- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

NIAMEY, Niger | It’s politics upside down.

The elected president of a uranium-rich nation becomes a despot and refuses to relinquish power, prompting the army to stage a popular coup d’etat 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 and taking hostage an entire government.

The soldiers who overthrew President Mamadou Tandja last week are vowing to restore civilian rule, a claim that’s 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 Mr. Tandja’s regime. “But this had to happen and we are overjoyed. There was no other way.”

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

On Tuesday, the junta named onetime Information Minister Mahamadou Dandah as civilian prime minister to lead the West African nation’s transitional government until elections are held.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Tandja initially succeeded because, Mr. 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 U.N.’s Human Development Index, which ranks general well-being. The country is regularly battered by drought and food shortages; 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 non-humanitarian 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 Mr. 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.

On Sunday, a top junta leader, Col. Djibrilla Hima Hamidou, vowed that this time, the coup leaders will “do the same thing.”

If they do, it could show that the armed forces in Niger, at least, have evolved from an era in Africa when a military takeover inevitably meant the dawn of dictatorship.

“Our soldiers know the era of military regimes is over,” said Mohamed Bazoum, a spokesman for Niger’s main opposition party. “There is always the risk they will try to stay in power, but we think the risk is minimal. We have faith in them to do the right thing.”

Transparency International’s Aissata Bagnan Fall said the junta appeared composed 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 have been trained abroad. They’ve studied human rights. Some, like coup leader Maj. 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,” Ms. Fall said. “They are aware of how they are perceived and that affects how they act.”

Still, Ms. 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.”

In West Africa alone, there are plenty of worrying examples.

A military junta in Mauritania organized a widely praised ballot in 2007, but a year later overthrew the man who won. Another junta in Guinea also promised swift elections after seizing power in 2008. Its chief went on to terrorize the nation and brought it to the brink of civil war before he was shot in the head and exiled.

There have been modest success stories. After Guinea-Bissau’s president was killed last year by troops in his home, the military stood aside and let the democratic succession take its course. Despite the recent turmoil in Guinea, the army general who inherited control has vowed elections and appointed an opposition leader prime minister for the first time in the country’s history.

Ms. Fall said one risk in Niger was time: “The longer the military stays in control, the harder it will be for them leave.” The lure of power is great, which is “why we want the transition period to be as short as possible,” she said.

The junta has set no timetable for elections but says there will eventually be a referendum on a new constitution adopted by national consensus.

Some residents go so far as saying they don’t even want a return to civilian rule.

“We’ve tried Western-style democracy, and it didn’t work,” said Amadou Madi, a 27-year-old electrician. “Elections brought us dictatorship and corruption. What we need is a strong military to lay down the law.”

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