Renegade soldiers in armoured vehicles stormed Niger’s presidential palace with a hail of gunfire in broad daylight, kidnapping the country’s strongman president then appearing on state television to declare a successful coup.
The soldiers said the country’s constitution had been suspended and all its institutions dissolved and that the country was now being led by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy.
A soldiers’ spokesman asked their countrymen and the international community to have faith in their ideals which “could turn Niger into an example of democracy and of good governance”.
Smoke rose from the white-hued palace complex and the echo of machine-gun fire for at least two hours sent frightened residents running for cover, emptying the desert country’s boulevards at midday yesterday.
Traore Amadou, a local journalist who was in the presidency when the shooting began, said President Mamadou Tandja was kidnapped by mutinous troops.
Radio France Internationale reported that the soldiers burst in and neutralised the presidential guard before politely escorting Tandja outside to a waiting car which drove him towards a military camp on the outskirts of the capital.
His whereabouts remained unknown hours later when the soldiers took to the airwaves to announce the coup.
Tandja first took power in democratic elections in 1999 that followed an era of coups and rebellions. But instead of stepping down as mandated by law on December 22, he triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new constitution in August that removed term limits and gave him near-totalitarian powers.
Niger has become increasingly isolated since then, with the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states suspending Niger from its ranks and the US government cutting off non-humanitarian aid and imposing travel restrictions on some government officials.
The ease with which Niger’s democratic institutions have been swept aside has marked a setback for a region struggling to shake off autocratic rulers. In Guinea, a military junta seized power in December 2008 after the death of the country’s long-time dictator, only to have the junta leader go into voluntary exile after he survived an assassination attempt a year later.
The nation’s latest troubles began suddenly in Niamey yesterday, when gunfire broke out around the impoverished nation’s small presidency.
“Armoured vehicles came into the palace and began shooting at the building,” said Moussa Mounkaila, a palace driver. He said the mutinous troops had come from a military barracks at Tondibia, about seven miles west of the capital Niamey.
Tandja had just gathered government ministers for a Cabinet meeting when the gunfire erupted outside.
A diplomat in neighbouring Burkina Faso said the mutinous soldiers were led by Colonel Abdoulaye Adamou Harouna, the former aide-de-camp of Niger’s previous coup leader Major Daouda Mallam Wanke.
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, and did not confirm whether or not he was an aide to Maj Wanke.
Maj Wanke led the 1999 coup, seizing power after the country’s former military strongman was gunned down in an incident that was dubbed “an accident”. Maj Wanke organised democratic elections less than a year later, which Tandja won.
The diplomat, who asked not to be named, said Col Harouna – once Maj Wanke’s top aide – was part of an army faction deeply disillusioned with Tandja for abusing his constitutionally mandated term limit.
They see him as having violated the trust the military initial placed in him when they ceded power in elections 11 years ago, he said.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon was closely following developments and receiving regular updates from his special representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit, UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
“It would be recalled that the secretary-general has called on the stakeholders in Niger to swiftly revert to constitutional order in the settlement of the political crisis that developed in that country last year,” Ms Okabe said.
In their broadcast on state TV, the soldiers said the country was now under a curfew and that all its borders had been sealed.
An Air France flight due to land at Niamey yesterday was diverted to neighbouring Burkina Faso, as was the private plane of the Senegalese foreign minister who had been dispatched by Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade which was prevented from landing in Niger by the army, said Senegalese government spokesman Bamba Ndiaye.