NIAMEY, Niger – Niger's political opposition urged the desert country's new military junta Saturday to hold elections as soon as possible and restore civilian rule after a coup ousted the uranium-rich West African's dictatorial president.
The call came as thousands of people rallied in the sun-blasted streets at a downtown roundabout, cramming around army trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns in a show of support for the junta which toppled Mamadou Tandja Thursday after he stayed in office months past his legal mandate.
A delegation from the 15-nation regional bloc led by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar, who is mediating the crisis, arrived overnight to press for a peaceful transition.
"The army loves the people and will always stand beside Niger," leading junta member, Col. Djibril Adamou Harouna told the crowd. "We wanted to come here today to thank you for your support."
The military turned against Tandja two days ago, raking the presidential palace with gunfire in a brazen daylight raid that saw the ousted leader whisked to a military barracks outside the capital. Hours later, the soldiers swiftly announced a junta was in charge led by Salou Djibo, a little known commander of a platoon just outside the city.
The coup — which left several soldiers dead when presidential guards exchanged fire with mutineers — has been condemned by the U.N. and foreign governments. But many in the capital, at least, expressed relief that Tandja had finally been removed from the political scene.
"We're proud of our military!" screamed one woman at Saturday's rally, where demonstrators held up hastily made signs scrawled with the words: "Long Live the Army."
"Tandja let everything go," said Amadou Madi, a 27-year-old electrician. "He was a thief and a crook. Our military was right to remove him."
The junta has vowed to turn Niger into "an example of democracy." But the country's new rulers have yet to pledge a new ballot and have not said how long they will hold power.
Mohamed Bazoum, an opposition spokesman, told The Associated Press his party has held no talks with the junta but expected to.
"We want them to organize elections as quickly as possible and restore civilian rule," Bazoum said. "It's what we all need to see."
Tandja had grown deeply unpopular here after pushing through a referendum in August that replaced the country's former constitution with a new one that removed a ban on how many times he could run for president. It also gave him greatly boosted powers and an unprecedented three-year extension of his rule before another round of elections could be held.
Before the referendum, Tandja had already gone the way of despots across the continent: cracking down on the press, threatening to jail opponents, imposing rule by decree and dissolving parliament and the constitutional court because they opposed his plan to stay in power.
"Tandja was interested in one thing — staying in power," said a businessman named Amadou who declined to give his last name because he was still afraid of repercussions from Tandja supporters. "There was nothing wrong with the old constitution except that it stood in his way."
Tandja first rose to power in democratic elections in 1999 that were organized by a military junta which took control that year. Many of the military masterminds responsible for organizing that ballot also took part in Thursday's coup, apparently disillusioned with Tandja's refusal to step down.
Tandja's attempt to stay in power prompted the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, to suspend Niger from its ranks, and the U.S. and Europe cut off aid to the uranium-rich nation. Resumption of aid is likely dependent on the nation holding new elections.
There are fears the latest coup could further isolate the country. The continent-wide African Union suspended Niger on Friday, calling on its leaders to restore the constitution that had been in force before Tandja overran it.
In New York on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the coup, reiterating "his disapproval of unconstitutional changes of government as well as attempts to remain in power through unconstitutional means," U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
Ban noted the junta's statement saying it intends to restore constitutional order and called on its members "to proceed swiftly with these efforts through a process that is consensual and that includes all segments of Nigerien society."
Senegal's Foreign Affairs Minister Madicke Niang told reporters in Niamey late Friday that ECOWAS was "hoping for a peaceful transition after the events of the last few days."
Niger has gained notoriety in recent years with a spate of kidnappings in its lawless northern deserts, where a low-level rebellion led by ethnic Tuareg insurgents finally calmed last year. Al Qaeda's North Africa branch has claimed responsibility for taking a handful of foreigners hostage in the same region, including a Canadian later freed who was the U.N.'s special envoy.
The desert country of 15 million is ranked at the bottom on the U.N.'s worldwide human development index and has an astounding 70 percent illiteracy rate. The nation on the Sahara's southern edge has been perpetually battered by drought and desertification.