Niger president to be sworn in after 'attempted coup'

Niamey, Niger: Niger's newly-elected president Mohamed Bazoum was set to be sworn into office on Friday, a democratic watershed overshadowed by jihadist violence and an alleged coup bid.

The inauguration will mark 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 airbase 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 were to take 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 channeling 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 that 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.

Five things about Niger

Here are five things to know about Niger, where a security source says an attempted coup was mounted on Wednesday, two days ahead of a presidential inauguration.

Poverty and migrants

A landlocked country in the heart of West Africa's Sahel, Niger is two-thirds desert.

Its 22.4 million -- mainly Muslim -- people are mired in poverty, exacerbated by an exorbitant birthrate averaging seven children per woman.

Niger persistently ranks last out of 189 nations in the UN's Human Development Index (HDI), based on factors such as longevity, education levels, and per capita income.

Despite progress, the poverty rate remained extreme at 41.4 percent in 2019, according to the World Bank.

Before the coronavirus pandemic led it to close its borders, Niger was a transit country for African migrants seeking to reach Europe.

Politically unstable

Niger has suffered from chronic political volatility since gaining independence from France in 1960.

It has seen four coups in its history, most recently a February 2010 putsch that toppled then-president Mamadou Tandja.

Friday's inauguration of President Mohamed Bazoum will mark the country's first-ever democratic transition of power.

The outgoing head of state Mahamadou Issoufou, elected in 2011 and 2016, last year vowed to voluntarily step down after two terms.

Bazoum, a former interior minister who has been Issoufou's right-hand man, then won a two-round election against former president Mahamane Ousmane.

His biggest rival, former prime minister Hama Amadou, was barred from running after being convicted in a baby-trafficking case, which he said was politically motivated.

Double jihadist threat

Along with Sahel neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger is struggling with a jihadist insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then spread through highly porous borders.

More than 300 people have been killed in three attacks since the start of this year alone.

The country has also been attacked repeatedly in the southeast by Islamist militants from the Nigerian movement Boko Haram.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, stoking a humanitarian crisis and further straining the economy.

Niger's military has received training and logistical support from the United States and France, which have military bases there.

In 2017 four US special forces and five Nigeriens were killed in an ambush on their joint patrol by about 50 men from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) group.

Uranium mines

Niger is among the world's biggest producers of uranium, its leading export.

The country has also become a small-scale producer of gold and oil.

But it has been buffeted by falling prices for both oil and uranium.

More than 40 percent of its GDP comes from agriculture, which also employs nearly 80 percent of the population and is vulnerable to climate change, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Niger is already an arid nation but faces increasing desertification because of global warming and human activity.

It has endured repeated famines, with hunger in 1972-73 and 1984-85 blamed on drought and outdated agricultural methods.

Flooding between June and October 2020 created a new crisis, resulting in 2.2 million people needing food aid.

Growth has also taken a hit from the Covid-19 pandemic. The economy expanded by 5.9 percent in 2019, but this fell to 1.2 percent in 2020, according to the AfDB.

Tourism troubles

The Koure National Park, a haven for the West African giraffe, was closed after the Islamic State killed eight people in August, including six young French aid workers.

The clay architecture of the 15th-century Tuareg city of Agadez in the north is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was very popular with tourists before the jihadist attacks scared them away.

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