NIAMEY, Aug 6 (Reuters) – Niger’s coup was the culmination of months of friction between President Mohamed Bazoum and his top bodyguards over the leader’s attempts to step out of his predecessor’s shadow, people familiar with the matter said.
Since taking over from his political godfather Mahamadou Issufu in 2021, Bazum has sought to consolidate his authority in the West African country by sidelining a number of senior figures in both the military and public administration.
This assertiveness has become his Achilles’ heel.
When the head of his powerful presidential guard, Gen. Abdurahamman Tiani, feared he was next in line to strike, he turned on his boss, confident that other military commanders would eventually fall in line, people familiar with the matter said.
This account of how the coup unfolded in Niger is based on 15 interviews with Nigerien security officials, politicians, and current and former Western government officials.
Neither Tiani nor Bazoom could be reached for comment. In his first address since the July 26 coup, Tiani said he had ousted the president for the good of the country.
Since coming to power, Bazum has increased military cooperation with France and the United States, curtailed the autonomy of Niger’s army commanders, and launched anti-corruption programs targeting some of Issufu’s protégés, particularly in the oil sector, making enemies in the process.
Tiani, who was Issoufou’s bodyguard chief for a decade and helped foil a coup days before Bazoum took over, remained in his post under the new president, commanding the most powerful and best-equipped force based in the capital, Niamey.
But in recent months, Bazum has reduced the size of the presidential guard, which numbered around 700 at the time of the coup, and has begun reviewing his budget.
Eager to save his own skin, Tiani, a man who had worked his way up the ranks and had been appointed general by Isufu, told several selected commanders of his coup plans to ensure that other branches of the army would not oppose him , said two people familiar with the coup plotter’s thinking.
Reuters was unable to determine which commanders were briefed by Tiani.
Tiani also waited for large numbers of soldiers to be sent from Niamey to Diffa, a 20-hour drive on Niger’s southeastern outskirts, to take part in Independence Day celebrations planned for Aug. 3, the two said.
Indeed, on July 27, a day after Tiani’s presidential guard isolated Bazum in his residence, Niger’s army command said it had rallied behind the coup to avoid a deadly confrontation between different forces.
Spokesmen for the junta and the army command did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Any lingering domestic opposition to Tiani becoming head of state has fallen away, although the country’s new administration is still at odds with the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Niger’s fifth coup in 50 years is a blow against former colonial ruler France and the United States, which together have more than 2,000 troops in the country and use it as a base to launch attacks against jihadists in the vast and volatile Sahel.
It follows military takeovers in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso over the past three years, which forced France to withdraw thousands of troops – some were moved to Niger – and allowed Russia to increase its influence in the region.
It was not clear from Reuters interviews whether Tiani had discussed his plans with Issoufou, a towering political figure in West Africa who retains enormous influence in Niger.
Issufu was elected in 2011, a year after a previous military coup. He won plaudits for stepping down in 2021 after two terms, paving the way for Niger’s first democratic transition to a new leader since independence.
Speculation that Issufu knew of Tiani’s intentions swirled around the capital after the coup because he remained silent for several days.
Issufu has grown increasingly frustrated with Bazum’s efforts to chart his own course, several people familiar with the matter said. Two allies of Issufu recall hearing the former president complain about Bazum’s reluctance to accept his proposals for running the country and particularly its oil sector.
Reuters was unable to reach Isufu for comment. A person close to the former president said he initially refrained from speaking publicly about the rebellion because he was trying to mediate between Tiani and Bazum.
The person, who declined to be identified, denied Issoufou had anything to do with the coup and pointed to the junta’s decision to arrest his son, the oil and energy minister, on July 31 as evidence that the former president was not in collusion with Tiani .
On July 30, four days after the coup, Issoufou broke his silence, saying in social media posts that he had been involved in mediation and calling for Bazum to be reinstated.
Since then, Isufu has not released any information about his efforts.
For Bazoum, July 26 started out as a typical day. He had breakfast at his residence, which is located in the presidential guard compound in central Niamey, according to one of the many current and former Western officials who spoke to the president by phone afterward.
Bazum was about to head to his nearby office when he noticed something was wrong: Tiani’s soldiers had surrounded his house. The president hurried to the residence’s safe room, equipped with secure communications, the person said.
After several hours, when it became clear that no one would come to his rescue, Bazoom joined his family in the main part of the residence, which was still surrounded, the person said.
Shortly after detaining Bazum, Tiani instructed Salifu Modi, a general who was stripped of his role as chief of staff of Niger’s armed forces by the president in April, to contact other branches of the security services and secure their support, four people familiar with the matter said.
Modi was appointed Niger’s envoy to the United Arab Emirates in June, an appointment widely seen as a demotion, although he never left Niger to take up his new role.
It was not clear whether Modi, who is listed as Tiani’s deputy in the junta’s organizational chart, was among the few commanders briefed before the coup.
Reuters was unable to reach Modi for comment.
That morning, as news of the coup spread around Niamey, former president Issoufou contacted Tiani, offering to serve as an intermediary, two people familiar with the matter said.
He then met with Bazum and shared his impression that Tiani had succumbed to a “mood swing,” something he could help resolve, the person close to Isufu said.
THE SIEGE IS LIFTED
Meanwhile, after Niger’s prime minister left the country, Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudeau took the initiative to free Bazum, people familiar with the matter said. He did not respond to messages for comment.
Around midday on July 26, a post on the social media account of Niger’s presidency said Bazum and his family were fine – and that the army and national guard were ready to attack the rebel soldiers if they did not withdraw.
Soon after, several hundred Bazum supporters gathered in a square in downtown Niamey and later marched on the presidential palace. The protesters called on the rioters to release the president and return to their barracks.
Later that day, National Guard troops took up positions around the compound where Bazoom was being held.
But around 9 p.m., the rebels released a video on state television. Clad in a blue military jacket and flanked by nine officers, the little-known Colonel Amadou Abdraman said Bazum had been removed from power, all institutions of the republic had been suspended and Niger’s borders had been closed.
Almost all the various branches of Niger’s security apparatus had a member in the group, including the police, the army, the air force and the presidential guard. Ahmad Siddien, the second in command of the National Guard, was also present.
The next day, Niger’s military command announced it was siding with the junta, and the National Guard ended its siege of the presidential guard compound – as Tiani had hoped would happen.
Tiani, who chose to stay in the background until he secured public support from other commanders, according to the two people familiar with the plot, appeared on television on July 28.
In a brief address, he said the junta’s motivation was to protect the homeland, accusing Niger’s government of failing to address security issues.
But with ECOWAS threatening to launch military action if the coup is not called off by Sunday, Tiani may soon face a very different threat.
Reporting by Moussa Axar in Niamey, David Lewis in Nairobi and David Gauthier-Villers in Istanbul; Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris and Edward McAllister in Dakar; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and David Clarke
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