NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Nearly two weeks have passed since the coup in Niger, and the two men making competing claims to power have gone quiet in recent days. One is the ousted president, who said last week he’s being held hostage and has been publicly silent since then. The other is the military junta leader who asserts he acted out of concern for the country’s security and has encouraged Nigeriens to defend it from any foreign intervention.
Here’s a look at President Mohamed Bazoum and Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani as Niger’s junta defies a threat by the West African regional bloc to step in and use force if necessary:
As neighbors in West Africa experienced multiple coups and kicked out the military forces of former colonizer France in recent months, Niger’s president came to be seen as a crucial partner of the West in the fight against groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization in what has become the global epicenter of extremism, the vast Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert.
The 63-year-old Bazoum took office in early 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since the country’s independence in 1960. The preferred successor of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou, Bazoum had been a teacher by training and a longtime Cabinet minister who comes from Niger’s small ethnic Arab minority.
Welcomed for his security cooperation with the United States, France and others as alliances with neighboring countries deteriorated, Bazoum was one of three “close partners” among African leaders to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at last year’s U.S.-Africa summit.
Closer to home, Bazoum received praise for taking on issues such as child marriage in the country with the world’s highest birth rate.
But some in his security forces reportedly felt threatened as Bazoum made changes in leadership in recent months. Under house arrest as the coup unfolded, he managed to stay in touch with the outside world by phone, at least for more than a week.
“I write this as a hostage,” Bazoum managed to dictate for an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Thursday.
In that piece, he pushed back against the coup leaders’ assertions that they had acted in response to growing insecurity in Niger, saying that “to the south, where we face the terrorist group Boko Haram, there have been almost no attacks for two years.” He added, “The country’s north and west have likewise suffered no major attacks since I took office.”
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project supported that in a statement after the coup in Niger, saying “levels of lethal violence are in steady decline, and significantly reduced in comparison to Mali and Burkina Faso.”
Bazoum urged the United States and other international partners to intervene. Those partners are concerned. China issued a statement on Thursday calling Bazoum a friend of China and saying that “we hope that his personal safety is ensured.”
U.S. officials said they were still able to communicate with Bazoum and that their most recent contact was Monday morning.
The former head of the Niger’s presidential guard, Tchiani has accused Bazoum of not doing enough to keep the country safe from Islamic extremists and declared himself the leader of the mutinous soldiers calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country,
Now he and his allies have reached out to the Russian mercenary group Wagner for help, according to Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, signaling a major shift in international partners.
The junta also is aligning with neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, which also are led by juntas and are sending a delegation to Niger after saying any foreign intervention there would be seen as a “declaration of war” against them, too.
Tchiani, who is in his early 60s, is an army veteran and ally of former president Issoufou. He reportedly helped block a coup attempt in March 2021 shortly before Bazoum was sworn in as president.
The general is from the Tillaberi region northwest of the capital and bordering Mali. It is part of the area inside Niger that has suffered greatly from Islamic extremist attacks. After the coup, he asserted that he had stepped in to avoid watching Niger’s “inevitable demise.”
Like a number of high-ranking military officials in African nations, he received some U.S. training. In the past, he served as military attache at the Niger embassy in Germany. He also took part in a past mission with the regional bloc, ECOWAS, which now threatens a military intervention if Bazoum isn’t reinstated.
Bazoum had been preparing to fire Tchiani as head of the presidential guard, the International Crisis Group said in a report on Monday, citing people close to the president.
The general hasn’t spoken publicly since a televised speech on Wednesday in which he called on Nigerians to be ready to defend against “all those who want to inflict unspeakable suffering” on the country. He also promised to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to elections.
Bazoum, however, in his last public statement asserted that he’s still in charge.
Petesch reported from Chicago. AP Diplomatic Writer Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.