It seems every time the Nigerien political crisis nears some resolution, it swerves wildly in the other direction.
The inevitable end seems to be preordained against President Tandja, barring a true coup d’etat. But his cadre of supporters, comfortable in their offices can’t face it, and are thrashing around looking for a way to square the circle.
Let’s recap. A well funded campaign appears (titled “Tazartché”) to demand a way for Tandja to continue in office after his term runs out in December. Critics point to constitutional reasons the President can’t run for a third term, so his supporters float constitutional changes. These are clearly impossible under the current Constitution, so a whole new constitution is proposed. This would never pass the Assembly, so a referendum is proposed. The President’s coalition partners come out against his plan as does the Constitutional Court, so President Tandja dismisses the first and notes the second but announces his referendum anyway. The opposition bring a case to the court (which this time would be binding) and it rules against the president. This seems the end: unlike previous roadblocks, there is no appeal of the Constitutional Courts decisions, and they must be carried out in 30 days. The CENI (Electoral commission) has complied, announcing today parliamentary elections for August 20, and no referendum.
But will Tandja go quietly? He’s calling the Council of the Republic, a body composed of the heads of various government bodies: the Assembly, PM, Heads of the high courts, Electoral, Municipal, Economic, and Traditional rulers’ bodies. Article 56 in the constitution spells out the composition, that it should meet when “the regular functioning of public powers and continuity of the state are gravely threatened.” And everything else is kicked down the road to future law. Except that the Council has never been called or its powers defined previously. It’s intention was to be a body to mediate intractable political differences. Two years ago, when it seemed needed, the President created the office of Mediator of the Republic instead. Because let’s face it, if you want intractable political problems to just go away, you don’t call all of your most powerful rivals into one room. You appoint a retired politician to give speeches and submit a report to be reviewed at a later date by the President (which is the exact mandate of the Mediator of the Republic).
If they’re wise, the MNSD leadership — those who wish to continue in politics — will contest the Assembly elections on 20 August and let this constitutional change drop. The MNSD has never won an absolute majority in the Assembly, and there’s no chance they alone can control the next Assembly: there will be a divided government until the presidential elections in November, and c’est fini.
I can’t find anything in the Constitution which Tandja’s people could use to get around this latest ruling. But they may try. Those closest to Tandja may have burned their political bridges. If they see that there can be no way back for them in this rather lucrative political game, even at 2014 elections, they may simply seize power. Perhaps they’ll find some way to dismiss all the heads of the constituent elements of the Council of the Republic and declare a new enabling law giving the body power to rule when the Assembly is dismissed?
Parties and Civil Society: “Enough! To hell with Tazartché Long live democracy and onward to change!”
Tandja: “You there! Dan Dubaï! They’re all turning on us?!”
Dan Dubaï: “Papa continuity!! The People are with us!”
But even those heading the Tazartché campaign must know that ECOWAS/CEDEAO is in no mood to play. Events in Mauritania, Guniee and Guinee-Bissau have challenged African leaders’ high minded pronouncements about democratic transitions in West Africa, and current Presidents are eager to draw a bright line between the questionable “elections” which brought the heads of Nigeria or Burkina to power, and clearly unconstitutional coups. Woe be to Niamey should they find themselves on the unconstitutional side at this time. A press spat between Tazartché campaign leader Dan Dubaï and the ECOWAS representative / President of Nigeria Umaru Musa Yar’Adua does not bode well for Tandja. Telling Yar’Adua that ECOWAS and Nigeria have no say and no involvement in Niamey’s affairs was a less than politic move. This is not a fella you want to tic off, and it does not suggest those behind Tandja have much sense.
If Tandja’s people either come right out and declare a dismissal of all other institutions, or simply carry on as if nothing as happened, the Army is going to decide this, and this would be a sad burden for Nigeriens. I’ve read that the Chiefs of Staff announced they would have no involvement, although I can’t source this. If they really do sit this out completely, Tandja’s done. Things like the following make it so. For the first time — ever — all seven national trades union bodies agreed a unified strike against Tandja’s plans, only to postpone it when a Niamey court ruled it illegal. These seven can’t even march in the same May Day parades, so unity is a bit of a watershed. Note that the big political front march last week was also declared illegal, was postponed, but happened without interference. Are these groups negotiating with the MNSD leadership, or the police and military? Or are they just being cautious?
A recent editorial declared that, following the recent Constitutional Court ruling, Tazarcé had reached a cul de sac. One hopes they’ll turn around and be done with it. But there are precedents in recent Nigerien history.
Three historic parallels leap to mind.
One is the 1994 political crisis when then President Ousmane (head of the CDS, and now opposing the President tentatively) and then Prime Minister Issoufou (firebrand head of the PNDS and now leader of the opposition) fell out. The replacement PM was voted out by the Assembly, and Ousmane tried to appoint a loyalist PM to rule without the Assembly. Gridlock, even civil disobedience in the Assembly chamber ensued. Incidentally, Tandja was one of the leaders of these protests. But within a month Ousmane caved. He — obviously — survived politically. His climb down then, like his later involvement in the protests against 1996 coup and its various manipulations of the electoral process, has restored his democratic bona fides. The party coalitions shifted because of this, but the player remained in the game. Now anyone too associated with Tandja is in danger of permanent ejection, and we could see the next government return to the 1991-1994 consensus that the former military MNSD party is too tainted with authoritarianism to be an acceptable political partner. This may explain the recent low profile of Prime Minister (and recently minted party chief) Seyni Oumarou.
A second parallel might be 1999, when the marches and protests of politicians and civil society goaded the military into a coup, and a return to democratic rule. This would obviously be bad for Tandja, even if he didn’t end up like General Baré Maïnassara, leaving the Presidency in two body bags.
The third parallel is 1991. When strikes and marches were suppressed under the military, tensions boiled over. University students were shot down on a march over Niamey’s Kennedy bridge. The military offered some piecemeal reforms. But Niamey civil society simply took power. Opposition groups, unions, and community organizations convened a National Convention (like that in France following liberation, and more recently like that in Benin), and declared itself the sovereign ruler of the nation, wrote a constitution, and launched the nations first real elected government.
As an outsider, this seems like one of the proudest moments in Niger’s history. But it was one that came at a high cost, both in lives lost and in the social and economic costs of scraping all Niger’s institutions and their slow recreation over two years of sometimes contentious debate. It would be a shame if Nigeriens had to start over once again just 16 years later. But they have proven they can if they need to, and that must be a source of hope.