Apanews met leaders of the “resistance” against the coup that overthrew Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum at the end of July. Here’s their story.
By special correspondent: Lemine Ould M. Salem, Paris
At this discreet table in the back of a chic Paris café on the Rive Gauche, where the two men received the rare journalists they agree to talk to, the phones never stop vibrating. But that evening, the duo answered only a handful of calls, the originators of which we’ll never know, although we can guess that they were most likely related to the situation that has prevailed in their country, Niger, since July 26. On that day, Rhissa Ag Boula and Ousmane Abdoul Moumouni, until then Minister of State at the Presidency and Special Advisor to the head of state respectively, woke up abroad to news that President Mohamed Bazoum, elected in February 2021 had been overthrown.
Bazoum benefitted from the first peaceful transfer of democratic power through the ballot box in Niger.
However the country is now on the list of “African champions” of successful or failed coups, after Bazoum was prevented from entering his office by the head of his presidential guard, General Abdourrahmane Thiani, known as Oumar Tiani who ended up replacing him as the country’s leader.
Reasons for a “stupid” coup
What President Bazoum’s supporters hoped would be a simple ‘change of mood’ by the head of the presidential guard, as initially announced by his entourage, turned out to be a military coup.
“It is the stupidest coup that has ever taken place in Africa. General Thiani had asked to go abroad to take a staff course, a classic course for a senior officer of his rank that he should have completed long ago. Bazoum asked him to propose a replacement during his training, which the general did. Bazoum was not convinced by the proposed officer’s profile and did not accept. The general took the president’s refusal as a personal affront, especially since rumours were already circulating in the president’s entourage accusing him of treason. So it was a coup for personal convenience,” complains Ousmane Abdoul Moumouni.
The 47-year0old is the spokesman for the Resistance Council for the Republic (CRR), an organisation created in Paris on August 9 to restore the ousted president to power. The young adviser is the main driving force behind the group, along with his older brother, Rhissa Ag Boula, 66, who holds the leadership.
“Bazoum is a philosopher by training. He is first and foremost an intellectual. He’s also a man who is very attached to certain values, such as loyalty and fidelity. Since Thiani was appointed to his post by Mahamadou Issoufou, to whom he remained loyal throughout his two terms as president of the republic, Bazoum, who has been linked to Issoufou for more than thirty years, didn’t want to know why General Thiani wouldn’t remain loyal to him until the end,” explains Rhissa Ag Boula, who, before becoming a “statesman,” made a name for himself in Niger by leading several Tuareg-dominated rebellions in the north of the country.
The first lasted from 1990 to 1995, the second from 2007 to 2010.
More than a month and a half after this “totally illegitimate coup d’état, deeply dangerous for the entire Sahel region,” according to the initial reaction of French President Emmanuel Macron, the rebels, now organised under a National Council for the Protection of the Homeland (CNSP), appear to be consolidating their hold on the country.
Having proclaimed General Thiani head of state, they have also appointed a prime minister and a “transitional government.”
Junta accused of manipulating Nigeriens
Moreover, they have managed to convince part of the population, particularly in the capital Niamey, to rally behind them with sovereigntist, pan-African and anti-imperialist slogans. Today, thousands of citizens take turns, day and night, at the Escadrille roundabout opposite Niamey’s military airport to demand the departure of the 1,500 French troops, some of whom are stationed there at the request of President Bazoum.
Their presence there followed the transformation of the Barkhane force in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the authorities in power after recent coups, had demanded and then obtained its withdrawal from those two countries.
“The demonstrations in support of the junta are limited to the city of Niamey. Niger is much larger and more populous than the capital. If these supporters were the majority in the country, why is the military preventing those opposed to the coup from demonstrating? It’s because they know that the majority of Nigeriens are hostile to them,” reasons Ousmane Abdoul Moumouni.
“The pro-coup demonstrators all come from the same neighbourhoods. These are areas of the capital where military families have lived since independence. For many decades, the army was dominated by members of a single ethnic group. With the democratisation of the political system, officers from this ethnic group regularly see power pass into the hands of presidents from other communities. Many of them have never accepted this situation. They are the ones behind these demonstrators,” Rhissa Ag Boula alleges.
From the first hours after the coup against Bazoum, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened military intervention to restore the deposed president. At a “special summit” held four days after the coup, heads of state of the West African regional bloc even gave the coup plotters a firm deadline of one week to restore constitutional order, declaring that they could not rule out the “use of force.”
Following in the footsteps of France and the European Union (EU), two of Niger’s main partners who immediately announced the suspension of cooperation with Niamey, ECOWAS also announced financial sanctions, including the suspension of “all commercial and financial transactions” between its member states and Niger, as well as “a freeze on the assets of military officials involved in the coup,” according to the communiqué read at the end of the extraordinary summit chaired by the president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu. The regional organisation also decided to close all member countries’ borders with Niger.
