Saturday, February 20, 2010



People react in a street in the city of Naimey, Niger, Friday, Feb. 19, 2010. A junta that seized power in a coup in the West African nation of Niger named a platoon commander as its leader Friday, hours after soldiers announced on state TV that their group was in charge of the uranium-rich country. (AP Photo) (AP)

The Associated Press
February 19, 2010


Africa's latest coup went down in the usual way, with soldiers bursting into the presidential compound, kidnapping the elected president and then huddling before a TV camera to announce that their aim was to restore democracy.

It's not just propaganda. In this unstable corner of the world where elections are easily manipulated, military-led coups actually are one way to address bad governance.

President Mamadou Tandja - whose whereabouts remained unknown Friday, a day after he was taken hostage - came to power through legitimate means, but then tried to hang on beyond the legal limit. He was elected in 1999, months after the last military-led coup ousted the former strongman, and again in 2004.

Instead of stepping down as mandated by law on Dec. 22, Tandja triggered a political crisis by pushing through a new constitution that removed term limits, allowing him to run again.

"No matter what, the only way Tandja would have left office is by force," said opposition member Ali Beidi, an adviser to the country's former prime minister, who is in exile in France. "This coup is an opportunity to return to democracy."

The mutinous soldiers fought their way Thursday into the well-guarded presidential palace where Tandja was holding a Cabinet meeting, whisking him away as rounds of machine gun fire rang out and plumes of smoke rose from the white-hued complex. He has not been heard from since.

Hours later, the officers appeared on national TV to say the country was in the hands of a junta dubbed the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, which plans to turn the nation into "an example of democracy and good governance."

It was a scene that has played out many times in Africa, where coups typically mark the birth of a dictator. Still, they have occasionally brought democracy, at least for a while, in countries where entrenched rulers refused to step aside.

In 1991 in Mali, an officer overthrew the former strongman, then organized elections the following year. In Mauritania in 2005, officers ousted the last dictator, then held the country's first free and transparent vote - even though a countercoup a year later put the desert nation back into the hands of the military.

The 71-year-old Tandja had become increasingly isolated since altering the constitution last year to allow him to run for president as many times as he wants.

Since then, the 15-nation regional bloc of West African states has suspended Niger from its ranks and the U.S. government cut off non-humanitarian aid. Tandja dug in, convinced he could outmaneuver his opponents. In recent months he had stopped taking phone calls from other African presidents who were trying persuade him to step down, Beidi said. "Tandja is a person that didn't realize that - even in Africa - sovereignty is something relative, something that can be taken away from you. He thought he's the head of state, so he can stay on indefinitely," Beidi said.
Analysis: Niger coup another chance at democracy

People react in a street in the city of Naimey, Niger, Friday, Feb. 19, 2010. A junta that seized power in a coup in the West African nation of Niger named a platoon commander as its leader Friday, hours after soldiers announced on state TV that their group was in charge of the uranium-rich country. (AP Photo) (AP)

As his term began nearing a close last spring, Tandja began aggressively attacking all state institutions that stood in his path to continued rule.

He called a referendum to change the constitution so that he could be allowed a third term, despite intense domestic and international criticism.

He dissolved the national assembly and later dismissed the government, saying he planned to rule by decree. He told reporters he was only staying on because his people had asked him to.

A handful of African leaders have failed in attempts to extend their rule but more have succeeded. Similar referendums have passed in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Tunisia and Uganda. In many countries in the region, there is only a facade of democracy.

In nearby Cameroon, President Paul Biya has been in power for 27 years, winning successive elections that were deemed fraudulent. Still, he is treated as a head of state and his country is not the subject of sanctions, as is often the case following a coup.

In Gabon, Omar Bongo won term after term, managing to stay president for 41 years until his death last year. When his son won elections organized immediately after Bongo's death, the country descended into riots and the opposition alleged fraud.

In countries such as these, the electorate has little power to remove their leader via the ballot box.

"If you are a leader in Africa and you want to hold on to power all you need to do is hold periodic polls, make sure you aren't caught in mass atrocities, avoid arbitrarily rewriting contracts - and don't start wars with your neighbors," said Africa expert Peter Pham, a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. "Then by and large, you can look forward to a long and remunerative reign as a head of state," he said.

Although the international community was quick to condemn Thursday's coup, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tandja may have invited his own fate by "trying to extend his mandate in office."

A senior French diplomat who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press said the coup could offer a resolution to a political stalemate.

"These soldiers who seized power have said themselves that they'd like to hold elections as quickly as possible. I think we need to take them at their word and encourage them in this direction," he said.

A day after the coup, traffic had returned to normal and buses had gone back to their usual routes. Banks were open, as were schools. The leader of the junta, Cmdr. Salou Djibo, went on the air to announce that the countries borders had been reopened, including the airport.

No one appeared too concerned about the sudden disappearance of their president, who is believed to be held at a military barracks.

Opposition leaders pointed to the success of Mali's coup in ushering in democracy, but some also sounded a cautionary note. Africa is full of examples of coups that went terribly wrong, including most recently in neighboring Guinea following the 2008 death of longtime autocrat Lansana Conte.

Hours after Conte's death, a young army captain, Moussa "Dadis" Camara, seized power, promising to quickly call elections. He soon reversed course and last September, his presidential guard opened fire on unarmed demonstrators who had gathered to demand an end to military rule. At least 157 people were killed and over 100 women were raped by soldiers chanting pro-Dadis slogans. "Of course we need to be cautious. We need to avoid a repeat of Guinea," Beidi said.

Rukmini Callimachi has covered West Africa since 2007 and is based in Dakar, Senegal. Dalatou Mamane reported from Niamey. Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris.