Niger, Foreign Aid, and the Dilemma of (Certain) Coups

In 2009, President Mamadou Tandja of Niger decided to change the country’s constitution in order to stay in power. Holding a popular referendum of dubious legitimacy allowed him to make his amendments. By the end of the year it appeared that Tandja would stay in power, like other rulers in Africa and elsewhere, until he was ready to go.

Then, in February 2010, the Nigerien military ousted Tandja in a bloodless coup.

The military had intervened in Niger and permitted or led transitions to democracy before. In 1999, officers overthrew Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who took power in 1996 first in his own coup and then through flawed elections later that year. The 1999 coup was followed by a transition to civilian rule – under Tandja, in fact.

This intervention confirmed the feeling in some quarters in Niger that the military was the guardian or referee of democracy. This idea underlay the 2010 coup, which involved some of the same officers as the 1999 takeover. Revealingly, the coup leaders named their governing body the Conseil suprême pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy). The Council, as many experts expected, led a relatively rapid return to democratic civilian control, with elections taking place in January and March of this year, and a new civilian government headed by President Mahamadou Issoufou entering office in April.

The 2010 coup presented a dilemma to the international community. Was the military a legitimate force in restoring democracy or not? If you answer yes, you’ve redefined democracy to include an element many people would say is inherently anti-democratic. If you answer no, then you will next have to answer what would have happened in Niger without the military coup, and whether it would have been better.

Some Western powers implicitly took sides on this question by engaging the military regime. By May 2010, the World Bank had restored aid to Niger and France was extending de facto recognition to the Supreme Council. As I wrote at the time, “This kind of recognition sends a signal to other would-be coup leaders in Africa and elsewhere: if you conduct the coup and manage the transition in a certain way, the penalties from the outside will be light.”

Other powers defaulted to non-interference. In 2009, both the EU and the US cut aid programs to Niger in response to Tandja’s power grab – and continued to suspend aid during the period of military rule. On June 20 of this year, the EU resumed development aid to Niger. Yesterday the US followed suit. So neither the EU nor the US aided the military government. But I imagine that there were sighs of relief in both Brussels and Washington when policymakers became certain that the coup leaders did intend to cede power to civilians. Brussels and Washington may not have helped the military council, but the council helped Brussels and Washington.

Even this kind of reaction, though it might appear hostile to the idea of coups, sends a signal that coup planners could interpret as tacit acceptance of their actions, at least under certain circumstances. The EU and the US are not, for example, calling for prosecutions of Nigerien officers involved in the coup.

Niger may well remain a civilian democracy from this point forward. But that does not mean that the issue of whether the military can be a referee for democracy has become merely theoretical. It has come up in many cases other than Niger, including in Egypt right now, and it will come up again.

The dilemma has no easy solution, perhaps no solution other than case-by-case, ad hoc policy responses. I am not faulting the decisions of either the World Bank and France on the one hand or the EU and the US on the other. I do think, though, that the relatively tolerant response to the coup in Niger says a great deal about Western powers’ prioritization of stability over democratic ideals. For the West, Tandja was a problem because he undermined democracy, but even more so because he undermined stability. The coup, as an action, may have lain outside the normal range of democratic activity, but its contribution to stability was recognized, even appreciated, by Western powers. I am not so cynical as to think that democratic ideals mean nothing to Western powers. But sometimes leaders honor those values in the breach.

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5 thoughts on “Niger, Foreign Aid, and the Dilemma of (Certain) Coups

  1. Pingback: Can a military coup be pro-democratic? |

  2. This is a very thoughtful blog and I enjoy reading it. The problem with the assessment of the situation in Niger is whether or not a “military coup” actually took place. Alex accurately describes the Tandja’s power grab but fails, in my mind to accurately and legally describe the outcome and how it was dealt with by the Niger government’s judicial branch. Tandja was president for two terms allowed by the constitution. He then attempted to change the constitution to allow him to be president for life. The Supreme Court of Niger ruled that his attempt to change the constitution was unlawful and hence when his second term ended he was no longer president. Tandja then unlawfully removed the Supreme Court and refused to give up his residence in the President’s compound and for a while the military protected him. I know many people in Niger including lawyers. The Supreme Court and the people no longer considered him president so how could he be removed in a “coup”. Why did the USA and EU continue to respect his unlawful authority as he was not the president. Was it perhaps because they were afraid of ruffling the feathers of China which is very active in Niger and supported Tandja? Why didn’t the EU and the USA respect the Supreme Court? Query, what would happen in the USA or any European capital if the elected president’s term expired and he or she refused to leave and a general or two decided to help the no longer president? If the US Marshall service backed by the military evicted the no longer president would it be a coup? No it would not. So… was the problem actually caused by the way Tandja’s eviction was labeled and the USA and EU failure to respect the determination of Niger’s highest court? I think so. Shame on our foreign policy.

    • Coup’s don’t necessarily require a ruler to be lawful. Also the U.S and Europe probably didn’t push too hard because when they do push on nations to be democratic they get criticized for not helping those nations develop. When they don’t push too hard for democracy they get accused of backing dictators. There’s no way for the West to win so why should they try to be moral?

  3. Pingback: Niger and Questions of Military Accountability « Sahel Blog

  4. Pingback: Niger: An Attempted Coup Raises Questions about Military Accountability « Sahel Blog

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