Niger: Even Good Coups Get the Blues

Salou Djibo  Ibn Chambas

Junta leader Salou Djibo is warmly welcomed by ECOWAS chief Ibn Chambas.

In the two weeks that have passed since Niger’s Mamadou Tandja was overthrown by the army, there has been an explosion of joy an relief from Nigeriens, countered by a few, very specific, criticisms. A wire story by AFP and an analysis by Alex Thurston at SahelBlog are the two best English language assessments I’ve seen of the complexity of popular mood, now so positive but with huge expectations of the CSRD junta. This is what other journalists, apparently surprised that coups are not always seen as naked power grabs, have called “the Good Coup.”

And good it most certainly was. African commentators have reminded us that President Tandja had staged a coup of his own last June, dismissing all checks on Presidential power and ending the 1999 constitution of the 5th Republic. Tandja settled with Tuareg rebels and the French government’s uranium mine (Niger’s major source of income), pocketed 1.2 Billion Euros, and set about rebuilding the state around a small power base of leaders loyal only to him.

As we know, this worked out poorly for all involved, except perhaps France’s Areva uranium. While foreign criticism of the February 18 coup has been diplomatically correct, there is an implied wink, best exemplified by outgoing ECOWAS President Mohamed Ibn Chambas’ grin at his first meeting with junta head Cmdt. Salou Djibo.

Nigerien popular reaction, it is not to much to say, was jubilant. So much so that on March 3rd, the junta’s nightly press release included a demand that people stop having spontaneous rallies support the junta, as they were blocking too much traffic in the capital. But there has been criticism from Niger, and as differences will likely grow and not lessen during the transition, it is worth taking these few voices seriously. These complaints come from three different groups, representing different groups with different trajectories over the next six to nine months of transition. None rise to the level of righteous indignation which the pitiable citizens of Guinee turned on their junta tormentors after a year of criminality and massacre. Nigeriens will be better off with all likely outcomes of this transition than they would have been under the personal rule of Tandja and his corrupt cronies. But there are, even now, voices questioning if this is good enough.

The Losers

The most strident criticisms come  from the overthrown. Tandja and his closest partisans for now remain mum, as until 5 March, five of the most powerful minister were under arrest, and the rest know that their arrests would be a popular move by the junta. Two who have spoken out are former PM Seini Oumarou as the leader of the MNSD, and his party VP Ali Sabo. Oumarou’s statement in the week after the coup, delivered in the name of the MNSD, has made him the highest profile leader to openly oppose the coup.  Sabo’s statements to the press, more measured, project a party united against and illegal change of power.  Both men were handpicked by Tandja to run the party, after driving out former PM and party chief Hama Amadou, and splitting many locals. Court cases about the legality of this move were still ongoing as recently as January, and it is unclear if Hama — one of the most likely post coup leaders — will now recapture the party or stick with his newly created MODEN-Lumana organization. While MNSD cadre were mixed in their reaction to the 6th Republic, Sabo and Oumarou’s statements since the coup, along with statements by crony groups like the MPDNP of Nouhou Arzika, are of a category of their own: outright rejection of the coup.

This is shared, publicly at least, only by those leaders who most closely tied their futures to Tandja. Members of four Tandja allied minor parties, who will likely be blacklisted for the time being, released statements calling the coup everything from an illegal plot by the opposition to a neo-colonial ploy by imperialists.  This is not a large number of individuals, and the junta can feel safe to ignore them. But even these disparate and serially unsuccessful party leaders –  Abdoulkarim Mamalo, president of PMT-Albarka, Ali “Max” Djibo of UNI – append their damnation with a call for a peaceful transition.

The loyal opposition

junta members niamey RDP umbrella

Cpt. Djirilla Harouna, who led the coup assault (center), is offered a RDP-Jama’a umbrella by supporters, Feb. 20, Niamey. The RDP was one of the parties whose government the coup had overthrown.

