NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger ‘s ruling junta and civil society groups called on the nation to mobilize in the capital on Thursday to fight for the country’s freedom and push back against foreign interference.
“We are talking about the immediate departure of all foreign forces,” Mahaman Sanoussi, interim coordinator for the M62 civil society group that’s organizing the protest, told The Associated Press. “(We’ll mobilize) against all forms of threats to continue the struggle for the sovereignty of the people. The dignity of the Nigerian people will be respected by all without exception.”
The march falls on the West African nation’s independence day from its former colonial ruler, France, and as anti-French sentiment spikes, more than one week after mutinous soldiers ousted the country’s democratically elected president. Protests are expected throughout the capital, Niamey, to push back against foreign meddling.
The coup has been strongly condemned by Western countries, many of which saw Niger as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Africa’s Sahel region. Russia and Western countries have been vying for influence in the fight against extremism.
France has 1,500 soldiers in Niger who conduct joint operations with its military, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday, the new military ruler, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, lashed out at neighboring countries and the international community and called on the population to be ready to defend the nation.
Tchiani said Niger will face difficult times ahead and that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value. He called harsh sanctions imposed last week by the West African block known as ECOWAS illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented.
ECOWAS has also threatened to use force if ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who remains under house arrest, is not released and reinstated by Aug. 6.
In a closed door meeting on Wednesday, dozens of people from civil society organizations, professional groups and trade unions spoke with the coup leaders about their vision for the country. Sanoussi, from M62, was at the meeting and said the junta talked about their priorities for the nation, including securing it from violence.
But another civil society member at the same gathering who did not want to be named for security reasons told the AP they left feeling concerned. They had a strong impression that the French military was going to be ousted soon and that members of civil society groups would help the junta do it.
During the meeting, Tchiani spent a long time speaking about the history of foreign military presence in the region, discussing France’s involvement without naming it specifically, and asked those present to help maintain the country’s integrity. Tchiani also didn’t seem concerned that ECOWAS would intervene or that President Bazoum would resign — which he has yet to do — noting he was no longer in power, the civil society members said.
Even if the junta demands the withdrawal of French troops — as they did in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which are run by military leaders — it wouldn’t make a difference, said Anne-Claire Legendre, a spokesperson for the French foreign minister during a press briefing on Wednesday.
“We don’t answer to the putschists. We recognize one constitutional order and one legitimacy only, that of President Bazoum,” she said.
Ahead of Thursday’s demonstration, the French Embassy in Niamey asked Niger’s government to take all measures to ensure the security and protection of its premises after it was attacked by protesters last week and a door was set on fire.
Demonstrators in Niger are openly resentful of France and have been waving Russian flags during protests. Some see Russia and its Wagner mercenary group, which operates in a handful of African countries, including Mali, as a powerful alternative. The new junta leaders have not said whether they intend to ally themselves with Moscow or stick with Niger’s Western partners.
As tensions grow in the capital and the region, many European countries announced the evacuations of their citizens.
By late Wednesday night, nearly 1,000 people had left on four flights and a fifth evacuation was underway, France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The State Department on Wednesday ordered what it said was the temporary departure of nonessential embassy staff and some family members from Niger as a precaution. It said its embassy would remain open. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said late Wednesday that the State Department had not requested U.S. military assistance for the departure.
Nigeriens are now bracing for what’s ahead. The sanctions announced by ECOWAS included halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90% of its power from neighboring Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Earlier this week, power transmission from Nigeria to Niger was cut off, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the issue. The official did not clarify how much of Niger’s power the cut represented, but any reduction would further squeeze citizens in the impoverished country of more than 25 million people.
On Wednesday, the president’s party accused the junta of cutting off electricity to his residence since that morning. “As a result, the president of the republic and his family no longer benefit from the rotating supply of energy,” said Kalla Ankourao, the ruling party’s general secretary.
Associated Press reporter Zane Irwin in Dakar, Senegal contributed