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Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 21:10 GMT 22:10 UK

World: Africa

Niger: A copybook coup d'etat

Former BBC West Africa Correspondent Elizabeth Blunt looks at the background to what is beginning to look like a classic African coup

Tanks on the streets, martial music on the radio, heavily armed soldiers surrounding the presidential palace.

Events in Niamey have all the signs of a copybook African coup d'etat, of the kind that just a year or two ago Africa seemed to have left behind.

Niger itself was one of the countries which was swept along on the wave of democratisation in the early 1990s, and installed a democratically elected President, Mahamane Ousmane, in 1993.

But democracy is fragile in Niger; less than three years later, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, then a colonel, seized power, on the pretext that the elected civilian government was not working.

But even while seizing power by force, Mainassara still publicly accepted democracy as the ideal - within six months he had had himself elected president.

Niger's opposition has never accepted his legitimacy, and has contested his rule at every opportunity.

Election row

The immediate cause of the latest events in Niger seems to have been the row between government and opposition over local elections in February; the opposition complain that wherever they seemed to be doing well, armed men invaded the polling stations, destroyed documents and disrupted the vote.

When the Supreme Court announced earlier this week that the elections in these places would be cancelled, apparently rewarding those who had disrupted them, the opposition called for massive demonstrations.

Now the political instability seems to have achieved the result they would have least desired - exacerbating tensions within the army, and sparking off a coup d'etat of the most old-fashioned kind.

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