Africa seems to have a knack for undoing its own progress. At a time when it seemed coup d’états were finally going out of fashion – it has been almost a year since the last coup, in Madagascar – the military struck in neighbouring Niger Republic, overthrowing the civilian government of Mamadou Tandja.
Barely two weeks before the takeover in Niger, the issue of coups had dominated discussions at this year’s conference of the African Union (AU) Summit. Reuters quoted the AU peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra as saying: “We have all agreed on a new set of measures to combat unconstitutional changes of government. It will improve our ability to protect democracy.” Evidently the coup-plotters in Niger didn’t get that memo. On February 19 they invaded the Presidential Palace, seized Tandja, and took over power.
It should be noted that Tandja himself is no saint. Last June, as he approached the end of his second and final 5-year term in office (as allowed by the constitution), he sought a 3-year extension. When the country’s highest court refused to grant his request to conduct a referendum for this extension, he announced the dissolution of the court and of parliament, as well as his decision to rule the country by decree. The resulting dictatorship made it easy for him to introduce a new constitution devoid of term limits. The country’s leading opposition group rightly described the move as a “coup d’etat.” Tandja got away with that coup until comeuppance arrived last week, dressed in military fatigue, and automatically dragging the country ten years back – the last coup in Niger before February 19 was the one in 1999 that overthrew military dictator Ibrahim Bare Mainassara and ushered in the elections that brought Tandja to power.
Days before the February 19 coup, thousands of protesters had taken over the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, clamouring for Tandja to have a change of mind and respect the rule of law. Tandja has clearly reaped the whirlwind he sowed, but that is of no consolation to anyone.
We wonder where African leaders acquire this trademark hostility for common sense. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo tried this same sit-tightism in 2007, at the end of his constitutionally permitted two terms in office, raising needless tension in the country. He deployed every means at his disposal – bribery and intimidation of political opponents – in a bid to push through his quest for a reworked constitution. Fortunately, he failed, and faced the disgrace due to him.
We believe that the task of ridding Africa of this scourge of unconstitutional changes of government should be seen as one of the most important challenges of the new decade. For it to be a success, a new level of cooperation is required between citizens, civil society groups and regional blocs like ECOWAS and the AU.
Until February this year, Muammar Gaddafi, a dictator who has run his country for more than 40 years, chaired the AU. With such leaders, how can the AU expect to be taken seriously when it pontificates about the need for a continent free of dictators?
It is also instructive to note that while ECOWAS in 2009 suspended Niger’s membership as punishment for Tandja’s misdemeanour, the AU did not take any steps in this regard.
At the moment opinion seems to be unanimous that Tandja is to blame for the situation in Niger. Our fear is that these sentiments will dampen the enthusiasm to force the new military government out of power as soon as possible.
Experience has shown that military governments have nothing to offer African countries, whatever their pretensions to the contrary may be. More than a year on, Guinea’s junta is still in power, wracked by infighting, and with no concrete plans to conduct elections. The chief architect of Mauritiania’s August 2008 coup transformed himself into a civilian president through elections, which he oversaw. Everything possible must be done to make the Presidential Palace uncomfortable for the coup-plotters in Niger, and force them to restore constitutional democracy as soon as possible.
We would also like to plead with African politicians to desist from any actions that might justify military intervention.