NIAMEY, Niger — A State Department official said Saturday that the attempted military coup in Niger has been marked by “confusion, shifting alliances and fluidity,” and that uncertainty is one reason the U.S. government has not declared it a coup.
Nigerien soldiers said Wednesday they had overthrown the country’s democratically elected leader, Mohamed Bazoum, with troops surrounding the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey. The U.S. said the rebelling soldiers had detained Bazoum in what African organizations called an attempted coup.
There does not appear to be prior coordination and pre-planning, and, in fact, the underlying issue is a personal dispute between the Presidential Guard commander — and self-proclaimed leader of Niger, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani — and Bazoum, according to the State Department official.
“The Presidential Guard commander, who thought he was going to be fired by Bazoum, and, in fact, in the past Bazoum has attempted to dismiss him, surrounded the presidential residence and effectively is keeping the President and his family hostage,” the official said.
At first the U.S. believed nobody in the military or security services supported this, but on the second day it “ballooned a bit,” the official said, making it unclear where Nigerien allies’ allegiances actually were.
U.S. officials spoke with Nigerien officials who said they were acting to ensure the president and his family are not hurt and there was no conflict with the military and civilians, the official continued. Some members of the military appear to have sided with the Presidential Guard but “it’s not clear how widespread this is.”
In the first 24 hours, U.S. contacts were saying no one was interested in a coup, but by the second day, the concern was that the situation could degenerate, and the president could be harmed or the armed forces could fight amongst themselves, “a situation nobody wanted to see,” the official said. “It’s fluid and that’s why we’re trying to be very forceful in supporting the region and calling for this to be arrested and reversed.”
Despite the “unpredictable situation,” the official continued, "there seems to be a sincere effort to avoid violence and avoid conflict by the military leaders involved in this discussion" and "there’s a lot of strong resistance to this effort of basically what appears to be a few guys with unclear grievances."
Now, U.S. officials are looking to leadership in neighboring Nigeria to help resolve this.
The Nigerians sent a delegation to participate in the negotiations soon after Bazoum was taken hostage. Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has called a summit of heads of state in the country's capital, Abuja, on Sunday to meet and discuss how to turn this around.
The U.S. will have a State Department official present. And the Chiefs of Defense from several neighboring countries are expected to travel back to Niamey to help negotiate after the summit.
Nigeria is “extremely influential” in Niger, the official said, and “we think there is really an opportunity for the Africans to engage with the Nigerian military leaders who are walking down this path to see if can be reversed.”
The official added that the U.S. has been sending a clear message to those behind the coup: “you need to be very clear about the consequences of moving down this path. Your partnership with the United States is at risk ... the consequences will be severe.”
If the U.S. deems this a military coup, the U.S. will freeze more than $400 million in aid that was earmarked for the West African nation, and cease security and other cooperation, which could jeopardize security and non-security partnerships in the country.
The European Union has cut off financial support to the country — one of the poorest in the world — following this week's events. The regional concern is that halting security support will impact security around the region.
The turmoil in Niger jeopardizes a yearslong effort by the United States, France and other Western countries to combat Boko Haram and affiliates of the Islamic State and al Qaeda terrorist groups. It could also offer Russia a chance to bolster its influence after forging ties with other military juntas in West Africa through its Wagner Group paramilitaries.
There is still no indication that Russia or the Wagner Group were involved in this coup.
The State Department official said the U.S. continues to hope the situation remains largely peaceful: “It’s not clear what’s happening yet and we’re going to try and shape the environment in a better direction.”
“I don’t know if we can achieve the outcome we hope to achieve.”