An army unit in Niger tried to seize the presidential palace in Niamey overnight in an attempted coup, the Niger government said. According to several security sources who spoke to Reuters, the military members came from a nearby airbase and were forced back by presidential security forces. Order has now been restored.
The coup attempt comes just days before the official handover of power in Niger and the swearing-in of President-elect Mohamed Bazoum.
“On the night of March 30-31, an attempted coup was thwarted,” the Niger government said in a statement, condemning “this cowardly and regressive act which sought to threaten democracy and the state of law.”
“The government condemns this coward and backward act that had the intention to attack the democracy and the rule of law that our state has embarked upon as we have seen during these recent elections which were democratic, free and fair and lauded as such by the international community,” the statement added.
On Friday, President-elect Bazoum is set to take the reins from President Mahamadou Issoufou, who stepped down after holding office for two five-year terms. This was slated to be Niger’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power. Neither of the two men was harmed in the assault on the presidential palace.
The results of the election were disputed by Bazoum’s opponent, Mahamane Ousmane.
The fighting at the presidential palace lasted only about 15 minutes. It involved heavy shooting and shelling of the coup’s forces before they were forced to flee back to their airbase. According to several reports, several military members were arrested. Authorities expect that the number will rise as they conduct an investigation.
“Several people have been arrested and others linked to the events are being actively sought,” government spokesman Abdourahmane Zakaria said in a statement.
The news outlet AFP quoted one witness who watched the fighting unfold. “It was around 3 a.m., we heard shots from heavy and light weapons and it lasted 15 minutes before stopping, followed by shots from light weapons,” the resident, who lives in the same Niamey Plateau District as the presidential palace, said.
The U.S. Embassy in Niger released a statement saying that it will remain closed due to gunshots in the area. “The security situation throughout Niger remains fluid in the post-election period with the possibility of unrest and/or intercommunal clashes around the country. There may be a corresponding increase in police presence and traffic delays on major roads. Please exercise caution,” the embassy further posted on its website. The French Embassy also urged its citizens to remain at home until further notice.
Niger is embroiled in a surge of Islamic jihadist violence that plagues all of the countries comprising the G5 Sahel (Niger, Mali, Mauritanitania, Chad, and Burkina Faso). Terrorists aligned with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are growing in power and presence and are attacking the outlying areas of the five countries.
In an attack that occurred in the Tahoua Region of Niger on March 21, 141 civilians were killed when insurgents on motorcycles and in pickup trucks attacked the town. This followed other deadly attacks that have killed over 300 civilians since the start of the year.
The French-led coalition, part of Operation Barkhane which consists of military troops from several countries, has been struggling to contain the insurgency which has spread over a wide territory. The tri-border area of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso has been particularly suffering from the violence.