Page last updated at 20:00 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Niger, where the army matters

One of Niger's coup leaders on the phone

By Paul Melly
Africa analyst

A bid to restore democratic normality or an internal tussle over power and resources? That is the question yet to be answered as Niger's new military regime confirms its hold over the key institutions of this desperately poor but mineral-rich Sahelian state, one of the world's key producers of uranium.

The clutch of officers who seized power have named themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD).

President Tandja (file image)
The outgoing president of the regional bloc, saw Mr Tandja as a threat to West African democracy

Many Nigeriens, particularly supporters of the opposition, will be hoping that the new regime lives up to its name and rapidly makes arrangements for a transition back to genuine political pluralism.

The increasingly autocratic style of the now-deposed President, Mamadou Tandja, was widely resented.

Last August's referendum vote, which abolished term limits, allowing him to prolong his stay in office, was certainly questionable, with opponents claiming the true turnout may have been as low as 5%.

Political efforts to derail the increasing concentration of power in Mr Tandja's hands had failed.

When parliament and the supreme court stood in his way he shut them down and organised the election of a more compliant national assembly in questionable polls that were not recognised by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the outgoing president of the regional bloc, saw Mr Tandja as a threat to West African democracy and submitted evidence against Niger when the European Union was deciding whether to continue aid to Niamey.

Ethnic concerns

But it is too early to assume that Niger will now see the rapid restoration of a genuinely pluralist political system like those of Mali, Benin, Ghana or Senegal.

Map of Niger
Chronic poverty
Population 14 million, 61% live on less than $1 a day
Resource rich
Huge reserves of uranium, Chinese firms digging for oil
Politically unstable
History of coups, assassinations and on-off rebellion by nomadic Tuareg people in the north

Source: World Bank

Although it was caught up in the wave of democratisation that swept across francophone Africa two decades ago, the country's subsequent history has been more troubled than that of these reform success stories.

Niger suffered a coup in 1996, followed three years later by the assassination of President Ibrahim Mainassara, who had come to power through the putsch.

The subsequent election of Mr Tandja as head of state inaugurated a decade of relative stability, but the army was never far from politics.

Mr Tandja himself is a former colonel and coup participant. And by late last year rumours of renewed army discontent were circulating.

Worried by the dominance of ethnic Djerma westerners in the officer corps, Mr Tandja - who is from the east - built up his presidential guard and the security services.

But there was a sense that he was becoming increasingly isolated, over-reliant on his own bullish self-belief and the advice of a few loyalist colleagues.

Mr Tandja managed to maintain an IMF economic programme - the essential minimum for a partnership with outside donors to reduce poverty levels, which are among the most severe in Africa.

Uranium threat

But Niger has not managed to emulate Mali and Burkina Faso in establishing a sustained long-term grassroots development strategy.

Western governments are also concerned about the growing operational reach of the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

And Mr Tandja's increasingly undemocratic hold on power put support from the EU and other key Western donors at risk.

This may explain why he felt the need to cultivate relations with Libya and Venezuela, both of which he visited in recent months.

And it was rumoured in France that he was considering the award of a crucial uranium mining contract to the Chinese, or even the Iranians, potentially threatening the position of the French nuclear group Areva, for whom Niger is a vital source of supply.

Some sources have suggested that talk of a deal with the Chinese whetted the appetite of some in the military for a share of the material rewards, intensifying tensions within the military over Mr Tandja's monopolisation of power.

Uranium is not the only reason why new developments in Niger will be watched closely by Western governments.

They are also concerned about the growing operational reach of the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose fighters are now active in large tracts of the central Sahara and its southern fringe, the Sahel.

Tuaregs in Niger
Rebel activity has seriously disrupted the tourist industry

The longstanding rebel and smuggling activities of Tuareg nomads should not be confused with AQIM, but they have been a further contributor to insecurity in the region.

In 2007 a new mainly Tuareg group, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), launched a campaign of attacks across the north.

Rebel activity has seriously disrupted the tourist industry, which is an important source of income for local people, particularly around the desert town of Agadez.

And there is always a risk that individuals taken hostage by Tuareg groups may ultimately end up in the hands of AQIM radicals.

France and the US have been providing military assistance to Niger as part of a wider effort to maintain the security of the Sahel.

Good soldiers?

This is the unsettled context facing Ecowas and the African Union, which has suspended Niger, as they attempt to draw the new military rulers into talks over the rapid re-establishment of constitutional democratic rule.

Col Salou Djibo
Col Salou Djibo
Coup leader
Col Djibrilla Hima Hamidou
Involved in 1999 coup
Col Goukoye Abdul Karimou
Junta spokesman
Col Amadou Harouna

An Ecowas envoy, Gen Abdusalami Abubakar from Nigeria, was already attempting to mediate between Mr Tandja and his political opponents.

The military's seizure of power may simplify his task - or it may render it more complicated.

Arguably, the AU's suspension means little, given the sanctions Niger already faces because of Mr Tandja.

And other AU countries suspended for unseating power unconstitutionally, such the Central African Republic after Francoise Bozize's coup, were allowed back into the fold after holding elections to restore constitutional rule.

There are West African precedents, notably in Mali, for a "good soldiers'" pro-democracy coup.

But Niger's new CSRD regime has yet to show whether it really intends to pursue such a path.

And the country's unsettled recent history suggests that turning such good intentions into a national consensus around the route forward could prove difficult.

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