Niger’s newly-elected president Mohamed Bazoum was sworn into office on Friday, a democratic watershed overshadowed by jihadist violence and an alleged coup bid.
The inauguration marked the first-ever transition between elected presidents in Niger’s six decades of independence from France — a historic moment that has been widely praised.
But the Sahel country’s instability and insecurity have been deeply underscored in the run-up to Friday’s ceremony.
In the early hours of Wednesday, after gunfire broke out near the presidency in the capital Niamey, the government announced an “attempted coup” had been thwarted — a “cowardly and regressive act which sought to threaten democracy and the state of law”.
The alleged coup leader is an air force officer in charge of security at Niamey’s air base and is being “actively sought”, a source within Niger’s security services told AFP on Wednesday.
Another security source said “a few members of the army” had been behind the coup but had been prevented from approaching the presidential palace by the elite Presidential Guard.
“Some arrests” were made, the source said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was among worried foreign leaders, calling on the armed forces “to strictly abide by their constitutional obligations”.
The inauguration ceremonies took place in the Niamey International Conference Centre.
Several foreign presidents were expected, while France — Niger’s closest ally in its fight against jihadism — was due to send its foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
– World’s poorest country –
Bazoum, 61, is a former interior minister and right-hand man of outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou, 68, who has voluntarily stepped down after two five-year terms.
But his most formidable rival, former premier Hama Amadou, was banned from running because of a conviction for baby trafficking — a charge he has branded politically motivated.
Bazoum won a runoff vote for the presidency in February with 55.6 percent of the ballot, according to official results contested by his opponent, Mahamane Ousmane.
Bazoum was born at Bilabrine in the southeastern Diffa region and is a member of Niger’s ethnic Arab minority, which some opposition figures seized on during the campaign to accuse him of having “foreign” origins.
Angered by the taunt, he exclaimed to AFP: “I am Nigerien and I am an Arab at the same time!”
“I don’t think this reaped any benefit for my critics. It gave them the shameful image of people channelling racist arguments,” he added.
Niger is the poorest country in the world, according to the benchmark of the UN’s 189-nation Human Development Index (HDI).
The West African nation has suffered four coups in its history, most recently a February 2010 putsch which toppled then president Mamadou Tandja.
It has also been ravaged by repeated jihadist attacks, from insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, crossing from Mali and Burkina Faso in the west, and to Boko Haram, crossing from Nigeria in the southeast.
More than 300 people have been killed in three attacks in the west since the start of the year.
Bazoum has ruled out any talks with the jihadists.
“We cannot envisage any dialogue of any kind so long as there is a single Nigerien jihadist chief, a single jihadist base on our territory,” he said in a recent interview with the French media channels RFI and France 24. AFP