Escaping Niger: Northeastern professor describes his experience being caught in the middle of a military coup in West Africa

evacuees arriving at Paris Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport from Niger
PARIS, FRANCE – A representative of the U.S. Embassy in France, left, speaks with William Miles, professor of political science at Northeastern University, who had been caught in Niger’s political turmoil after a military coup and disembarked from a French evacuation plane at Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy-en-France, near Paris, on August 2, 2023. The three planes carrying mostly French and European citizens evacuated from Niger landed in Paris early Wednesday, a week after a coup had toppled one of the last pro-Western leaders. (Photo by Mohamad Salaheldin Abdelg Alsayed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A Northeastern University professor who found himself in the middle of a military coup in Niger last week says evacuation from the turmoil was “serious business.”

Traveling to Niger for research this summer, William Miles, professor of political science, couldn’t have imagined that his trip back to the United States would look like scenes from an action movie.

Miles, who spent about a month in Niger on a grant from the American Philosophical Society, was preparing to leave the country’s capital when mutinous soldiers seized power on July 26 from the democratically elected president, suspended the constitution, locked down the borders and closed the airport.  

He, his colleague Scott Youngstedt, professor of anthropology at Saginaw Valley State University, and his friend Avraham ben Avraham, a journalist and an Igbo member of the Jewish community in Nigeria, sheltered in place in a rented house in the center of Niamey. Less than 2 miles away, protesters supporting the coup set on fire the headquarters of the ruling party and attacked the French Embassy, setting a door ablaze and ripping a plaque from the building. 

The Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc of 15 West African countries, gave the mutinous soldiers an ultimatum—reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum to his post within a week or suffer consequences, including possible military intervention.

Evacuation options

As soon as Northeastern’s global safety office learned about Miles’ situation, says Khushal H. Safi, the department’s head and co-chair of the university’s Global Safety and Security Assessment Committee, it started working on available options for his evacuation by land. 

“We had four or five options on the table,” Safi says.

Headshot of William Miles outdoors in a garden.
William Miles, professor of political science at Northeastern, who was doing research in Niger this summer, poses for a photo at a rental house in Niamey where he was sheltering in place after mutinous soldiers had seized power from the democratically elected president on July 26, two days before Miles’ scheduled departure from the country. Northeastern University

In the meantime, Safi reached out to security contractors Northeastern works with to organize any other assistance Miles needed. Miles was running out of malaria pills and prescription medication, and a local agent was tasked with acquiring and delivering them to Miles.

On the evening of Aug. 1, France announced that it was organizing evacuation of its citizens by air from the airport in Niamey. It was unclear when the U.S. government would be able to evacuate its citizens, so in a “Hail Mary” attempt to get on one of the French flights, Miles sent an email to the French Embassy. His wife, Loïza Miles, who had worked at Northeastern as a French instructor before retiring, is a French citizen and so are their children. Miles was hoping that this could be enough of an argument to be able to secure evacuation.

He did not receive a personal response, but 20 minutes later the French Embassy sent out a general message explaining who was eligible for the evacuation and telling them to go to the airport with no more than one piece of hand luggage. 

“There’s an expression in French—‘ayant droit’— which literally translates as ‘having the right,’ but it really refers to dependents of a French national,” Miles says. 

Scrambling to get to the airport

He dropped what he was doing and before heading off to the airport scrambled together the things that were “of great importance” to him—his documents, research materials, electronics and a couple of handcrafted gifts for his 3-year-old grandson and his in-laws, leaving all other belongings behind.

“Evacuation is a very serious business,” Miles says.

He was surprised by the strong presence of the Niger armed forces. Military jeeps equipped with heavy gunnery screeched through the airport. People who were trying to evacuate, he says, looked quite alarmed.

“Remember, the military coup was interpreted for some reasons as being anti-French. And here is the French evacuation,” Miles says. “When you see lots of guns and you’re not sure which side the guns are being held by, that raises the level of awareness.” 

The majority of French nationals awaiting evacuation were of African descent, he says. 

“There was kind of a mob scene [at the airport], it was quite chaotic,” Miles says. “And there was nobody I could really speak to to ask if I was indeed eligible.”

Frustration at the airport

Without clear instructions on where to go and what lines to join, he says, evacuees were alternately confused, frustrated and angry. 

Miles messaged his wife, who was vacationing in her native Martinique, and asked for photos of her passport and the registration of their marriage by the French Consulate in Boston. However, he was told at the registration desk that without a registration with the French Embassy he would not be able to board a plane, and that the last plane of the day had already left.

“I was rather discouraged, and it was getting late at night,” he says, pointing out the nation-wide curfew introduced after the coup.

He went back to the rental house. He was resigned to wait out the situation in Niamey, but before going to bed, around midnight, he sent one more email to the French Embassy. He woke up at 5:10 a.m. to find another general message from the embassy saying there would be a second French evacuation and to muster at the airport at 5:30 a.m.

One last chance

Miles rushed back to the airport. Once again, there were a lot of people inside, confused about which line to join. He decided that a line for French citizens was his best bet. 

A long registration table was manned by French military personnel, Miles says. He showed the documents on his phone to at least four different people before he was approved to proceed to the terminal and the gate. He was stopped on the way to the plane one more time, but ultimately was able to board the plane. 

“It was a designated military transport flight,” he says. “The crew was dressed in the uniform of the French Air and Space Forces.”

Through the whole ordeal, Miles says, he was repeating one Nigérien proverb to himself—“Patience is the medicine of life” (“Hakuri, shi ne maganin dunya” in Hausa language). But the uncertainty of the situation and the fact that he had to leave so many belongings behind did inject a certain amount of anxiety. Besides, he didn’t know when his friends Youngstedt and ben Avraham would be able to leave Niger.

The plane landed in Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris in the afternoon on Aug. 2. A representative of the U.S. Embassy in France was waiting at the gate to assist any American citizens who might have made it to the flight.

Miles is grateful to Northeastern for arranging his flight from Paris to New York City. When he landed at the John F. Kennedy International Airport on Aug. 4, he says, the high adrenaline rush he had felt since leaving his rental in Niamey evaporated and instead he felt drained and exhausted.

Reverse culture shock upon return

“To go from being evacuated in Niamey to being at JFK and the New York City metropolitan area was a reverse culture shock,” he says.

Even when Miles left Niger, Northeastern’s global safety office continued communicating with Saginaw Valley State University, sharing contacts and information about other evacuation options.

“The takeaway here is that if we have options that we know that other partners are in need of, we provide mutual aid or mutual assistance to those partners,” Safi says.

Youngstedt left Niger on Friday when the U.S. government was able to organize its own relief flight. Ben Avraham took a bus to Niger’s border with Benin and persuaded the border control to let him out of the country. He is currently still en route to Nigeria.

Safi is hoping that the security agent on the ground in Niger will be able to pick up and store everyone’s bags that had been left behind until the situation normalizes.

“This situation shows why organizations should not [just] rely on the U.S. Embassy or any embassy to bail them out during a time of crisis,” Safi says. “They’re in the middle of supporting their own staff and then trying to figure out what the situation is on the ground. That’s why you really have to have groups of people here [in the U.S.] that are responsible for supporting staff, faculty and students that are traveling all over the world.”

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