Nigerien politics are very good at providing second chances, and even those who tried to ride Tandja’s coattails know they will live to fight again.  The 1999 5th Republic was even able to find space for the party of President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, upon who’s murder that regime was based. Baré’s loyalists (his family and those who’d burned their bridges by defying the boycott of existing parties to join the coup), regrouped under the RDP-Jama’a served in Tandja’s governments, and portions supported his June 2009 coup. The RDP leadership joined Tandja’s new government, took part in his boycotted elections, and supported his 6th Republic even when Tandja made clear that the RDP’s core issue – the repeal of the amnesty for the soldiers who killed Baré – was not on the table.  But within days of the coup RDP-Jama’a members were visible at rallies supporting the February 18 coup. MNSD members, whomever they supported in the split, will find a modus vivendi with whatever regime appears.

The second set of criticism, the mildest, are from the the leaders of the opposition.  In this group are the inheritors of the coming political order: Marou Amadou (a civil society leader catapulted to prominence as the organizer of the broad opposition front), Hama, Mahamadou Issoufou (of the PNDS party), and the others who are girding for expected presidential elections. [To my knowledge the exiled leader of the third opposition party the CDS-Rahama, former President Mahamane Ousmane, has not given an interview since the coup].  They are publicly grateful, but insist that this be done quickly. They are the firmest backers of the coup who have expressed any criticism. It matches the foreign criticism in its proforma wording, but it is also the category most likely to grow, based as it is in impatience.

A pox on all houses

Third, and I think the most interesting, are some from the intelligentsia and civil society groups. L’Eventment’s editor saying “these are the same crooks being again chose to serve the interim administration” is a notion which may have legs in the long term.  Issoufou Sidibe of the influential CDTN trade union confederation may, after his initial critique of the “quality” of the junta ministers, come to that conclusion as well. From the leaders of the political class, this last criticism is that “we wanted all Tandja’s people to pay for what they did” position. From people on the street it is the much more revolutionary desire to purge the entire, failed, political leadership of the nation. That same desire was tapped by Tandja’s supporters, who argued that a Tandja dictatorship would save the nation from all the “politicians”. To completely ignore this line of criticism would be foolish.

A variation on this critique of the transition is a critique of the need for a interim government at all. The head of the University Teachers union, which was paralyzed by divisions in the 6th republic, released a strong statement saying essentially “there needs to be another National Conference” as in the 1991 transition from military dictatorship to democracy: such changes need to be decided beyond the political class’s leadership. Other opposition supporters have complained that they were fighting for the return to the 5th Republic, not for an elite to create a whole new one.

While the crux of the 2009 political crisis was the greed of one small group around the President, the entire Nigerien political class has time and again shown itself unable to work together on any national development, and equally guilty of looting the treasury when they come to office. This is the most potentially potent critique of the new Junta’s plans. But a thorough housecleaning is unlikely to be in the cards, and most everyone knows that.

The Military and the opposition leadership are seemingly agreed that the 1999 constitution was in part to blame for Tandja’s ability to take power, with approbation of unilateral actions by the executive, but no means for enforcement against the executive. This, they say, needs to be reworked in a 7th Republic. The model for doing so exists from 1999, where leaders of all the parties sat down to rewrite the basic structure of government, then approved by referendum.

Every sign so far is that today’s junta is modeled closely upon Wanke’s 1999 CRN junta and transition. The knock on 1999 is threefold. They returned the same corrupt political class to power. An improvement from Bare, but not great for the masses. They were entirely undemocratic during the transition. They set up a cycle of the Army as guarantor of political peace. We have begun to hear the first and last complaints already. We will likely hear more of all three.

Is there still a 1991 option?

One caveat: Junta leader Cmdt. Salou Djibo and Prime Minister Danda have both pulled in a lot of people with ties to the Ali Saibou regime of the late 1980s. This was, in fact, where Danda had his first political appointment. They both made high profile visits to General Saibou’s home, something unseen for many years. This may be that he is the latest icon of the “good soldier” in an army still divided by April 1999 assassination of General Baré. Or it may be that he’s the only living head of state not involved in the current crisis.

Or, one might hope, it is a willingness to diverge from 1999 script, and open the process to the popular forces seen in the 1991 National Conference. This was a transition to democracy controlled not by the government, but by civil society and a wide range of political and union groups, where the army was willing to take a backseat to more popular forces. The prospect of such a transition in 2010 may be idealistic, but it remains a home.

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