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Niger junta suspends French broadcasts as supporters protest against sanctions

Protesters chant slogans during a rally in Niamey, Niger, 3 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ISSIFOU DJIBO)

Supporters of Niger's junta protested against foreign sanctions in the capital Niamey on Thursday, as France condemned the new authorities' suspension of major French television and radio broadcasters in the country.

Like coups in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali, last week’s military takeover in Niger came amid a growing wave of anti-French sentiment, with some locals accusing the former colonial ruler of interfering in their affairs.

General Abdourahamane Tiani, the former head of Niger’s presidential guard, confined President Mohamed Bazoum to his residence last Wednesday and declared himself head of state in the seventh coup in west and central Africa since 2020.

Niger’s regional and Western partners, including France, have imposed sweeping sanctions in an effort to pressure the junta to restore constitutional order.

But Tiani has said he will not back down.

In a sign of this resistance to one-time allies, Niger on Thursday suspended broadcasts of French state-funded international news outlets France 24 and RFI – drawing condemnation from the French foreign ministry.

The move echoes similar post-coup crackdowns on French media by the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Earlier on Thursday hundreds of protesters marched in Niamey to show their opposition to the foreign pressure on coup leaders. In addition to sanctions, the main regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), has said it could authorise the use of force if soldiers did not restore Bazoum to power by Sunday.

One of the demonstrators in Niamey held a placard that said: “Long live Niger, Russia, Mali and Burkina. Down with France, Ecowas, EU.” Others waved Russian flags as they gathered outside the National Assembly.

France has between 1,000 and 1,500 troops in Niger, helping to fight an insurgency by groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State that has spread across the region. After their coups, Burkina Faso and Mali kicked out French troops, many of whom are now stationed in Niger.

Western countries are concerned that Niger could emulate those neighbours in turning towards Russia as an ally and that the unrest could allow Islamists to gain ground.

“We are going to demonstrate to all the Ecowas countries and all those who are taking inhumane and unpopular measures against Niger, which is in the process of freeing itself from the yoke of colonisation,” another protester, who did not give his name, told Reuters.

In an address on Wednesday, Tiani called the sanctions “inhumane”, saying he rejected any foreign interference but was open to dialogue within the country.

INTERVENTION PLAN

West African defence chiefs meeting in Nigeria were due to conclude their discussions about possible intervention in Niger, although they have said this would be a last resort.

Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall said soldiers from Senegal would participate if Ecowas decided to intervene.

The bloc is also making diplomatic overtures. A Nigerian-led Ecowas delegation was dispatched to Niger on Thursday to seek a “a conclusive and amicable resolution of the situation”, according to the Nigerian presidency.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ecowas’ strategy had his backing. “We believe that the work that Ecowas is doing and the statements it’s made are important, strong and have our support,” he said at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, China said on Thursday it believed Niger and regional countries had the wisdom and capability to find a political solution.

The stakes are high. Mali and Burkina Faso have said they would treat an intervention in Niger as a “declaration of war” against them too, and would come to Niamey’s defence. Tiani sent a general to both countries on Wednesday to shore up support.

“If they [Ecowas] pursue their destructive logic to the end, may Allah watch over Niger and ensure that this is the final great battle we will fight together for a true independence of our nation,” he said in a televised speech on Wednesday evening.

In Niger, there are signs that regional sanctions are starting to have an impact: Nigeria has cut power supplies to Niger, while Nigerien truckers have been stranded by border closures.

Cash shortages are also emerging, said the finance director at a government ministry who requested anonymity. He said some banks had limited cash withdrawals to around 100,000 CFA francs at a time for some clients.

The turmoil has prompted some European nations to evacuate citizens by plane. Paris said on Thursday it has completed the evacuation of hundreds of French and European citizens.

Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer. The EU has said so far it is not worried about supply cuts.

(Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Moussa Aksar, Camillus Eboh, Thiam Ndiaga, Tiemoko Diallo, Ange Aboa and Ngouda Dione; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Nellie Peyton; Editing by Alexander Winning, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Nick Macfie and Giles Elgood.)

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