Small vendors abandoned their stalls as the typical lunch hour break opened with gunfire at the presidential palace shortly after 1pm local time in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Firing continued intermittently with the military blocking all roads leading to the palace. Government helicopters were circling the city and fired in the afternoon, according to residents.
“I left my bookstore rather than risk getting hit by stray fire,” Ismaël Issaka told IRIN from his home in Niamey. He told IRIN he heard gunfire near the hospital after 3pm, which is across from a military base.
A private clinic doctor in the capital, Amadou Boureima, told IRIN he had treated five patients with light gunshot wounds.
Elsewhere in the country, traffic and markets continued uninterrupted.
Former government information minister, Mariama Gamatié, told IRIN that state television and radio were still active as of 3pm. “We hear gunshots still, but if there has been a coup attempt and someone has taken over, the first thing that happens in Africa is that news goes off the air.” Shortly before 6pm local time, military music replaced news broadcasts on national radio.
Gamatié was the information minister at the time of the assassination of President Ibrahim Baré Mainassara in 1999 and is now a civil society member contesting President Tandja’s rule.
“We are paying the price for President Tandja’s power grab…We cannot afford his ego. We are in the middle of a famine. No one wants to use that word here because of the controversy in 2005. It is not a hunger crisis as government operators may call it. It is a famine.”
Admissions of malnourished children to feeding centres were 60 percent higher in January than at the same time last year, according to the US early warning network, FEWSNET.
The European Union, the largest bilateral donor supporting Niger government spending, has frozen its non-humanitarian aid until there is a return to “constitutional order” in Niger; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has suspended Niger’s membership.
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Vice president of the opposition Democratic and Social Convention party (CDS ) and government minister until he exceeded the term limit for
holding ministerial positions in 2007, Abdou Labo, told IRIN he would not comment on presidential palace violence. “These are just rumours now and nothing has been confirmed. There is no use speculating.”
IRIN could not reach members of government or the ruling party.
A contested 4 August 2009 referendum changed the constitution to extend presidential terms indefinitely, allowing President Tandja to stay in power after his allotted step-down date of 22 December last year.
The president assumed emergency powers after he dissolved parliament last May, followed by the constitutional court in June, which had twice ruled the referendum to be unconstitutional.
A twice-postponed ECOWAS meeting to consider the constitutional impasse in Niger – among other regional crises – took place in Abuja, Nigeria on 16 February.
In that meeting, ECOWAS appointed Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade as mediator, who was to join former Nigerian President Abdusalami Abubakar and an African Union representative in negotiating the stand-off between President Tandja and the opposition.
When asked how he felt about the recently revived negotiations with the government, opposition leader Labo told IRIN the opposition has made concessions and remains hopeful Niger can find a peaceful way out of crisis. “We welcome the mediators’ help and await the government’s counterproposals.”
Civil society member Gamatié was less optimistic President Tandja will cede any power.
“I am opposed to using military force to unseat President Tandja and will continue fighting democratically no matter what happened at the palace today. But this coup attempt was inevitable. If you tighten a noose long enough, the choked will cut it loose.”