On the Francophonie roundabout, in the north of the capital, young people prepare tea on a small coal stove placed in the middle of the dusty median. The night will be long. Like every evening, for almost a month, the volunteers of this “citizen brigade” are preparing to stay up until dawn to monitor traffic and “suspicious” people.
“Teams take turns to check the cars, to see that they are not carrying weapons, others bring water and food. I came to encourage them, ”explains Samira Tchirgni, a 31-year-old Nigerian, who will spend part of the night with her friends. Here, they are a few dozen to meet, just after dinner. Their objective: to block the way to a possible military operation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Ready to take up arms
In Niamey, while the threat of an intervention by the sub-regional force still looms, military support is on a war footing. “It’s tiring, but we are ready to hold out for a long time and, if necessary, take up arms,” says the young woman. Like many, she has no military training. However, she says she is “ready to learn” to defend her country.
On August 3, a few days before the end of the ultimatum set by ECOWAS for a return to constitutional order, the junta had invited the population to “vigilance” against “spies and foreign armed forces” and to report “any information relating to the entry or movement of suspicious individuals”. In the aftermath, several initiatives have emerged at roundabouts, on the road to the airport and at the entrances to the capital. Between Niger and France, the break is consummated
If, for the moment, ECOWAS still favors the path of negotiations for a peaceful end to the crisis, it warned that it would not get bogged down “in endless discussions”. The junta, which keeps its airspace closed, is quietly preparing for the worst-case scenario. In a message broadcast on the radio on August 25, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Niger ordered that all the forces be put on maximum alert to “avoid a general surprise” in the event of an attack. . According to our information, a military force has been reinforced in southern Niger, on the border with Benin.
“Volunteers for the defense of Niger”
On Saturday August 19, around 20,000 people gathered at the General-Seyni-Kountché stadium to join as “Volunteers for the Defense of Niger” (VDN), an initiative launched by Younoussou Hima, a PE teacher, and Ansarou Bako, a financier.
The first had the idea by “discussing the fada” (the name of the groups of young people who meet every evening, editor’s note) in his neighborhood. The second, during yet another demonstration in front of the French military camp. “We decided to join forces to mobilize as many young people as possible, we did not expect such fervor,” explains Younoussou Hima, co-organizer of the census campaign.
The initiators, who are planning new recruitment sessions in the capital and in the regions in September, claim to have already registered “more than 2,000” volunteers during this first
recruitment phase, suspended after a few hours. Only criteria: to be Nigerien, major and physically able.
“There are retired soldiers, doctors, traders, students, farmers. We have no weapons but everyone will be able to contribute according to their skills, it will be a force in the service of the army, ”says Ansarou Bako, who claims to have the backing of the authorities.
However, it seems difficult today to gauge support for the putsch. According to an Afrobarometer poll from March 2022, before the coup, nearly two-thirds of Nigeriens supported democracy, while 62% rejected military rule.
Hold the street
The recruiters’ strategy in the event of an intervention remains unclear and their objective seems above all to hold the street. “It’s first of all a media battle, we want to show international opinion that the people support the army and that it’s up to them to decide, not ECOWAS,” insists Ahmed Ousmane, a 38-year-old comedian. years old, who has, since the coup, put his shows on hold to stand watch every night at the Francophonie roundabout. “I’ve never been to war, we’ll improvise! “, he adds, smiling.
Mahamadou Ibrahim Garba is also on the alert. On his phone, the activist of M62, a pro-army sovereignty movement, monitors the news and watches for messages from his “comrades”. “We have a WhatsApp group on which we exchange the latest information, we call each other as soon as we spot an abnormal movement, we even set up an alert system to be ready! “says the coordinator of a” citizen brigade “in his neighborhood, located on the south bank of the Niger River.
Every night, “from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.”, they and a group of residents check the “suspicious vehicles”. He also watches for the passage of French army convoys. “Before the putsch, we saw their trucks passing by this road when they arrived from Tera, on the border with Burkina Faso. If they come back to support ECOWAS, we will block the way! “, threatens the activist, who demands the departure of French forces from his country. In 2021, protesters had already blocked this road to a French army supply convoy in Tera. At the time, three demonstrators had been killed in the clashes, already feeding the rejection of France.
“We will fight until the French army leaves”
For years, anger has been brewing against the former colonial power in this country, which is nevertheless a strategic ally of Paris. After neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, where the juntas themselves resulting from a coup d’etat pushed the French soldiers towards the exit, the new Nigerien authorities denounced, in a letter signed on August 4, the agreements of defense with France, some of which require one month’s notice.
Some demonstrators are counting the days until the deadline granted by the junta expires. Among them, Mahamadou Ibrahim Garba: “We will not leave them a second longer, if we have to choose between shame or violence, we will choose violence, he threatens. We will fight until the departure of the French army. »
The UN fears a major humanitarian crisis
Since the coup d’état of July 26, new violence, including deadly attacks, hitting Niger has caused the displacement of more than 20,000 people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is concerned about the growing humanitarian needs.
UNHCR has noted a 50% increase in so-called “protection” incidents, such as kidnappings, gender-based violence and domestic violence, in the five days following the coup.
Border closures and ECOWAS sanctions have caused prices to skyrocket – already high – food and raw materials.
The people most at risk are the approximately 350,000 who were already internally displaced in Niger before the coup, as well as a similar number of refugees and asylum seekers who are in the country.