“ECOWAS waited too long…”
The reluctance of some members and warnings from Niger’s neighbours such as Algeria and Chad about the consequences of a possible military intervention have apparently forced ECOWAS to do a rethink and suspend its plans to use armed force against the putschists.
“ECOWAS waited too long. So did the country’s other partners, especially since General Tiani initially did not have the support of the other army and security forces. A quick intervention would have forced him to abandon his scheme, unless he was suicidal,” insists Ousmane Abdoul Moumouni, looking at his elder as if trying to change his mind, even though the latter has just argued at length about his deep doubts about the military capabilities of the countries in the regional organisation.
“In West Africa, with a few exceptions, we only have Mexican armies,” the former rebel leader complains, denouncing “the plethora of hierarchies, disorganisation and anarchy that reign in most West African armies, just as they did in the Mexican revolutionaries of 1910.”
At that time, two regional armies were fighting against the central power in Mexico City: one in the north, commanded by Pancho Villa, and the other in the south, led by Emiliano Zapata. A multitude of generals, colonels, and commanders with no military training anarchically led troops composed essentially of peones, peasants and day labourers whom they could promote or demote overnight.
“The solution cannot come from ECOWAS. It will inevitably come from elsewhere,” insists the former Tuareg rebel leader to his younger brother, who, he says, “continues to believe in a possible ECOWAS intervention.”
And what if the solution were to come from a political initiative? For the two pro-Bazoum “resistance fighters,” “the most important thing is a return to constitutional order.”
What do they think of the mediation that Mahamadou Issoufou, the ousted president’s predecessor and former mentor, is said to have undertaken from the first day of the coup, even though a large section of their camp suspects him of having played a decisive role in the coup against Bazoum?
“It is a bad accusation that is being made against Issoufou with the aim of creating divisions in President Bazoum’s camp. The two men have been friends for over thirty years and consider each other brothers. General Thiani has always been Mahamadou Issoufou’s most trusted advisor. It was Issoufou who appointed him head of the presidential guard, and Bazoum kept him in that post. He is therefore close to both men.
He is in the best position to try to find a negotiated solution between them. But to succeed in this mission, he can’t afford to condemn either of them. You can’t play mediator if you’ve already chosen a side. Issoufou has been criticised for not publicly condemning the coup. By doing so, he closes the door on any possibility of talks with the putschists. He’s in an extremely delicate situation,” Rhissa Ag Boula explains at length, while his younger brother looks on in agreement.
Because of the hostility of the French government towards them, the new authorities have recently denounced several military agreements signed with France, particularly those concerning the “stationing” of the French detachment and the “status” of the soldiers present as part of the anti-jihadist fight in the Sahel. In the capital Niamey, the regular demonstrations in support of the putschists are all punctuated by anti-French slogans, while Russian flags are waved, suggesting that the Niger junta may be following in the footsteps of the colonels in Bamako who, after seizing power in May 2021, called in fighters from the controversial Russian private military company Wagner, before demanding and obtaining the withdrawal of French troops a few months later.
“There is a huge difference between the Niamey coup plotters and those in Bamako and even Ouagadougou. The latter can, without risking much, be subjected to all kinds of individual sanctions with little impact on their lives. They came to power without having had time to accumulate assets abroad. This is not the case for the Nigerien officers involved in the coup against Bazoum. Most of them have spent a long time in lucrative positions where they have accumulated a lot of money and assets, much of it invested in Western countries. They therefore have no interest in bringing in the Russian or Wagnerian military to risk losing access to their assets in Europe or North America.
They may well have their supporters make appeals to Russia or other foreign powers. But they’ll never be able to go all the way and bring them to Niger to replace the Western armies that are there,” Rhissa Ag Boula explains.
“If they were really determined to bring the Russians to Niger, why don’t the demonstrators they are manipulating demand the departure of the American military that has been present in the country for several years?” Ousmane Abdoul Moumouni says inquiringly.
“If no one wants to take responsibility (…), we won’t.”
In their press release issued in Paris on August 8, the two leaders of the CRR called for the arrest of the leader of the coup, General Thiani. So far, their call has not been heeded.
“If no one wants to take responsibility for restoring President Bazoum to his rightful position as President of the Republic of Niger, it won’t be us. We have support throughout the country, including the army, the security forces and the administration, not to mention the population. For security reasons, we are the only ones who appear in public. But when the moment of truth comes, you’ll be surprised. Given the hesitation of the country’s international partners, there’s a good chance that this moment will come very soon,” threatens the former rebel, who was convicted several times, raising the serious prospect of a new armed rebellion in Niger.