France, Italy and Spain have announced plans to evacuate their citizens from Niger, days after a junta seized power in the country.
This comes as two other West African nations ruled by mutinous soldiers, Mali and Burkina Faso, warned that any military intervention against the junta would be considered a "declaration of war".
The French Foreign Ministry in Paris cited recent violence that targeted 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 was starting Tuesday for French and European citizens who wish to leave, it said in a statement. The German Foreign Ministry has urged German citizens in Niger to board the evacuation planes offered by the French authorities.
Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani announced on Twitter that Italy would also arrange flights to evacuate its nationals from Niger's capital Niamey.
"The Italian government has decided to offer Italian nationals present in Niamey the possibility of leaving the city on a special flight to Italy. The Italian Embassy in Niamey will remain open and operational, also to contribute to the mediation efforts a course," Tajani said.
Later on Tuesday, the Spanish foreign ministry confirmed it would evacuate 70 of its citizens from Niger by planes, given the absence of commercial flights. The evacuations will begin Tuesday and could be extended to other EU nationals.
The three EU countries' decisions to evacuate come amid a deepening crisis sparked by the coup last week against Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.
A European Commission spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that EU personnel in Niger’s capital Niamey have been offered support to leave the city voluntarily, but that no decision on formally evacuating EU staff has yet been taken.
"The safety of EU citizens in Niger is our top priority," the spokesperson said.
The West African regional body known as ECOWAS announced travel and economic sanctions against Niger on Sunday and said it would use force if the coup leaders don’t reinstate Bazoum within one week. Bazoum's government was one of the West’s last democratic partners against West African extremists.
The European Commission confirmed that it had not yet received a request from ECOWAS to support travel and economic sanctions, but that it will analyse any request carefully, "with the purpose of determining of how best to respect the political commitments we have made."
In a joint statement, the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso said that "any military intervention against Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.”
Col. Abdoulaye Maiga, Mali's state minister for territorial administration and decentralization, read the statement on Malian state TV Monday evening. The two countries also denounced 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 Nigerien assets held in regional central banks. Niger relies heavily on foreign aid, and sanctions could further impoverish its more than 25 million people.
Mali and Burkina Faso have each undergone two coups since 2020, as soldiers overthrew governments claiming they could do a better job fighting increasing jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. ECOWAS has sanctioned both countries and suspended them from the bloc, but 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 urged ECOWAS to “come to its senses."Two West African nations ruled by mutinous soldiers said Monday that military intervention in Niger would be considered a “declaration of war” against them, as the junta attempts to consolidate power after a coup last week.
In anticipation of the ECOWAS decision Sunday, thousands of pro-junta supporters took to the streets in Niamey, denouncing France, waving Russian flags along with signs reading “Down with France” and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling the international community to stay away.
There has been no clear explanation of the Russian symbols, but the country seems to have become a symbol of anti-Western feelings for demonstrators.
Protesters also burned down a door and smashed windows at the French Embassy before the Nigerien army dispersed them.
Niger could be following in the same footsteps as Mali and Burkina Faso, say analysts, both of which saw protestors waving Russian flags after their respective coups. After the second coup in Burkina Faso in September, protestors 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 trigger violence between civilians supporting the coup and those against it, Niger analysts say.
While unlikely, “the consequences on civilians of such an approach, if putschists chose confrontation, would be catastrophic,” said Rida Lyammouri, a 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 trigger,” he said.
Blinken on Sunday commended the resolve of the ECOWAS leadership to “defend constitutional order in Niger” after the sanctions announcement and joined the bloc in calling for the immediate release of Bazoum and his family.
Also Sunday, junta spokesman Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane banned the use of social media to put out messages he describe as harmful to state security. He also claimed without evidence that Bazoum’s government had authorized the French to carry out strikes to free Bazoum.
Observers believe Bazoum is being held at his house in the capital, Niamey. The first photos of him since the coup appeared Sunday evening, sitting on a couch smiling beside Chad’s President Mahamat Deby, who had flown in to mediate between the government and the junta.
Working with the West against extremism
Both the United States and France have sent troops and hundreds of millions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid in recent years to Niger, which was a French colony until 1960. The country was seen as the last working with the West against extremism in a Francophone region where anti-French sentiment had opened the way for the Russian private military group Wagner.
After neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso ousted the French military and began working with Wagner mercenaries, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger in March to strengthen ties and announce $150 million in direct assistance, calling the country “a model of democracy.”
The US will consider cutting aid if the coup is successful, the State Department said 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 hinges on continued democratic governance in Niger.”
France said Monday that President Emmanuel Macron is closely monitoring the situation in Niger and has discussed the crisis with regional leaders and European and international partners.
The sanctions could be disastrous and Niger needs to find a solution to avoid them, Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou told French media outlet Radio France Internationale on Sunday.
“When people say there’s an embargo, land borders are closed, air borders are closed, it’s extremely difficult for people ... Niger is a country that relies heavily on the international community,” he said.
In the capital of Niger, many people live in makeshift shelters tied together with slats of wood, sheets and plastic tarps because they can’t pay rent. They scramble daily to make enough money to feed their children.
ECOWAS mixed record
Since the 1990s, the 15-nation ECOWAS has tried to protect democracies against the threat of coups, with mixed success.
Four nations are run 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 its 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 Gambia to prevent the new president’s predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, from disrupting the handover of power. Around 7,000 troops from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal entered the country, according to the Global Observatory, which provides analysis of peace and security issues. The intervention was largely seen as accomplishing its mission.