Military coups in Africa used to be prevalent in the early days of African independence – from Col. Jean-Bedel Bokassa in Central African Republic in 1965 to Sergeant Idi Amin in Uganda in 1971 to Sergeant Samuel Doe in Liberia in 1980 to Maj. Daouda Mallam Wanke in Niger in 1999. Ghana and Nigeria each experienced several military coups in the first decades after their independence.
Military coups have increasingly been condemned not only by Western countries, but also by African nations themselves. Following the 1997 overthrow of Congo-Brazzavile President Pascal Lissouba by former President Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the then-Organization of African Unity resolved not to recognize coup leaders. However, in reality Sassou-Nguesso took a low profile before being elected in 2007. This position was later tested by coups in Mauritania, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea.
Coups in African countries have often been provoked by poor governance and rampant corruption. In some cases, civilians encouraged the military to “clear the playing field,” so to speak, in order to facilitate reform. The military as a reset button for governance may have seemed wise since militaries were considered by many to be non-political, and in the case of Nigeria, well-educated and disciplined. Yet this non-political character, education and discipline did not hold true for all militaries. Moreover, holding the levers of power allowed for greed to corrupt military leaders too. The wealth many generals were able to amass came to be seen by lower-level officers as something to which they could aspire, and the interest in ceding power to civilian governments waned in many cases as a result.
While there always has been some sympathy for military coups ousting corrupt and despotic governments, such as Idi Amin and Milton Obote in Uganda, the recent coup in Niger poses a dilemma for the international community. Deposed Niger President Mamadou Tandja had used unconstitutional means to allow him to seek a third term in office. Tandja was elected in 1999 and served two terms, the last of which expired in December 2009. However, he refused to step down, dissolved the Parliament and gave himself the power to rule by decree.
Western donors signaled their opposition to Tandja’s extension of his mandate and threatened action if he went through with his plans to maintain himself in power. Perhaps Tandja looked at other African examples of extension of power in Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Zimbabwe and believed he could tough out the international community’s opposition to his actions. However, he misread the lessons of those other examples. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has presented reasons for repeatedly postponing elections that the international community has accepted. Ugandan President managed to change the constitution to run for a third term. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe won a disputed election, but the crisis was dealt with by the creation of a government of national unity. Tandja used naked power to extend his mandate without even the pretense of constitutionality.
After dissolving the Parliament, Tandja organized legislative elections last September, which triggered the Economic Community of West African States to suspend Niger’s membership, the European Union to suspend development aid and the United States to impose sanctions. Once December came and went, Tandja no longer had a constitutional mandate as president. And there is the rub in this situation.
When armed soldiers seized power on February 19, Niger’s opposition political parties, its largest union and civil society leaders expressed their support for this takeover. This is despite the suspension of the constitution and all institutions. Apparently, they believe that democracy stands a better chance in the hands of the military than in the control of a president who won’t leave when his term has expired. Again the military has cleared the playing field in hopes of restoring order and good governance.
As for the international community that wanted Tandja to step down, the way in which he was removed is being criticized. ECOWAS condemned the coup (having already suspended Niger). The African Union joined in suspending Niger from its ranks. The Americans and Europeans maintained their suspension of aid and sanctions as a means of being consistent in their opposition to coups.
Nigerien sociologist Issouf Bayard was quoted by the IRIN news service as explaining why this coup was necessary.
“We tried to use our political institutions to get him to respect the constitution. Tandja dissolved them. We tried dialogue, which reached a stalemate. The likely outcomes were therefore a popular uprising, strikes that would have paralyzed the country or a military coup.”
So how long will it take the international community to help Niger get back to constitutional democracy?