A Counter-Coup in Niger

The president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, was toppled in a military coup d’état on February 18. Soldiers led by a little-known commander, Salou Djibo, pounced as the president held a cabinet meeting and placed him under house arrest in the capital, Niamey. The military junta, which calls itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, said it had been compelled to act because of the president’s unconstitutional rule.

Q1: No one seems particularly surprised by this turn of events. Why?

A1: Niger is not exactly a bastion of stability, having endured four military coups since independence from France in 1961. Yet for much of his time in office, Mamadou Tandja delivered relative calm and economic progress. He was elected in free and fair elections in 1999 and 2004 but fell into the trap of believing that his country could not manage without him. His insistence on remaining in office beyond the limits laid out by the constitution led directly to the current crisis. Tandja rewrote the constitution to suit his enlarged ambitions, and the changes were rubber-stamped in a referendum in late 2009, which was boycotted by the opposition. His actions were condemned as a constitutional coup, and the United States was quick to pull the plug on its aid and trade package to Niger when his official mandate expired last December.

Q2: Some commentators have described this as a “good coup.” Is there such a thing?

A2: It’s true to say that few tears are being shed for the outgoing president. On the streets of Niamey, people appeared relatively unperturbed by the departure of their president and even held rallies in support of the coup. At the official level, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State implied that Tandja had been the author of his own downfall. However, that is not to say that the coup was welcomed. The United States and the European Union were swift to condemn the turn of events in Niamey, aware that any show of ambivalence toward the removal of a head of state via military interference would send a dangerous message to a volatile region. The United States said it hoped that the junta would stay true to its word by holding elections and hastening a return to civilian rule without delay.

The African Union also spoke out against the military takeover. The Union has taken a consistent line against coup leaders, suspending rogue regimes from its organization and reserving the right to impose economic sanctions. Aware that these powers are limited, it has recently been looking for ways to beef up its arsenal of punitive measures and discussed the issue at a summit earlier this month. Ironically, the discussion was prompted by Tandja’s constitutional coup.

The most strident comments came from Niger’s closest neighbors. West Africa is grimly familiar with the consequences to peace and stability of illegal transfers of power. The region has witnessed an epidemic of coups and has suffered three in the past 18 months alone, not to mention the assassination of the president of Guinea Bissau. That makes West Africa the most politically unstable region of the world. In a strongly worded statement, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the group of 15 West African nations in which Niger is located, said it rejected the latest change of power through unconstitutional means, just as it had rejected President Tandja’s efforts to remain in office in defiance of his mandate. The president of the ECOWAS Commission, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, was dispatched to meet with the junta leaders and seek assurances that a timetable for elections would be set. He was only able to extract a commitment that a civilian handover would be completed “as soon as possible.”

Q3: Do events in Niger say anything about the health of democracy in Africa?

A3: These are worrying times for democracy in Africa. After making great strides in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, democratic progress has ground to a halt and in some regions reversed. According to the latest annual survey by Freedom House, sub-Saharan Africa saw the biggest reversal of political rights and civil liberties of any region in the world in 2009. Fifteen countries registered declines, while only five made improvements. In a continent where incumbents are notoriously reluctant to leave office, where politics is a zero-sum game, and where militaries are often the only functioning institutions of state, the coup d’état is an ever-present threat. By taking an unequivocal stand against the coup makers, the African Union has striven to delegitimize the interference of military men in civilian life. Nonetheless, the coup has staged a comeback in the past two years. In addition to Niger, Guinea, Madagascar, and Mauritania have all seen illegal transfers of power. These developments are of concern to President Obama, who placed good governance at the very top of his policy agenda for Africa during an address to the Ghanaian parliament last July. This cornerstone policy will be in serious danger of unraveling if events in Niger are repeated elsewhere on the continent.

Richard Downie is a fellow with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie