Niger’s government has “foiled” a coup plot, resulting in a number of arrests, President Mahamadou Issoufou said in an address broadcast on national radio and television Thursday, adding that the situation was “under control”.
The announcement came after local media and social media reports on Monday said at least four senior military officers had been arrested, information that was not immediately confirmed by the Niger authorities.
“The government has foiled an unfortunate attempt to destabilise our institutions,” Issoufou said in his annual address on the eve of the country’s independence celebrations.
There was no immediate reaction from the opposition in the impoverished former French colony.
The arrests come just weeks before Niger is set to go the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections, with 63-year-old Issoufou seeking re-election. The first round is scheduled for February 21.
“The main authors behind this crazy plot have all been identified and arrested, with the exception of a single person who is on the run,” the president said.
“The situation is calm and under control. The ongoing inquiry will allow us to identify the other actors and possible accomplices,” he said.
“The aim of these individuals, driven by an unknown motivation, was to overthrow democratically elected institutions,” he added, notably through the use of “aerial firepower”.
– Tension in the air –
According to local reports, those arrested included air force General Souleymane Salou; Djibo Salou, a former chief of staff of the armed forces under Niger’s previous military regime; Lieutenant Colonel Idi Abdou Dan Haoua, commander of the air force base in the capital Niamey; and Nare Maidoka, head of the 1st Artillery Battalion in the western town of Tillaberi.
The president had announced the thwarting of another coup plot in a similar message to the nation in 2011. Ten military figures were arrested at the time, accused of attempting to overthrow the regime and “attempted assassination of the head of state”.
Issoufou was himself first elected in 2011 in a vote organised by a military junta which in 2010 overthrew president Mamadou Tandja, who was seeking to stay in power beyond the two-term limit set by Niger’s constitution.
Political tensions have been in the air for the past two years in Niger in the face of widespread opposition to the poll calendar drawn up by the country’s electoral commission.
Opposition groups have criticised the constitutional court, which validates candidacies and election results, for its apparent “allegiance” to Issoufou.
The United Nations has called for “peaceful and credible” elections in order to ensure stability in a country whose southern flank has been wracked by attacks by the extremist Boko Haram group.
Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in March, has stepped up attacks on areas of Niger, Chad and Cameroon that border Nigeria while also continuing a devastating campaign of suicide and shooting attacks on home soil.