NIAMEY, Niger (AP) – France prepared to evacuate French and European citizens from Niger on Tuesday, asking them to carry no more than a small bag, after a military coup that won the backing of three other West African nations ruled by mutinous soldiers.
The French Foreign Ministry in Paris cited recent violence targeting the French embassy in Niamey, the capital, as one of the reasons for the decision.
The closure of Niger’s airspace “also leaves our compatriots unable to leave the country by their own means,” the ministry said.
The evacuation takes place in the middle of a deeper crisis triggered by coup last week against Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.
The evacuation started on Tuesday for French and European citizens who want to leave, the French ministry said in a statement. It gave no other details. It estimates that several hundred French citizens are currently in Niger.
In hotels in the capital, French and other European citizens, including some who have worked in the country for years, packed their bags and awaited news of where and when the evacuation would take place.
“My job is not finished, I hope the situation will end and one day soon we can return,” a former French military official who now trains the Nigerian army as a civilian told The Associated Press. “This happened very quickly and nobody saw it coming. I was really surprised,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The West African regional body known as ECOWAS on Sunday announced travel and economic sanctions against Niger and said it would use force if cup conductors do not reinsert Bazoum within a week. Bazoum’s government was one of the West last democratic partners against West African extremists.
In a joint statement, the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso said that “any military intervention against Niger will be considered a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.”
Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, Mali’s Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, read the statement on Malian state television Monday night. The two countries also condemned the ECOWAS economic sanctions as “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane” and refused to apply them.
ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger as well as freezing Nigerian assets in regional central banks. Niger is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and sanctions could further poor its more than 25 million people.
Mali and Burkina Faso have each undergone two coups since 2020, when soldiers overthrew governments and claimed they could do a better job of combating rising jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. ECOWAS has sanctioned both countries and suspended them from the bloc, but has never threatened to use force.
Also on Sunday, Guinea, another country under military rule since 2021, issued a statement in support of Niger’s junta and called on ECOWAS to “come to its senses.”
“The sanctions measures proposed by ECOWAS, including military intervention, are an option that would not be a solution to the current problem but would lead to a human catastrophe whose consequences could extend beyond the borders of Niger,” said Ibrahima Sory Bangoura, General of the United States Government. brigade, in a statement from the ruling party. He added that Guinea would not apply the sanctions.
Niger’s coup will encourage jihadi violence, increase recruitment across the country and threaten regional stability, a former jihadi member said last week.
Moussa Boubacar, a former member of the Islamic State group, said the military overthrow is exactly what the jihadists want because it will distract and weaken the army. “Jihadists are very supportive of this coup that happened in Niger because it will allow them to become very strong,” he said.
Boubacar, who spoke to the AP in Niamey, is part of a nationwide program to bring back jihadists, reintegrate them into society and use their help to fight terrorism. It was spearheaded by Bazoum when he was interior minister and is intended as an alternative to a military solution to curb violence throughout the country. AP cannot confirm that Boubacar actively fought for the Islamic State.
In anticipation of the ECOWAS decision on Sunday, thousands of pro-junta supporters took to the streets in Niamey, condemning France, waving Russian flags along with signs reading “Down with France” and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin and asks the international community to stay away.
There has been no clear explanation for the references to Russia, but some protesters see the country as a symbol of their anti-Western sentiments.
Protesters also burned down a door and smashed windows at the French embassy before the Nigerian army dispersed them.
The evacuation was announced by the French embassy in an email sent to French citizens in Niamey. The message said the evacuation would be an airlift and that spouses and children of French nationals were also eligible. It asked people to pack a small bag per person and also take water, some food, phones and batteries.
Niger could follow in the footsteps of Mali and Burkina Faso, which both saw protesters waving Russian flags after their respective coups, analysts say. After the second coup in Burkina Faso in September, protesters also attacked the French embassy in the capital Ouagadougou and damaged and ransacked the Institut Francais, France’s international cultural promotion organization.
If ECOWAS uses force, it could also spark violence between civilians who support the coup and those against it, Niger analysts say.
While unlikely, “the consequences for civilians of such an approach, if putschists chose confrontation, would be catastrophic,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.
Lyammouri does not see a “military intervention happening because of the violence that could be unleashed,” he said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday praised the ECOWAS leadership’s decision to “defend the constitutional order in Niger” after the sanctions announcement, joining the bloc in calling for the immediate release of Bazoum and his family.
Also on Sunday, the junta’s spokesman banned Colonel Maj. Amadou Abdramane the use of social media to broadcast messages he described as harmful to the security of the state. He also claimed, without evidence, that Bazoum’s government had authorized the French to carry out strikes to liberate Bazoum.
Observers believe Bazoum is being held in his house in Niamey. The first pictures of him since the coup emerged on Sunday night, sitting on a sofa and smiling next to Chadian President Mahamat Deby, who had flown in to mediate between the government and the junta.
Both the United States and France have sent troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid in recent years to Niger, which was a French colony until 1960. The country was seen as the last ally with the West against extremism in a Francophone region where anti-French sentiment opened the way for Russian private military group Wagner.
After neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso expelled the French military and began working with Wagner mercenaries, Blinken visited Niger in March to strengthen ties and announce $150 million in direct aid, calling the country “a model of democracy.”
The US will consider cutting aid if the coup succeeds, the State Department said on Monday. Aid is “very much in the balance depending on the outcome of the actions in the country,” said department spokesman Matt Miller. “US assistance depends on continued democratic governance in Niger.”
The sanctions could be catastrophic and Niger needs to find a solution to avoid them, Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou told French media Radio France Internationale on Sunday.
“When people say there is an embargo, land borders are closed, air borders are closed, it is extremely difficult for people. … Niger is a country that is highly dependent on the international community,” he said.
In the capital, many people live in makeshift shelters tied together with slats of wood, sheets and plastic tarpaulins because they cannot pay rent. They struggle daily to earn enough money to feed their children.
Since the 1990s, the 15-nation ECOWAS has tried to protect democracies from the threat of coups, with mixed success.
Four nations are led by military governments in West and Central Africa, where there have been nine successful or attempted coups since 2020.
In the 1990s, ECOWAS intervened in Liberia during the civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa and one that left many wary of intervening in internal conflicts. In 2017, ECOWAS intervened in The Gambia to prevent the new president’s predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, from disrupting the transfer of power. About 7,000 soldiers from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal entered the country, according to the Global Observatory, which provides analysis on peace and security issues. The intervention was widely considered to have achieved its mission.
AP reporter John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.