Coup draws praise in Niger

In twist, junta seen as protector of democracy

(Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images)
By Todd Pitman
Associated Press / February 28, 2010

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NIAMEY, Niger - It’s politics, upside down.

The elected president of a uranium-rich nation morphs into a despot and refuses to relinquish power, prompting the army to stage a popular coup with guns blazing in the name of democracy.

Most governments check executive excesses through sister branches - the Legislature, the judiciary. In Niger, the military has assumed the bizarre yet vital role of safeguarding democratic institutions by force - most recently by blowing a hole through the front gate of the presidential palace this month and taking hostage an entire government.

The soldiers who overthrew Mamadou Tandja are vowing to restore civilian rule, an assertion that has often proved hollow among Africa’s myriad juntas. The difference in Niger, though, is profound: Most people here actually believe them.

“For democracy activists like us, it’s difficult to applaud a coup d’etat,’’ said Marou Amadou, a leading human rights worker who was jailed for a month and beaten by security forces during Tandja’s regime. “But this had to happen and we are overjoyed. There was no other way.’’

Though officially condemned by governments worldwide, Tandja’s ouster has been widely praised at home: by unions, human rights groups, civil society leaders, abd local media. The trust is so great, in fact, that the director of one widely respected independent Niamey newspaper was working protocol for the junta.

Last week, the junta named Mahamadou Dandah, one-time Information minister, as civilian prime minister to lead the West African nation’s transitional government until elections are held.

Tandja ascended to power a decade ago through the ballot box and won elections again five years later. But in the twilight of his final term, he transformed his Islamic nation into a dictatorship, abolishing Parliament and the nation’s highest court and imposing rule by decree.

In a final blow last August, he forced through a controversial referendum that cast aside a constitutionally protected ban on term limits. A new constitution, which critics say was illegal, granted him three more years in power and the chance to run for president as many times as he wanted.

Tandja initially succeeded because, Amadou said, “he knew most our people fall into one of three categories. They are either illiterate, corrupt, or afraid.’’

The nation of 15 million on the Sahara’s southern edge has the dubious honor of being last among 182 nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, which ranks general well-being. It is regularly battered by drought and food shortages, and its lawless northern deserts have been the scene of repeated insurgencies, and more recently, kidnappings linked to Al Qaeda terrorists.

After the referendum, a regional West African economic bloc suspended Niger from its ranks. The United States cut nonhumanitarian aid. Europe also froze vital support to a country whose budget is 40 percent dependent on donors. Amid the isolation, the putschists had little to lose. And, critics say, much to gain: Oil deposits have recently been discovered and there are plans to build the world’s biggest uranium mine.

“They present themselves as saviors of democracy, but are they?’’ asked Ali Sabo, a top member of Tandja’s ousted political party. “Who’s to say they won’t loot our country as other military regimes have done?’’

The coup, he said, simply proves the army “is still a powerful political force that can intervene at any moment with arms.’’

One reason the educated public has placed so much trust in the military is because it has a track record. Several of the top putschists engineered a similar coup in 1999, and went on to oversee free elections the same year that set the stage for a decade of democratic peace.

Transparency International’s Aissata Bagnan Fall said the junta appeared comprised of a new generation of soldiers better educated than their predecessors, some of whom could not read or write.

Today, most officers have university degrees and many been trained abroad. They’ve studied human rights. Some, like coup leader Major Salou Djibou, have taken part in peacekeeping missions in Congo and Ivory Coast, giving them a firsthand look at how conflict can tear nations apart.

“They have laptops and access to the Internet,’’ Fall said. “They are aware of how they are perceived and that affects how they act.’’

Still, Fall said the junta should be treated with great caution, because “you can only truly know a man when he is given money and power, and you see what he does with it.’’