The headlines last night were a bit hysterical, but there’s no doubt that the President of Niger took a decisive step yesterday. He may not like the consequences of what will happen in the next few months, but there will be consequences. Not General Baré Maïnassara sort of “consequences“, but people are going to remember him for this above all else, and he may be spending his dotage in Morocco.
Tandja wants to remain as president. It’s not that this is such a great gig. It’s that for the first time an elected, sitting president has gotten a chance to get comfortable (Mahamane Ousmane had less than three years, a divided government, and was watched pretty closely) and then has to pack up. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, but for Tandja’s falling out with ex-heir apparent Hama Amadou. The ruling MNSD-Nassara has all but split over Amadou’s 2007 fall from the PM and arrest on corruption charges. Was he corrupt? Probably. But he was likely no less on the take than his enemies within the MNSD. Now Amadou’s people have signed up to the opposition front as a politicial party called “Friends of Hama Amadou”, clearly following the model of Moumouni Adamou Djermakoye‘s split from the MNSD in 1991, a move that cost the former military party a ruling majority in the old Third Republic.
Tandja’s people know this history well and are likely worried that all their contacts made over the last ten years might become more millstones than lodestones. This is especially true of those who’ve benefited most, the various heads of parastatals, business contacts like Dan Dubaï (who has become the bogey man of the opposition) or ministers like Mohamed Ben Omar (who keeps jetting to Arkansas — of all places — cutting business deals, an odd thing for the Minister of Communications to be up to in any government).
So the opposition have some reason to call this a “constitutional Coup d’etat”: that’s clearly the intention. But as of yet, Tandja’s on solid constitutional ground. He dissolved the National Assembly after they (implicitly, through the various party pronouncements of the last two weeks) came out against his plan for a referendum to create a new constitution prior to the October presidential elections. He has the right to do this once every two years, provided he calls elections withing three months. As parliamentary elections were scheduled for November already, he can bring that forward (or say he will) the three months needed, and operate without them until the end of August.
Why a referendum? The constitution of 1999 is explicit (article 136, for those playing at home): the only two articles which may never be revised in any way are those granting amnesty to the soldiers who cut the last President (Baré Maïnassara) in half with a machine gun, and the basic description of the Republic’s institutions in Article 36: That Niger is a secular republic, with a National Assembly, Prime Minister, and President; and that the President — among other restrictions — can only be reelected once to a five year term. So Tandja’s boys hit on the idea of a referendum. The president may call a referendum at any time, provided he asks the “advice” of the National Assembly and Constitutional Court, and that he does not “revise” the constitution. So let’s have a referendum on a whole “new” constitution! Bring on the Sixth Republic (a chance to one up France?). You can see the edge he’s walking here. The letter of the law, yes, but the spirit, no. It didn’t help that when Ben Omar announced this plan, he made sure to point out that mark VI would be a “fully Presidential” system, which, like the less than democratic systems of 1960-74 and 1996-99 would be “incontestably the political system more adapted to our country. It is more in tune with our conception of the African chief.” I can hazard several guesses as to why that kind of reasoning makes me want to hit something, none of which I’ll go into here.
The confusion in the foreign press comes in with the timing of the dissolution: five hours after the Constitutional Court of Niger released a ruling that found Tandja’s plan unconstitutional and in violation of his oath on the holy Koran. In a nation that is 95% Muslim, that last bit has to sting.
And I think that’s the key here. Did Tandja et. al. dismiss the Assembly when he did as a political calculation? Was it that all the constitutional “advising” was out of the way, and the risk that his allies might join a motion of censure by the PNDS a risk not worth taking?
Or was it that all the presidents men are angry? That Tandja, the old Lieutenant Colonel, member of the 74 Coup government, and law and order Minister of the Interior, doesn’t like being told no? I should note that the top two spots in the Constitutional Court are held by women. Who are telling him he’s a bad Muslim. That’s gotta hurt. And whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes angry. If Tandja slips on the fine constitutional line he’s walking, he may lose any way back.
Already the opposition, freed from any obligation to hang around the assembly are beginning a 1500 km road show of protests in each of the eight Regional capitals, beginning in Tandja’s remote home town of Diffa. It’s always hard to tell in Niger, where the political class is a tiny minority of this impoverished rural nation, but the referendum may go very poorly for Tandja anyway. Will he fix it? He previously packed several of the seats on the electoral commission when the Magistrates union refused to participate. But the urban elite are mobilizing, and if Djermakoye and Ousmane get over their distaste for opposition leader “Comrade” Issoufou we could see a repeat of the Third Republic, where the entire political class agreed on just one thing: keep the old military party of the MNSD out of power. Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil