Northeastern professor in Niger takes shelter after soldiers stage coup in West African nation

A crowd participates in a large march on a sunny day.
Nigeriens participate in a march called by supporters of coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023. Days after mutinous soldiers ousted Niger’s democratically elected president, uncertainty is mounting about the country’s future and some are calling out the junta’s reasons for seizing control. The sign reads: “Down with France, long live Putin.” AP Photo/Sam Mednick

Editor’s note: Professor Miles was evacuated from Niger on Wednesday, Aug. 2., according to Khushal Safi, head of Northeastern’s global safety office. Miles is expected to return to the United States this week.

A Northeastern University professor doing research in Niger is sheltering in place in the West African country’s capital of Niamey after mutinous soldiers seized power from the democratically elected president, locked down the borders and closed the airport.

William Miles, professor of political science at Northeastern, was about to wrap up his almost month-long trip to Niger when the country found itself in political turmoil. On July 26, two days before Miles’ scheduled departure, the presidential guard detained Niger’s leader, Mohamed Bazoum, in the presidential palace and announced the end of his administration.

“Major surprise,” says Miles, who reached out to Northeastern Global News to tell his story. “Every commentator will tell you that it was not expected.”

Bazoum, democratically elected in 2021, has not formally resigned. The rebels announced the suspension of the constitution and asked foreign governments not to interfere in the internal affairs of the sub-Saharan country.

The Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc of 15 West African countries, gave the mutinous soldiers an ultimatum—reinstate Bazoum to his post within a week or suffer consequences. The ECOWAS promised to take all necessary measures to restore order in Niger if its demands were not met, including using military force.

William Miles, outside surrounded by greenery and wearing a hat
William Miles, professor of political science at Northeastern who was doing research in Niger, is sheltering in place in the West African country’s capital of Niamey after mutinous soldiers seized power from the democratically elected president. Northeastern University

“That raises the temperature in an already hot climate,” Miles says.

Miles, who first lived in Niger for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s and travels extensively across a number of African countries, says he is cautious but not fearful for his own personal safety. His major concern is the international response to the coup and possible use of armed forces.

“I have been in a worse situation,” he says, remembering a 2019 incident on the Niger-Nigeria border when he and his family members, including his son, daughter and her husband, were detained by the border patrol for a day without access to sanitation or food and were later expelled back to Nigeria “for their own safety.”

Miles is following the U.S. Embassy’s recommendations, he says, and is sheltering in place in Niamey with another American professor and a friend from Nigeria.

Two major incidents occurred in Niamey in the last five days. Supporters of the coup ransacked and set on fire the headquarters of the ruling party last Wednesday, and demonstrators attacked the French Embassy on Sunday, setting a door ablaze and ripping a plaque from the building. The French have begun airlift operations to evacuate its citizens and those of other European Union countries.

A nationwide overnight curfew was introduced in Niger. Airports and land crossings are closed indefinitely, and ECOWAS announced a no-flight zone over the country.

“Reminds me of the pandemic lockdown,” Miles says, “except the cause is not viral.”

Khushal H. Safi, head of Northeastern’s global safety office and co-chair of the university’s Global Safety and Security Assessment Committee, says he has been in touch with Miles via Whatsapp and email and has passed his location on to the U.S. Embassy in Niamey and the State Department.

“We’re looking for an evacuation route,” Safi says. “The current situation is fluid, and we are looking at many options of ground support and evacuation for this faculty member.”

The International Security office is working with a number of assistance providers, including Crisis24, a global risk management and crisis response company. As a member of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a public-private partnership between the State Department and U.S. private enterprises, Safi is exchanging information with other members about the potential ground border evacuation.

Safi learned from a call with the U.S. Embassy in Niger Monday morning that they are advising Americans to stay away from government institutions (including the embassy) and shelter in place until the airport reopens. As of now, the airport is scheduled to reopen Aug. 6, but Safi says that might change. Niger’s police and security forces still control and continue to operate in the country.

Although there are multiple dangerous actors in Niger, including Boko Haram and al-Qaida affiliated terrorist groups, Safi says that generally there is no anti-American sentiment in the country compared to an anti-French sentiment.

“A positive spin on this is that the [interregnum leaders] are negotiating with the regional authority, ECOWAS, and there seems to be some level of movement on some kind of solution,” Safi says. “We’re waiting on whether or not this interim leadership is willing to play ball with their regional partners.”

The coup leaders have really no choice but to negotiate, he says, because Niger is a landlocked country.

Niger’s military continues to play a significant role in the country’s governance, Miles says, even more than 60 years after gaining its independence from French colonial rule.

“French colonial philosophy was much more militaristic than the British,” he says. “And in many arenas political culture in Niger remains in the French colonial mode.”

The population of Niger harbors both respect and fear for the military, he says, and the country goes back and forth like a pendulum between democratically elected and military governments. This year’s coup is the fifth since the country gained independence from France in 1960.

Miles was visiting Niger this summer with a dual purpose. Sponsored by a grant from the American Philosophical Society, he has been recently focusing on studying the ways in which Niger and Nigeria’s governments have been promoting cooperation and development across the border. 

A colonial frontier between the two countries separated indigenous people who spoke the same language. While Nigeria is an oil-rich state, with more wealth and resources available, Miles says, Niger has consistently scored at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index since the U.N. came up with that index. 

In addition, Miles traveled to Karam village in Magaria county where, in collaboration with Friends of Niger, his undergraduate and graduate students sponsored solar panel electrification of a rural clinic. 

“Thanks to this aid, women who are giving birth after sundown, will not have to do it in the dark because there will be electricity and lighting in the maternity ward,” Miles says. “It’s one of those things that you don’t even think about in Western developed society.”

Northeastern faculty and staff do go to very high-risk destinations, Safi says. They are advised to register with his office beforehand to make safety plans.

“We can scope out the ground area, we can work with security vendors, we can work with people to bring you stuff in the event that something like this happens,” he says. “We have satellite phones and we can rent satellite phones.”

Safi recently traveled to Benin, for example, to scope out a trip for a faculty-led Dialogue of Civilization program.

“You should always be prepared in an area where there are coups and government instability—a well-publicized risk. You really have to have contingency plans for those,” he says.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.