggling to understand why the soldiers were disgruntled with Mr. Bazoum, given his focus on growing Niger’s economy and its military strength. Like several other officials, he declined to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Others pointed to signs of tensions inside the military. Rumors had been circulating for months that Mr. Bazoum intended to fire Omar Tchiani, the commander of the presidential guard, said J. Peter Pham, a former special U.S. envoy to the Sahel. The presidential guard is the branch that surrounded the palace on Wednesday and detained the president inside.
Rivalries inside the armed forces were also a factor, Mr. Pham said. Nigerien special forces trained by the United States, France and their allies have emerged as a new elite inside Niger’s military, and they are considered especially close to Mr. Bazoum, he said.
But the rise of the special forces was a source of resentment among more traditional military units, like the presidential guard — and when the mutineers began to move on Wednesday, the special forces units were stationed far from the capital, unable to rally to Mr. Bazoum’s defense, Mr. Pham said.
The leaders of West Africa’s remaining democracies, alarmed by the flurry of military coups in their backyard, still hope they can persuade the coup plotters to return to their barracks. President Patrice Talon of Benin was scheduled to arrive in Niamey on Thursday for mediation talks on behalf of ECOWAS, West Africa’s economic bloc.
But Mr. Talon’s whereabouts remained unclear late Thursday, and a spokesman for his government did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael R. Shurkin, a former C.I.A. analyst now at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit group in Washington said that Mr. Bazoumhad been “an ideal partner for Western powers” — competent, pragmatic about security, attentive to governance and economic issues, and democratically elected.
“It’s a terrible blow to the region,” he said.
Omar Hama Saley contributed reporting from Niamey, Niger and Paul Sonne from Berlin.