By Moussa Aksar, David Lewis and David Gauthier-Villars
NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger's coup was the culmination of months of acrimony between President Mohamed Bazoum and his chief guard over the leader's attempts to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, people familiar with the matter said.
Since taking over from his political godfather Mahamadou Issoufou in 2021, Bazoum had sought to stamp his authority on the West African country by sidelining a number of senior people in both the military and public administration.
That assertive drive became his Achilles heel.
When the head of his powerful presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tiani, feared he was next for the chop, he turned on his boss, confident other military commanders would eventually fall in line, the people familiar with the matter said.
This account of how Niger's coup unfolded is based on 15 interviews with Nigerien security officials, politicians, as well as current and former Western government officials.
Neither Tiani or Bazoum could be reached for comment. In his first address following the July 26 coup, Tiani said he had ousted the president for the good of the country.
Since coming to power, Bazoum had reinforced military cooperation with France and the United States, curbed the autonomy of Nigerien army commanders and launched anti-corruption programs that targeted some of Issoufou's proteges, notably in the oil sector, making enemies in the process.
Tiani, who was head of Issoufou's guard for a decade and helped thwart a coup days before Bazoum took over, stayed on in his role under the new president, commanding the most powerful and best-equipped force based in the capital Niamey.
But in recent months, Bazoum had curtailed the size of the presidential guard, which was about 700-strong at the time of the coup, and started to scrutinize its budget.
Keen to save his own skin, Tiani, a man who had worked his way up through the ranks and was named general by Issoufou, had sounded out a select few commanders about his coup plans to ensure other branches of the military would not oppose him, two people with knowledge of the coup plotter's thinking said.
Reuters was unable to determine which commanders had been briefed by Tiani.
Tiani also waited until large numbers of troops had been dispatched from Niamey to Diffa, a 20-hour drive away on the southeastern fringes of Niger, to participate in Independence Day celebrations scheduled for Aug. 3, the two people said.
Indeed, on July 27, a day after Tiani's presidential guard sequestered Bazoum at his residence, Niger's army command said it had rallied behind the coup to avoid a deadly confrontation between different forces.
Spokespeople for the junta and the army command did not reply to messages seeking comment.
Any lingering internal resistance to Tiani becoming head of state fizzled, though the country's new administration is still on a collision course with the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The fifth coup in Niger in the past 50 years is a blow to former colonial ruler France and the United States, which together have more than 2,000 troops in the country and use it as a base to launch attacks on jihadists in the vast and volatile Sahel.
It follows military takeovers in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso over the last three years that have forced France to pull out thousands of troops – some had been repositioned to Niger - and let Russia increase its influence in the region.
It was unclear from the Reuters interviews whether Tiani had discussed his plans with Issoufou, a towering political figure in West Africa who retains enormous influence in Niger.
Issoufou was elected in 2011, a year after a previous military coup. He won plaudits for stepping aside in 2021 after two terms, paving the way for the first democratic transition to a new leader in Niger since independence.
Speculation that Issoufou knew of Tiani's intentions swirled around the capital after the coup because he remained silent for several days.
Issoufou had become increasingly frustrated with Bazoum's efforts to chart his own course, several people familiar with the matter said. Two allies of Issoufou recalled hearing the former president complain about Bazoum's unwillingness to take his suggestions on board for running the country, and its oil sector in particular.
Reuters was unable to reach Issoufou for comment. A person close to the former president said he initially refrained from talking publicly about the rebellion because he was trying to mediate between Tiani and Bazoum.
The person, who declined to be identified, denied Issoufou had anything to do with the coup and pointed to the junta's decision to arrest his son, the oil and energy minister, on July 31, as evidence the former president did not collude with Tiani.
On July 30, four days into the coup, Issoufou broke his silence, saying in social media posts he was involved in a mediation effort, and calling for Bazoum to be reinstated.
Issoufou has not since provided any information about his efforts.
For Bazoum, July 26 started as a typical day. He had breakfast at his residence, which is inside the compound of the presidential guard in central Niamey, according to one of numerous current and former Western officials who spoke to the president by phone afterwards.
Bazoum was about to head to his nearby office when he noticed something was off: Tiani's soldiers had surrounded his house. The president hurried to the residence's safe room, equipped with secure communications, the person said.
After several hours, when it became clear no one was coming to rescue him, Bazoum rejoined his family in the main part of the residence, which was still surrounded, the person said.
Shortly after detaining Bazoum, Tiani instructed Salifou Mody, a general who had been stripped of his role as chief of staff of the Niger Armed Forces by the president in April, to liaise with other branches of the security services and secure their support, four people familiar with the matter said.
Mody was named Niger's envoy to the United Arab Emirates in June, an appointment widely seen as a demotion, though he never left Niger to take up his new role.
It was not clear whether Mody, who is listed as a deputy to Tiani on the junta's organigram, was among the very few commanders briefed ahead of the coup.
Reuters was unable to reach Mody for comment.
The same morning, as news of the putsch spread across Niamey, former president Issoufou contacted Tiani, offering to serve as a mediator, two people familiar with the matter said.
He then met with Bazoum and shared his impression that Tiani had succumbed to a "mood swing", something he could help resolve, the person close to Issoufou said.
Meantime, with Niger's prime minister out of the country, Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou took the lead in trying to free Bazoum, people familiar with the matter said. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Around noon on July 26, a post on a social media account of the Nigerien presidency said Bazoum and his family were well - and that the army and national guard were ready to attack the rebellious soliders if they didn't stand down.
Soon after, several hundred supporters of Bazoum gathered at a square in central Niamey and later marched towards the presidential palace. The protesters called for the mutineers to release the president and return to their barracks.
Later that day, National Guard troops took up positions around the compound where Bazoum was held.
But at about 9 p.m., the mutineers released a video on state television. Wearing a blue military jacket and flanked by nine officers, a little-known colonel, Amadou Abdramane, said Bazoum had been removed from power, all institutions of the republic suspended and Niger's borders closed.
Almost all the different branches of Niger's security apparatus had a member in the group, including the police, army, air force and presidential guard. Ahmad Sidien, second-in-command of the National Guard, was also present.
The following day, the Nigerien military command announced it was siding with the junta and the National Guard dropped its siege of the presidential guard compound - as Tiani had hoped would happen.
Tiani, who had chosen to remain in the background until he had secured public support from the other commanders, according to the two people with knowledge of the plot, appeared on television on July 28.
In a short address, he said the junta's motivation was to safeguard the homeland, blaming Niger's government for failing to address security problems.
But with ECOWAS threatening to unleash military action if the coup is not overturned by Sunday, Tiani may soon face an altogether different threat.
(Reporting by Moussa Aksar in Niamey, David Lewis in Nairobi and David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul; Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris and Edward McAllister in Dakar; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and David Clarke)