IIJD Call for Action: Niger Must Return to Democracy

Last August 2009, The International Institute for Justice and Development (IIJD), Inc. contacted your office requesting that you take a stronger stance against the dictatorial and illegal actions committed by President Tandja to systematically dismantling Niger’s democratic institutions. We are once more calling upon the United States government and the International community to help restore and strengthen democracy in Niger. The current situation began on February 18, 2010, when a faction of Niger’s military calling themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), staged a military coup, deposing Niger’s controversial president, and fledgling dictator, Mamadou Tandja, with the promise to restore the country’s recently dismantled democratic institutions.  

Although many are quick to criticize the CSRD’s actions, no one can deny that it was recent actions taken by Tandja that had essentially destroyed the democratic character and the institutional foundation of Niger’s government. In fact, Tandja’s actions over the course of the last several months amounted to nothing less than a coup d’état, as every one of Niger’s democratic institutions was illegitimately dissolved and the country’s constitution rewritten to allow Tandja to stay in power, perhaps indefinitely. Tandja’s short-lived dictatorship began in mid-2009 with his call to hold a referendum to adopt a new constitution, one which contained no presidential term limits. After the Constitutional Court of Niger ruled three times that any such referendum would be unconstitutional, Tandja simply dissolved the Court by way of presidential decree. Under the constitution, the dissolution of the Court is strictly prohibited by anyone, including the president, and judges cannot be removed until the end of their six-year term, which would have been in 2012. Article 36 of the 1999 Niger constitution specifically mandates that a president, elected for five-year terms, is eligible for only one re-election. Article 136 further specifies that “articles 36 and 141…of the present constitution cannot be subject to an amendment.” 

The Court was not the sole government body to fall victim to Tandja’s power grab. After the Court’s first ruling, Tandja once again invoked his executive powers and without any legal justification, dissolved The National Assembly, Niger’s parliament. With increasing parliamentary opposition to his referendum plan, Tandja ran the risk of being charged and tried for treason by the Assembly, through a specially formed ‘High Court’.  By June of 2009, Tandja had effectively dismantled both the judicial and legislative branches of government. In August, however, Tandja proceeded with the referendum, amidst the protest of hundreds of thousands and without the participation of opposition parties, which had staged a boycott. A new constitution was passed, one that provided Tandja with sweeping new powers, including the power to appoint one-third of the parliament’s members and to establish a media oversight body with the authority to jail journalists deemed a threat to national security. Term limits were also completely abolished, veritably securing Tandja’s path to dictatorship.  

Shortly before the referendum, the private radio station, ‘Dounia’ was shut down by Tandja’s government, after reportedly calling upon military forces to stop obeying Tandja. Soon afterwards, the military issued a statement declaring the army’s continued neutrality during the country’s political impasse. Interestingly, calls for the military to intervene stemmed not only from private entities, but from civil society organizations and opposition leaders, some of which were arrested as a result. The military gained the public’s trust in 1999 when its intervention played a key role in establishing the country’s first democratic government. The military’s refusal to intervene on the grounds of neutrality was at first questionable. Tandja himself had been a senior military officer, whose rise to power was largely the result of the 1999 military coup, leading most to conclude that his connection to the military, as well as its loyalty to him, was still arguably strong. Hence, the military’s initial complacence in the matter could certainly have been interpreted as tacit support. However, its refusal to intervene was also interpreted by many as an exercise in idealistic restraint. Although it had ample opportunity over the past year, the military did not act opportunistically, but instead chose to test the tenacity of the country’s civil institutions.   

On February 18, 2010, the military finally intervened. Although immediately condemned by much of the international community, the actions of the CSRD were quickly praised by a significant majority of Niger’s public as well as the Coordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic (CFDR), a group comprised of opposition political parties, labor organizations and human rights groups, formed last year to protest and challenge Tandja’s plans for referendum. While it is difficult to ascertain CSRD’s true motives at this point, there is good reason for cautious optimism regarding its intentions. First, the junta’s actions are an obvious response to the destruction of the state’s democratic institutions and the resulting civil strife.  Also relevant is the make-up of the junta, some of which were participants in the 1999 coup, so, in deposing Tandja, the junta actually acted against a former ally. In addition, the fact that they were members of the 1999 coup, which first led to the establishment of democratic order in the country, bodes well for their stated intention to restore democracy.

In the past weeks, the junta has taken some steps to reassure the public, as well as the international community, of its intentions. It has appointed an interim prime minister, a civilian, former Information Minister Mahamadou Danda. In addition, state institutions are now functioning, and most government ministers have returned to work, and business in the capital, as well as the rest of the country is proceeding without disruption. Furthermore, on February 26, the CSRD announced that no member of the junta, or the interim government that is currently being set up, will be permitted to run in the upcoming elections. 

In order for Niger to return to legitimate, democratic rule, constitutional order must be re-established. Therefore, the IIJD calls upon the CSRD and the interim government to immediately restore the 1999 constitution. The constitution imposed upon the country by Tandja in 2009 cannot be recognized as legitimate in any form, since its creation was the result of an unrepresentative and inherently flawed referendum. In addition to reestablishing the country’s 1999 constitution, an independent assessment of executive powers under the constitution should be immediately conducted to ensure proper separation of powers. This includes applying stricter language regarding the president’s power to rule by executive decree.  The IIJD specifically believes that the constitution should explicitly prohibit the president from using executive decree to dissolve the country’s Supreme Court, constitutional court and the National Assembly. Under no circumstances, should the president be permitted to dissolve either body. Furthermore, IIJD also calls upon the CSRD to immediately reinstate the National Assembly and constitutional court in its full form, prior to their dissolution by Tandja in 2009.   We also call upon the International Community to use this opportunity to apply pressure for a stronger separation of power between the branches of government, and especially strengthening the justice system of Niger and guaranteeing its independence.

Although Tandja acted illegally in rewriting the constitution, making the extension of his rule illegitimate, the junta too lacks any real legality in its rule.  Therefore, it must schedule presidential elections within a reasonable timeframe. The elections must be free, fair and transparent and organized by an independent electoral body. Given Niger’s success with holding legitimate elections over the past ten years, this should not be an issue; however, the importance of transparency, particularly after a military coup, can never be overstated. Hence, the IIJD strongly urges the CSRD and the interim government to include the international community, specifically the UN, in both restoring constitutional order and organizing and monitoring any upcoming elections. The IIJD also calls upon the international community to do its part in continuing to place pressure upon the interim regime to immediately restore constitutional order and Niger’s democratic institutions. In order to build a solid foundation for Niger, it essential that institutions reform be launched immediately to reinforce the separation of power between branches of government and to establish a strong independent and well functioning justice system even before presidential elections.

By guaranteeing free and fair elections, and ensuring that results are justifiable and recognized by all, the junta will have fulfilled its promise to its people, and to itself, to restore Niger’s democracy, thereby providing its country with hope for a more successful future; one that benefits the ambitions of all.

The IIJD strongly believes that the United States, along with the rest of international community, must do everything in its power to ensure the restoration of democracy and reinstatement of the 1999 constitution, the dissolved National Assembly, and the constitutional court. Without action, Niger is heading back towards the instable military and autocratic regime that plagued its people in past decades.

With Niger’s hard-won, yet still vulnerable democracy poised for possible destruction, the IIJD urges you, in line with the spirit of your speech in Ghana, to take firmer action to ensure that the 1999 constitutional order is restored and improved.

With my highest esteem and sincere considerations,

Benjamin Ngachoko

President & C.E.O.

International Institute for Justice and Development