NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- Since Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum was ousted from office by his own guards on July 26, West African observers have expressed concern that Niger will become an incubator for Russian influence.
Africa's Sahel region has seen numerous power grabs in recent years, in Mali and Burkina Faso, leaving Niger one of the few democracies in the region.
Following years of military coups since Niger's 1960 independence from France, Bazoum took office in a relatively peaceful transfer of power in 2021.
He is now being held hostage at his residence by mutinous soldiers after a coup led by Presidential Guard Unit commander Gen. Omar Abdul Rahman Tiani.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) gave the military officers leading the coup until Sunday (August 6) to release Bazoum -- a deadline the putschist soldiers ignored and continue to flout.
ECOWAS delegates were unable to meet with Tiani, who analysts said had led the coup to avoid being fired. ECOWAS has threatened to resort to force to restore democracy in Niger, a move that Russia has criticized.
After thousands gathered Monday in Niger's capital, Niamey, to support the soldiers behind the coup and denounce potential foreign intervention, military commanders sealed off the country's airspace until further notice, RFI reported.
"In the face of the threat of intervention that is becoming more apparent... Nigerien airspace is closed," a junta representative said in a statement on national television.
Russia's support for coup
Niger's junta has strenuously objected to foreign intervention and warned that any external interference aimed at restoring the ousted government would be considered a declaration of war against Niger.
Yet the junta said it has reached out to the Russian mercenary Wagner Group for help, the Associated Press (AP) reported Sunday.
The European Union (EU) is "extremely concerned about the military coup staged in Niger", El Pais reported Monday, describing Niger as a country "ravaged by the rise of extremism".
There are growing fears that Niger will join the countries in the region governed by military juntas, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, in an environment of autocracies supported either directly or indirectly by the Kremlin, the publication said.
While many countries are calling for Bazoum to be restored to his position, the commanders of the two ruling military juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali, both infiltrated by Russia, announced their support for the leaders of the Niger coup.
Moscow's stance toward the coup in Niger shows its "clear alignment with the coup leaders", said Senegalese researcher Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute for Peace Studies.
"There are several indications of Russia's support for the Niger coup," Sambe told Al-Mashareq.
Foremost is the putschists' visit to Mali to seek help from Wagner Group forces "in case the ECOWAS intervenes militarily to restore the ousted president", he said.
For Moscow's part, he added, the Niger coup represents "a favorable opportunity for Russia to continue its penetration of the [Sahel] region and take advantage of Niger's natural resources and strategic location".
In an interview with the BBC released Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wagner Group mercenaries did not take part in planning the coup but are taking advantage of instability in its aftermath.
"I think what happened, and what continues to happen in Niger, was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but... they try to take advantage of it," Blinken said.
"Every single place that this Wagner Group has gone, death, destruction and exploitation have followed," he said.
Wagner Group infiltration
Moscow has been intensifying its efforts to expand its influence in Africa through diplomatic channels, and Wagner Group mercenaries are present in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR) and other countries on the continent.
Some Nigeriens raised Russian flags during a pro-coup demonstration, said researcher Mohammed al-Dah, who specializes in Sahel conflicts.
This is a clear indication they see Russia as an alternative to Western powers -- which are allied with Bazoum's administration, he told Al-Mashareq.
Russia's support is a topic of discussion among the local elite in West African countries, as they are always looking for a foreign power to rely on, al-Dah said.
"We cannot at all rule out Russia's involvement in what is currently taking place in Niger, even if it had no role in the recent coup," he said.
Ahead of the coup, Bazoum had warned about Russia's infiltration of Niger via Wagner Group forces.
In a May 26 interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, Bazoum said a local political leader had been arrested for engaging in suspicious activities against the ruling regime, with the support of Wagner Group elements.
Restoring democracy to Niger
The chiefs of defense staffs of ECOWAS members on August 2 stated they were determined to restore democracy in Niger "regardless of the challenges".
Nigeria cut off the electricity supply to Niger following the bloc's pledge to take punitive actions against the putschists, as the coup has negatively affected all West African countries, said Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff Christopher Musa.
Sambe, the Timbuktu Institute director, told Al-Mashareq the leaders of the Niger coup bear responsibility for the deterioration of security in the Sahel, which he described as "a region with weak governments".
"The region today has become a new playground for many global powers, and we are concerned that the Sahel-West Africa region will turn into a new arena for conflict, as is the case with Ukraine," Sambe said.
"This would have serious repercussions on the region."
Various media outlets have reported that Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin held several meetings with a number of African leaders during a Russian-African summit in late July in St. Petersburg, Russia.