As West African states consider intervening in Niger to restore democracy one week after a military coup, hundreds of supporters of Niger's junta gathered in the capital Niamey on Thursday to protest sanctions imposed by the country's neighbors.
General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the former head of Niger's presidential guard, ousted President Mohamed Bazoum last week in a military coup and declared himself head of state.
Tchiani said the power grab was necessary because of ongoing insecurity in the country caused by an ongoing Islamist insurgency.
But violent incidents in Niger actually decreased by almost 40% in the first six months of 2023 compared to the previous six months, according to data published Thursday by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED.
ACLED is a crisis-monitoring group based in the United States. The group's data also indicate that insecurity in Niger was improving thanks to strategies used by Bazoum's government and assistance from French and U.S. forces.
In addition to imposing sanctions, the main regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, said it could authorize the use of force if soldiers do not restore Bazoum to power by Sunday.
U.S. President Joe Biden called Thursday for Bazoum's immediate release.
Biden said in a statement that Niger is "facing a grave challenge to its democracy."
"The Nigerien people have the right to choose their leaders," he said. "They have expressed their will through free and fair elections -- and that must be respected."
Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry said Thursday it believes Niger and regional countries have the capacity to find a "political resolution" to the current situation, which it refrained from explicitly calling a coup.
"We believe that Niger and regional countries have the wisdom and capability to find a political resolution to the current situation," China's Foreign Ministry said in a written statement to Reuters.
"President Bazoum is a friend of China, it is hoped that his personal safety is guaranteed, and that relevant parties in Niger peacefully manage differences through dialogue with the fundamental interests of the nation and the people as a starting point," the ministry added.
ECOWAS defense chiefs were scheduled to complete a second day of talks in neighboring Nigeria about the situation.
Days after the coup, ECOWAS enacted sanctions against the coup leaders and set a Sunday deadline for Bazoum to be reinstated with the potential of using military force if he is not.
Tchiani, who declared himself the new head of state, said in a televised address Wednesday that the junta "rejects these sanctions altogether and refuses to give into any threats, wherever they come from. We refuse any interference in the internal affairs of Niger."
Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, told reporters Wednesday in Abuja that the military option was a "last resort" for the West African bloc. But Musah said preparations had to be made for that possibility.
"There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite," he said.
Some information is from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.