Earlier this month, incoming African Union Chairman Bingu wa Mutharik, president of Malawi, said that the organization must take measures to stop coups and wars. He already faces a challenge on that front: in Niger, a military body called the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy has taken power in a coup and arrested President Mamadou Tandja.
Democracy subverted? Not really – given that Tandja disregarded constitutional provisions in order to remain in power past his two-term limit, this coup represents a transition from one less-than-democratic scenario to another. So what does this mean?
Regional, continental, and international bodies are, of course, concerned not only for Niger’s stability but also for the stability of the entire region. With tense transitions underway in Guinea after a coup there in 2008, transitions recently completed in Mauritania after a coup there the same year, and a history of military interventions in West Africa, those concerns are warranted. Perhaps the leaders of neighboring countries hope the CSRD will follow through on its promise to restore democracy in Niger, but are they comfortable having the military as the referee of the democratic process? It has often taken substantial additional violence (as in Guinea) before military leaders relinquish their hold on power after a coup.
Viewed in the context of its neighborhood, the coup in Niger has some worrying implications. To simplify things a lot, crushing poverty and weak democratic institutions seem to concentrate power in the hands of those who control the state, and neither opposition parties nor regional pressure nor other actors (business persons, religious leaders, etc) seem to provide much of a counterweight to any given regime. Only the military has the power to challenge the regime. These conditions exist in a lot of Sahelian countries, meaning that while we should not expect coups in Niger’s neighbors, neither should we rule out the significant possibility of other coups taking place in the years to come. The age of coups is not past in West Africa.
Nor is it past in other parts of the world. The coup in Niger reminds us that militaries in many countries will not hesitate to intervene in politics – in fact, it seems to me that militaries are politicized in more countries than not. From Honduras to Pakistan, coups have been a part of the post Cold-War political landscape, and I see no real indications that coups will cease. Pronouncements of the definitive triumph of democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union continue to ring hollow.