Opposition parties, Niger’s largest union and members of civil society announced their support on 19 February for a military ruling council that abducted President Mamadou Tandja the day before and suspended a contested constitution.
While the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has condemned the coup as an unconstitutional “ascension to power” and Africa Union has suspended Niger, Chris Fomunyoh, the regional director of West and Central Africa for the US-based NGO, National Democratic Institute, said President Tandja had been hanging on to power illegally.
“I would never say a coup is a good thing, but Tandja had so wronged the people of Niger that if his wrongs can be righted then democracy may have a chance to regain its cause in Niger.”
In the past year, President Tandja dissolved the parliament and constitutional court, organized a contested and boycotted referendum last August that removed presidential term limits – and would have allowed him to stay in power until at least 2013 – and proceeded with legislative elections in October that led to the country’s suspension from the regional trade bloc, ECOWAS.
The European Union then suspended more than US$600 million in annual budgetary support and development aid. The US froze an estimated $50 million of non-humanitarian support.
“Niger was saved today [18 February],” animal trader Habibou El Hadj Manzo told IRIN in the northern desert town Agadez. “Even if there were some deaths, it [the coup] is forgivable because if nothing is done, it is the entire population that will die of hunger and thirst.”
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
|Nigerien cereal bank in 2008; less reserves in 2010 (file photo)|
More than half of the 15-million person population has only two months of food stock to last until the 2010 harvest – nine months away, according to United Nations.
The coup potentially saved the country from violence, Oumarou Keïta with the national human rights commission told IRIN. “The coup happened in the context of political tension; faltering negotiations exposed Niger to a potential conflict. The choice of Tandja and those close to him to isolate the country from the international community weighed heavily on its citizens.”
A Finance Ministry worker who preferred to remain anonymous told IRIN he was relieved by the takeover. “The president kept repeating the country has resources, but things were heating up with the famine that no one dares mention. Donors were leaving us. We were worried that things would get to the point where we would no longer receive salaries.”
“Rob the robber”
The coup may not be justified, but it was inevitable, Nigerien sociologist Issouf Bayard told IRIN from the capital, Niamey. “We tried to use our political institutions to get him to respect the constitution. Tandja dissolved them. We tried dialogue, which reached a stalemate. The likely outcomes were therefore a popular uprising, strikes that would have paralyzed the country or a military coup.”
Bayard said the 4 August 2009 constitution-changing vote was an act of theft. “Tandja was taking what did not rightfully belong to him by stealing that vote. We were then faced with a situation in which we had to rob the robber – even if in principle theft is wrong.”
The country’s largest union has called for a quick return to civilian democratic rule.
Coup leader Djibrilla Hima Hamidou – who took part in the 1999 coup that killed President Ibrahim Maïnassara Baré – told IRIN the military council wants to stabilize the country, find a way out of the constitutional crisis and to protect Nigeriens from any further harm.
The government finance worker told IRIN he trusted the military was acting in good faith. “We do not want a [Guinean coup leader] Dadis on our hands who refuses to leave power, but it is too early to have those fears. We have been in a political crisis for the last six months. This may be our road out.”
Calls for Guinea’s 2008 coup leader Moussa Dadis Camara to step down from power culminated in an assassination attempt on his life last December.
When asked whether there was a risk that military rulers would move the country further from constitutionality, democracy analyst Fomunyoh replied: “There is little incentive for them. The Niger military has learned its lessons from the  assassination of autocrat Ibrahim Maïnassara Baré and from the overthrow of Tanjda who could not dismantle democracy with impunity.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions