The army has stepped in, according to the putsch-leaders to "end the political crisis" that has been unfolding in Niger since August 2009. This was when President Mamadou Tandja decided to hang on to power through the manipulation of the constitution and going against fierce national, regional, continental and international opposition.
Tandja wanted to amend the constitution to allow him to serve at least three more years without being elected, following the expiration of his second and last constitutional term in December 2009. In addition, he wanted to remove the term-limit in the constitution, which stipulates that the Head of State could only serve a maximum of two 5-year terms. In the face of growing opposition, Tandja dissolved Parliament, the Constitutional Court and the Electoral Commission. He then promulgated a new constitution through a very controversial referendum that was boycotted by the opposition and the majority of Nigeriens. Going against the wishes of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was trying to mediate between Tandja and other political actors in the country, he went ahead with the holding of flawed legislative elections in October that gave his regime about 90 percent of the votes.
Ecowas mediation, led by former Nigerian President Abdousalami Aboubacar tried every avenue possible to dissuade Tandja from carrying out his plans. Mediation, political isolation and economic sanctions were all used to no avail. On 22 December, his constitutional term came to end. ECOWAS ceased to consider him as legitimate and suspended Niger from the decision-making organs of the regional body. The AU did likewise, but both institutions continued to engage with Tandja with a view to restore constitutional order in the country. The ECOWAS mediator even proposed a plan to maintain President Tandja in power and appoint a prime minister from the opposition for a transitional period during which a new constitution would be elaborated and fresh elections held. Tandja and his supporters categorically rejected this plan.
His initiative to enter into dialogue with the Tuareg insurgents in the North was motivated by his strategy to focus on political parties and contain their anger using the army. He realised that it would have been suicidal for him to deal with the rebellion and the political crisis that stemmed from the illegal constitutional amendment at the same time with the same army.
He thus exits Niger's political scene with disgrace after completing two successful terms with some reforms that raised hope in terms of democratic consolidation and socio-economic development in the country. He lost a golden opportunity to play a crucial role as a former president, a moral voice so much needed in the troubled region of West Africa. His overthrow therefore could be considered as a counter-coup, that is a military coup against a constitutional one.
But none of this makes this putsch legal, and this is why both ECOWAS and AU have rightly condemned the coup as per their policy instruments. The onus is now on the new authorities to restore constitutional order in the country, as they have promised.
The impact of this coup goes beyond Niger's national borders. It came in a particularly tense context in West Africa with the recent developments following the dissolution of the cabinet and the electoral commission in Cote d'Ivoire but also a time when both the ECOWAS and AU (supported by the wider international community) are becoming more and more firm on unconstitutional changes of government. Aware of this, one could (very prudently) expect the coup-makers, most of whom were also associated with the downfall of Ibrahima Mainassara in 1999, to heed the calls for the speedy restoration of constitutional order. Prudence is necessary in view of previous experiences, which have shown that military leaders often deviate from their initial declarations and decide to confiscate power and resources for their own interests. A recent example is Dadis Camara in Guinea.
The challenge lies with ECOWAS and other key actors to remain firm and consistent in their approach enjoining the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) to immediately plan the elections and organise a speedy return to democratic order.
Written by: David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Program, ISS Pretoria