Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum was sworn in as president Friday, marking the country’s first peaceful transfer of power in a democratic watershed that was overshadowed by an alleged coup attempt earlier this week underscoring instability fears in the West African nation.
Bazoum’s inauguration marked Niger’s first-ever transition between elected presidents since the country gained independence from France in 1960. But the milestone achievement was overshadowed by an alleged coup attempt early Wednesday, which was thwarted by several arrests, according to security sources.
Niger already faces unprecedented threats from Islamic extremists near its troubled border with Mali.
In his inauguration speech, Bazoum hit out at “terrorist groups whose barbarity has exceeded every limit”. The jihadist groups, he said, “carry out large-scale massacres of innocent civilians, and in doing so, commit real war crimes”.
The leaders of these groups “are from other countries”, he said, adding that Niger was being attacked without any cause.
“No terrorist leader has ever formulated any grievance against our state,” he said.
Bazoum, 61, was elected in a two-round vote in December and February.
He was previously right-hand man to Mahamadou Issoufou, 68, who stepped down after two five-year terms.
Diplomatic efforts to be ‘centered on Mali’
While Bazoum’s inauguration marked a milestone in Niger’s history, the impoverished West African nation faces several challenges.
Niger is being hit by insurgents linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, crossing from Mali and Burkina Faso in the west, and by 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.
In the most recent of these, 141 members of the Tuareg community were massacred on March 21 in Tahoua, a vast desert region abutting Mali.
Bazoum said Niger’s diplomatic efforts under his presidency “will be centered on Mali.”
“The current situation in Mali has a direct impact on domestic security in our country,” he said.
IS group-linked insurgents are based in Menaka and Gao, in eastern and central Mali respectively, said Bazoum.
Combatting them “will be very difficult so long as the Malian state does not exercise full sovereignty over these regions,” he said.
Issoufou’s chosen successor
The West African nation has suffered four coups in its history, most recently a February 2010 putsch that toppled then president Mamadou Tandja.
Security was tight in Niamey Friday amid fears that the inauguration could prompt more violence in Niger.
Bazoum is Issoufou’s chosen successor and a longtime Cabinet minister who is from Niger’s small ethnic Arab minority. He was a former interior minister in Niger and is also a teacher by training.
His main election rival, Mahamane Ousmane, has rejected the latest election results claiming fraud. Supporters for Ousmane have held mass demonstrations in recent days.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)