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Democracy in West Africa: Niger’s Good Coup? (Part 3)

February 23, 2010

Adding to recent drama in West Africa, the military in Niger decided that enough was enough and took control of the Presidential Palace during a cabinet meeting last Thursday (Feb 18 2010).

Ten people died during the coup, but the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) claims that President Mamadou Tandja remains safe. Rumour has it that he is being in the military barracks in the capital Niamey. The new head of state is Colonel Salou Djibo.

There has been widespread dissatisfaction with Tandja since August 2009 when he rewrote the constitution so that he could have more powers and stay beyond the term limits. His parliament and the country’s supreme court tried to block the move, but their efforts failed. Tandja then held a referendum ratifying this power grab—the problem was that it attracted such a low turnout that most people felt it was illegitimate. After dissolving the National Assembly, he declared that he would rule by decree.

Members of the opposition have been protesting ever since and the country has been stuck in political deadlock for the past six months.


What is interesting is not so much that a coup occurred, but the fact that people seem to be grateful for it. In fact, thousands of people marched in the street to show their support for the military takeover. Some people have even wondered why it took the military so long to step in:

“The soldiers were late. We are waiting for the soldiers to clean out our house because it is dirty,” said shopkeeper Mamadou Illa, referring to the months of wrangling between Tandja and opposition parties that preceded the coup. Full story.

And it’s not just the people on the street that are happy about the coup, but even diplomats have cautiously expressed optimism:

the coup… was officially criticized but, in private, diplomats say may have created an opening…. Over the weekend, diplomats swept into the heavily fortified junta headquarters, where soldiers in armored vehicles and battle-wagons stood guard, and emerged from talks impressed by promises they were given for a planned return to civilian rule.

This kind of comment says a lot about the state of democracy in Niger, and to a lesser extent, about democracy in West Africa. These are the same diplomats who have publicly condemned the coup– because they have to. But at the same time, they need to be pragmatic: Tandja was not going to give up power willingly and the opposition was not going to let him get away with staying with power. Everyone is glad that he is gone, but no one in the international community is willing to condone the methods by which it was done.

A good coup?

All of this leads to the question of whether there can ever be such a thing as a good coup d’état. Certainly, on occasion, there have been good outcomes resulting from a coup. Witness the coup that took down President Traoré of Mali— elections followed in a year’s time. Similarly, in Mauritania, the coup in 2005 also led to free elections—even if the new democratic regime only lasted for a year.

So good outcomes are possible.

The problem is the “good” version is a pretty rare occurrence when it comes to military coups. And West Africa has got a particularly bad track record. Those who seize power often appear to start out with good intentions, but find that once they are in power, they actually quite like it and don’t want to give it up. In the words of Lord Acton:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

If you want to take Niger’s new military junta on their word, they have promised “democracy and good governance” and they have also promised to solve the problems of “poverty, deception and corruption”. These words have a familiar ring… we heard similar expressions of faith in Guinea from Captain Camara in December 2008 as he took over the country. These words were then repeated again by his #2 when Captain Camara was shot in the head by the leader of his Presidential Guard (to be fair, it looks like his #2 who is now president did not have anything to do with it).

The point is that talk is cheap. Colonel Djibo may have every intention of restoring civilian rule at this moment, but he may feel very differently about it in a year or two when it really is time to give up the throne. Being a Big Man in West Africa is very important, and it’s easy to see how being the Biggest Man in the country would be difficult to give up.

Now let’s give Colonal Djibo the benefit of the doubt and assume that this coup will lead to a good outcome—as one of the rare exceptions to the rule. Could this be a “good” coup? Well, in the short run, possibly. The problem is the long run– that a successful coup effectively says to potential coup leaders in the future that:

a) the head of state is always vulnerable

b) if we don’t like our leader, we can always depose her using violence

In essence, this is a recipe for political instability. Coups change the rules of the game; why bother with elections when it is so much easier to take a few weapons and storm the presidential palace with a few guards? Once you stop respecting the electoral rules, then there is really no end to how those rules can be manipulated. Not only does the ruler of the day lose her legitimacy with the people, but the institution of democracy is also tainted, and so is the institution of government. Consider that Tandja himself also participated in a coup to come to power— to what extent did his coup lead to his own undoing? From a research perspective, does each individual coup increase the likelihood of a future one occurring, and to what extent?

There is no such thing as a good coup.

Recipe for holding onto power

If you are the head of state in a small country that powerful countries don’t care too much about, there are very clear instructions for staying in power. Below I’ve paraphrased and embellished John Peter Pham’s recipe:

1)      Hold elections once in a while (fraud is ok, but don’t be too blatant about it)

2)      Don’t commit war crimes or genocide

3)      Don’t arbitrarily rewrite important commercial contracts

4)      Don’t go to war with your neighbours

Basically, if heads of state can stick to these rules, then they are golden. And many West African heads of state have been pretty good at following this recipe. For example, President Biya has ruled for 27 years in Cameroon and Omar Bongo was president for 41 years in Gabon before he finally passed away.

How can this cycle be stopped?

There is no easy answer to this. Part of the answer is going to have to lie in alternation: that is, a changing of the guard. Term limits are supposed to do exactly this, but they are clearly inadequate since all sorts of leaders have managed to find their way around this particular check in the system. The peaceful handover of power from one leader to the next somehow needs to be instilled as a norm. Exactly how this is to be achieved lies in the hands of West Africans themselves.


Part 1: Democracy in West Africa– Yar’Adua’s Disappearing Act

Part 2: Democracy in West Africa– In Guinea, Darkness, then Hope?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2010 4:19 pm

    Interesting question – when is a coup a good thing? Is the answer the same if it replaces a dictator vs a democratically elected tyrant?

    Related question, and not a new one of course – Is a democratically elected leader always better than a reasonable dictator? Honduras vs Cuba, China vs India.

    Closer to home, the lust for power is seriously harming the American democracy. There is gridlock in which all votes depend not on the merits of the legislation, but only on the ability to get or retain power. It’s alarming, really, and it looks like it will get worse before it gets better.

  2. February 25, 2010 3:32 pm

    Ahhhh, the issue of the reasonable dictator vs. the elected leader who is less than reasonable…. On balance, I suspect, but don’t know for sure without data, that democratically elected leaders leave their people better off– however you want to define better off. But it’s clear that there are exceptions and you’ve pointed out some good ones in China and Cuba.

    In spite of the many flaws of the Castro and Communist Party regimes, it is easy to imagine how the democratic counterfactual would have been disastrous for Cuba and China respectively. Bad leaders are a dime a dozen– irrespective of whether or not they are elected. In Cuba’s case, leadership has relied on one personality, which is inherently less predictable in terms of the quality of their future leaders– Castro might have done an okay job, but that doesn’t say much about the next head of Cuba.

    China is different. They have set up a way to systematically choose leaders and to handover power in a predictable manner. This is really half the battle– getting people to give up power. It also matters that power is also less concentrated in the hands of an individual and is actually spread out amongst many people, and it tends to be bound by institutional rules. These structures matter and will be important for when (and if) they decide to move towards full democracy.

    In the end, I think the process matters a lot– so there are “dictators” and then, there are “dictators”….

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