The Tegucigalpa–Niamey Difference

This was the weekend for Coups: was the death of Michael Jackson assumed to distract us all?  Regardless, a couple of Nigeriens have pointed out the uncanny similarities between the situation of President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya and President of Niger Mamadou Tandja. Despite this, both crises are intimately linked to the history of these nations, and represent very different forces.

Let’s run down the somewhat creepy similarities first. I hope my Hispaniphone friends will forgive my relative ignorance of Honduran society.

Both presidents are nearing the end of their terms, and both face constitutions declaring explicitly they cannot run again. Both face constitutions which state term limits may not be rescinded. Hoping to continue in power, both hit upon the idea (independently? one must wonder) of adding a referendum to the upcoming election asking the voters to say yes/no to the idea of creating a new Constitution following the election, presumably (but not explicitly in the Honduran case) allowing the President to stay on extra-constitutionally following a “yes” vote. In both cases all the opposition, including members of their own parties, have declared against this plan. In both cases, the circumstances have gone before their nation’s Supreme Courts and both have ruled the President’s plans illegal. In both cases the President has responded by saying he will ignore the court, the parliament, and the opposition.

Now, if I say “here is where they diverge” you might accuse me of claiming a distinction without a difference.

But the cases do diverge at this point, and this is evidence why morality, history, and ideology so often conflict with the otherwise useful political science and legal analysis. And I fully accept that this is also evidence of the fickle nature of political belief: that people don’t make up their minds about politics based on legal analysis. Folks who lean to the left are likely to side with the opposition in Niger and the government in Honduras. I am one of them. And it’s a fact that they are constitutionally almost identical situations.

But I’m going to defend myself in two ways. Through a closer examination of the means used by all four sides, in light of both the current and deeper history of these societies, I think I can see what they are “about”: what world each group in these two conflicts are trying to create.  I think that we know which side we’re on, even when we criticize some of their means. By looking at the aspect that really makes us political animals — despite what we all say and even believe — pick ideological sides: what each means to their society.

Unlike Niger, Honduras is a rich country with very many poor people. Those poor are almost all of indigenous background and those rich are almost all white. This is not accidental: governments there have long existed to serve one population and keep the other quiet. Anyone who has read Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez will recognize the history of revolving “Liberal” and “Landed” parties. Zelaya, whatever his faults, has set out to break this revolving door. He is explicitly on the side of the poor. His enemies are the rich and the military, and those of his own Liberal party who prefer politics as usual.

The Nigerien combatants, on the other hand, all play politics in very non ideological ways. Even the most ideological of the main parties, the Social Democrat PNDS is more about serving constituency and leaders than any social conflict. The fact that the opposition contains much of the center-right ruling party (following former PM Hama Amadou) as well as all the other large parties of the center and left. Ethnically, despite a long history of Djerma populated government in a Hausa plurality nation, no side can really say they have ethnic grievance against the other. For example, the former Tuareg rebels, long isolated from national politics, were castigated by all sides of the Niamey political game over the last two years. Niger is a poor country with poor people: there is an elite, but they resemble more Russia in 1900, where the vast majority were rural communities so outside politics as to play no role whatsoever.

So playing the game according to the constitutional rules means two different things. In Niger, it means breaking the societal consensus, and will create instability which will poorly serve those outside of the game. One commentator described the near universal opposition to Tandja’s “new constitution” as stemming from a realization that his proposed new order will involve a “liquidation of the current political class.”

Now that phrase could be used in Tegucigalpa as well. It explains in both situations the reaction of even the most craven apparatchiks to these two crises. But we have to ask not only who will lose out in these political maneuvering, because some real spineless careerists will lose out in both. We have to ask, who will win? Who will be the new political class that each President is trying to put into power?

In Tegucigalpa, the new political order in waiting is leftist activists and indigenous groups who have been shat upon from a very great height for a very great time. But this new political class would include some authoritarian undertones, with which even those sympathetic must deal.

I’m a firm believer that we cannot make a better world by using the authoritarian tactics of our foes. That mindset, that system, that superstructure is part of what defines our enemies, and — like Capitalism — it creates false choices for even the most well intentioned leaders. From this internal logic we get outcomes which should be all too apparent to anyone familiar with Stalinism and Maoism. It is not an accident that I adhere to a political party which supports Hugo Chavez‘s movement while being quite critical of much of the over-personalized leader worship that surrounds him.

This is all quite distant from what is going on in Niger. The new political class which President Tandja wishes to create is one of a small clique of toadies and sycophants. Their goal is to never hand over their power and to use that power for personal enrichment. You may rightfully criticize some of the tactics of Manuel Zelaya or Hugo Chavez, but they are not getting rich at this, and the poor of their nations really believe in them. The people who so vehemently play the victims in Honduras — as in Venezuela —  are the rich and powerful. I have no sympathy for them.

The reaction of former colonial powers is a wild card in both these cases. The French, who depend so on the huge Uranium contract just renegotiated between the government controlled Areva AC and Tandja, have kept mum since his May decision to extend his mandate by whatever means possible. They clearly fear a new government may back out of that deal, and even may hand over mining contracts to the Chinese. France cannot run its Nuclear power system without Nigerien ore, at least not without doubling their prices. And the French power grid is built around these rocks from Niger’s desert north.

The United States has dictated the economic policy of Honduras from at least the beginning of the 20th century. All their official statements are strongly against this coup, but the US supported Aristide returning to power in Haiti, provided it was followed by Aristide being less dramatically booted out before he was able to deliver economic resources from the hands of that country’s elite. One of the things capitalist states learned long ago was, like the old blue bloods, “not to make a scene.”

I began by laying out what events in these two distant nations are freakishly similar. Lets look at what actions have been taken in the past week that are different.

All four sides of these two conflicts have, until last week, played their political conflicts on the political pitch. In Niger, opposition parties accepted the President dismissing parliament (which did not happen in Honduras) with strong words, protests, and legal appeals. The Constitutional Court did not offer a binding ruling when first asked about the referendum, because they could not constitutional do so. They were mandated to advise and they did. The opposition asked the Court to make a ruling (again, per the constitution), and only then did they offer a ruling which they claimed was binding. That’s in line with the constitution as well.

It was President Tandja moved beyond the “rules of the game”, in declaring a “State of Emergency” which according to the constitution must be reserved for times of threats to the nation’s independence and confirmed by the National Assembly. His plan to hold the 4 August referendum flies in the face of a ruling from a body the constitution makes clear speaks “without any appeal”.

In Tegucigalpa, Manuel Zelaya was ordered removed from power by the Supreme Court after he fired the army chief of staff. Which he can legally do. The Supreme Court nowhere has the power to remove the President, end his term, and send him into exile, especially via a secret order to the military. Zelaya should be faulted for holding a referendum after the Parliament and Courts opposed it, but it’s telling which side when to the nuclear option first in both cases.

When the Army was called into Tegucigalpa, it was to defend the privileges of a powerful minority from a previously powerless majority who had finally come calling. President Tandja and his ever shrinking clique represent a similar injustice in Niamey, despite appearances to the contrary.

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