Niger: A Coup Pour L’Etat?

On February 18, 2010, Africa experienced yet another coup d’état, one of several to occur in just the past few years. A majority 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. While many might simply dismiss the coup as yet another attempt to establish a more military-friendly dictatorship (in the name of so-called democracy), the circumstances surrounding this particular coup indicate otherwise, offering hope to the threatened democracy. In fact, recent political events in Niger have challenged all traditional notions of the African ‘coup’ and have also raised questions about the changing role of the military in African politics.

The Tandja Coup: From Democracy to Dictatorship

Although many are quick to criticize the CSRD’s actions, none can deny that it was recent actions taken by Tandja that had essentially destroyed the democratic character and 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 mid-2009 with his call to hold a referendum to adopt a new constitution, one which contained no presidential term limits. Tandja knew that he could not simply amend the 1999 constitution, because it explicitly prohibited amendment of the two-term limit (even by referendum); hence to do so would be a violation of the law as well as the oath he took on the Quran when first sworn into office. So, rather craftily, he proposed the creation of an entirely new constitution, hoping to avoid any legal or moral dispute.

Whatever unqualified attempts Tandja might have made at only slightly circumventing the law ended with his proposed referendum. 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, claiming it lacked the competence to judge such matters. Ironically, it was Tandja that had approved the judges’ original appointments. 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. By destroying one of the country’s central democratic institutions, Tandja revealed just how far he was willing to go to retain power, which is particularly unfortunate, given the Court’s demonstrated ability to uphold the law, even in the face of major political pressure from a powerful party.  

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’. With parliament dissolved and elections not due for three months, Tandja was now free to hold his referendum, with no further challenge or major consequence. However, breaks within his own party’s ranks as well as with major political allies such as the Democratic and Social Convention (CSD) party, proved problematic, especially after the CSD voiced strong opposition to the proposed referendum and announced the withdrawal of its eight ministers from the country’s government.

By June of 2009, Tandja had effectively dismantled both the judicial and legislative branches of government and was forced to replace members of the executive. In addition to that, weekly public protests against the proposed referendum as well as strikes by union and trade workers continued. In August, however, Tandja proceeded with the referendum, amidst the protest of thousands and without the participation of opposition parties, which had staged a boycott. Unfortunately, this left only Tandja supporters to vote. Many of these people, being poor and uneducated, were all too easily exploited by their leader, as he offered small bribes and additional promises of food and money to secure their vote. The result being that a new illegitimate 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.

Over the course of the next several months, Niger’s ECOWAS membership was suspended and sanctions against Niger subsequently put in place. The EU also suspended over US$600 million in annual budgetary support and development aid, and the US froze over US$50 million in non-humanitarian support. As Niger fell deeper into isolation, Tandja remained defiant in his endless pursuit of power. Tandja had proved himself willing to sacrifice not only the integrity of the country’s democratic institutions and processes, but also the health and well-being of his already impoverished and long-suffering people, all for the sake of his personal political ambitions.

The Military Coup: A Return to Democracy?

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, military spokesman Colonel Goukoye Abdoulkarim, issued a statement, declaring the army’s continued neutrality during the country’s political impasse. The statement read, “Mindful of national unity, the defense forces do not serve partisan interests. Duty bound to be neutral and reserved, the armed forces cannot as such be associated with any political debate, or be involved in destabilizing actions.” 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 a democratic government, bringing stability to the country for the first time in decades.

The military’s refusal to intervene on the grounds of neutrality were 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. Senior military officers certainly had ample opportunity over the course of the past year to exploit government weaknesses, as well as the public’s discontent, to stage a coup from which they could have surely profited, as is the case currently in Guinea. However, the military did not act opportunistically, but instead chose to test the tenacity of the country’s civil institutions before intervening. This restraint is even more surprising given the impoverished state of the country, to which the army is certainly not immune.

On February 18, 2010, with Tandja’s new despotic government firmly in place and the country facing a dire humanitarian crisis, the military finally intervened, storming the presidential palace and deposing Tandja. Although immediately condemned by much of the international community (as is tradition), 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, the leader of which, Colonel Salou Djibo, is relatively unknown, but has had a distinguished career, which includes service as a UN peacekeeper in Cote D’Ivoire and the DRC. Sources have stated that the CSRD is essentially made up of a small, but powerful faction of the military that had become increasingly disillusioned with Tandja’s violation of the constitution. Some members have been educated abroad and have also studied human rights, a marked difference from the uneducated and oftentimes illiterate soldiers who have led African coups in the past. Also interesting, some of the CSRD’s leaders were participants in the 1999 coup, so, in deposing Tandja, the junta actually acted against a former ally, one of whom many in the military undoubtedly respect and share with an institutional loyalty. In addition, the fact that they were members of the 1999 coup, which first established democratic order in the country, bodes well for their stated intention to restore democracy.

A Call for Constitutional Order and Elections

In the past week, the junta has taken some steps to reassure the public, as well as the international community, that it does in fact intend to restore the country’s democracy. For instance, 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, further assurance that the junta’s leaders have no intent of seizing power for their own purposes.

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 a coup, an unrepresentative and inherently flawed referendum. In addition to reestablishing the country’s 1999 constitution, an independent assessment of the executive powers under the constitution should be immediately conducted; the constitution should subsequently be amended to strengthen the separation of power between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government. This includes applying stricter language regarding the president’s power to employ or 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 judicial branch (constitutional court) and the Legislative branch (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, as Tandja’s dissolution of the original bodies was illegal and objected to by the majority of Nigerians as well as the international community.

Unfortunately, the junta has yet to set a timetable for much needed elections, which are necessary to ensuring the government legitimately reflects the will of the people. 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 immediately schedule a timetable for institutional reform followed by presidential elections. The elections must be 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 recommends that the CSRD and the interim government immediately initiate reforms and invite the international community, specifically the UN, to actively participate both in restoring constitutional order and in organizing and monitoring any upcoming elections.

The IIJD believes that in order for elections to be considered free, fair and legitimate, the following five factors must be present: an independent national electoral commission to carry out and monitor elections, a transparent electoral law recognized by all parties, free and open media coverage, free and unrestricted registration and voting access by the citizenry and finally, freedom of political candidates to campaign in all areas of the country. With these elements in place, Niger’s junta and its interim government will guarantee free and fair elections, ensuring results are justifiable and recognized by all. Most important, 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 is ready to provide its expertise and contribution in establishing a stronger and stable foundation that will propel Niger in the path of sustainable, democratic, and human development.