NIAMEY, Niger — A junta that seized power in a coup in the West African nation of Niger today named a platoon commander as its leader, hours after soldiers announced on state TV that their group was in charge of the uranium-rich country.
Former colonial ruler France and the African Union both condemned Thursday’s coup, when armed soldiers stormed the presidential palace in a hail of gunfire during broad daylight and kidnapped the country’s strongman leader. The whereabouts of President Mamadou Tandja remained unknown.
In a statement today, the junta calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy said it was being led by Salou Djibo, a commander of a platoon based near the capital.
The junta has said it wants to turn Niger into “an example of democracy and of good governance.” A diplomat in the region described the coup’s leaders as being part of an army faction that is deeply disillusioned with Tandja for violating his constitutionally mandated term limit.
The country has become increasingly isolated since then, with the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states suspending Niger from its ranks and the U.S. government cutting off non-humanitarian aid and imposing travel restrictions on some government officials.
However, there are also fears that the military group could attempt to cling to power in Niger, as the junta in Guinea did following a December 2008 coup. The coup leader there first promised to hold elections in which he would not run, only to later suggest he may have changed his mind. Only a year later, he went into voluntarily exile after his aide-de-camp tried to assassinate him.
The African Union’s top executive, Jean Ping, condemned the coup in Niger and said today that the AU “demands a quick return to constitutional order.”
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said France “condemns any seizure of power by non-constitutional methods.”
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tandja may have invited his own fate by “trying to extend his mandate in office.”
Both the United States and ECOWAS have expressed our concerns about that, and obviously that may well have been an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today,” Crowley said Thursday, while adding that the U.S. does not defend the violent takeover. ECOWAS is the regional bloc of 15 West African countries.
In their broadcast on state TV, the soldiers said the country was under a curfew and all its borders have been sealed.
Even the private plane of the Senegalese foreign minister was prevented from landing in Niger by the army, said Senegalese government spokesman Bamba Ndiaye. The minister had been dispatched by Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, whom ECOWAS named as mediator for Niger’s political crisis just days before.
Banks and shops in the capital were open today, though, and traffic was normal.
It was unclear where Niger’s septuagenarian president was. French radio station Radio France Internationale reported that the soldiers had politely escorted Tandja outside to a waiting car, which drove him toward a military camp on the outskirts of the capital.
During Niger’s 1999 coup, though, the country’s military strongman was killed in a hail of heavy machine gunfire at Niamey’s airport as he prepared to board a helicopter. Official announcements at the time insisted it was an “unfortunate accident.”
A diplomat in neighboring Burkina Faso said the mutinous soldiers on Thursday had been led by Col. Abdoulaye Adamou Harouna, the former aide-de-camp of Niger’s previous coup leader Maj. Daouda Mallam Wanke. The diplomat asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
In Niamey, soldiers contacted by telephone inside their barracks said the coup was led by Col. Adamou Harouna, but gave a different first name — saying it was Djibril, not Abdoulaye. They did not confirm whether he was an aide to Wanke.
Wanke led Niger’s 1999 coup, but organized democratic elections less than a year later, which Tandja won. But instead of stepping down as mandated by law on Dec. 22, Tandja triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new constitution in August that removed term limits and gave him greater powers.