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President’s hostage misery brings home personal cost of Niger coup

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The coup that deposed Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum sent ripples from Abuja to Washington and unnerved regional leaders to such an extent that they threatened to invade.

But at the centre of the drama, say observers of the unfolding events, is a straightforward hostage situation, now in its 16th day.

The putsch began in the early hours on July 26 when heavily armed members of the elite presidential guard led by General Omar Tchiani surrounded the Arabesque whitewashed presidential palace and locked Bazoum in his residence, along with his wife and 20-year-old son.

For much of his time in captivity, Bazoum, a former teacher who dresses in a red fez and flowing robes, was allowed to maintain contact with the outside world, although he was warned that he would be killed along with his family if there were any attempt to free him.

According to an account from a family member relayed to the Financial Times via an intermediary, Bazoum got wind of the coup in the early hours when he was woken by a security guard who warned him that “there was trouble” and he should take refuge in the residence’s secure basement.

A group of soldiers fronted by Colonel Amadou Abdramane that evening appeared on Nigerien television to announce that Bazoum had been removed, with Tchiani proclaiming himself as the head of the new ruling junta a few days later.

Protesters gather in front of the French Embassy in Niamey during a demonstration that followed a rally in support of Niger’s junta © AFP via Getty Images

In those early days of confusion, Bazoum received calls from, among others, Antony Blinken, US secretary of state who visited him this year in the capital Niamey, and French president Emmanuel Macron, according to an associate who has kept in daily contact.

At one point he dictated an op-ed, later published in the Washington Post. “I write this as a hostage. Niger is under attack,” Bazoum pleaded. “I am just one of hundreds of citizens who have been arbitrarily and illegally imprisoned.”

However he was still able to maintain contact with the outside world, and was pictured smiling with Chad leader Mahamat Idriss Déby. His personal chef was also permitted to come and go, bringing in fresh supplies of the types of food — mainly fish and vegetables — that the president likes to eat.

That treatment stopped five days ago when the water and electricity supply to the residence was cut off, leaving Bazoum and his family in sweltering conditions, and deliveries of fresh food ceased. This has coincided with renewed pressure by the Nigeria-led Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which has ratcheted up the pressure on the junta to relinquish power and return to the constitutional arrangement.

Since then, according to his associate, Bazoum and his family have been eating canned food, dried pasta and rice and living in increasingly squalid conditions.

“Even now his spirits are still high,” the associate said, adding that Bazoum’s ability to communicate with the outside world were now more difficult, although not impossible. “He refuses to sign the [resignation] paper; he’ll never sign,” he said of attempts to force the president to quit.

General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, meeting with ousted Niger President Mohamed Bazoum
Mohamed Bazoum met with Mahamat Idriss Déby, president of Chad (left), during his captivity © Facebook/AFP/Getty Images

It is all a long way from the days when Bazoum, elected in 2021, enjoyed the privileges and protocols of a president.

Those ran from attending glitzy events in Washington and Paris, when he delighted audiences with his liberal take on girls’ education and the practice of polygamy, to visits to the furthest reaches of Niger, a country of desert and semi-desert twice the size of France.

On one such expedition to Diffa, in the far east, a part of the country where the terror group Boko Haram makes raids across the border from Nigeria, he was accompanied by a presidential sweeper who ensured that the red carpet on which he walked was free from desert sand.

On that trip, witnessed by the FT, he addressed troops protecting villagers from Boko Haram raids, telling them that the politicians in Niamey had not forgotten them.

The state would help local people move back into their gutted villages, he said. Within minutes of his departure, Boko Haram shot at the soldiers he had been addressing, according to accompanying officials.

Bazoum has been considered an ally of the west. Under his presidency Niger has continued with a programme to help stem the flow of refugees to Europe through Nigerien territory.

It has also remained committed to hosting US, French and European troops to aid in the fight against Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State spilling over Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso.

Bazoum defended the presence of French troops, now the subject of hostility by crowds who have come out in support of the coup in Niamey. “It’s true that French policy in Africa is not a great success right now,” he told the FT during an interview this year. “But is it France’s fault? I don’t think so.”

UN secretary-general António Guterres said this week he was “concerned” for Bazoum’s health and safety, as Ecowas, which on Thursday ordered troops to standby for a possible invasion, said it condemned the conditions in which he was being detained.

It warned that it held Tchiani’s self-proclaimed National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland “fully and solely responsible for the safety, security and physical integrity of President Bazoum and members of his family”.

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