[Today’s guest post is by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Florida. He has conducted extensive research in and on the Sahel, and especially on Mauritania and Niger. – Alex]
The celebration of Niger Republic’s birthday used to be a solemn occasion where Nigeriens rejoiced in communion over their “unyielding progress” toward the achievement of national unity and renaissance. This year’s celebration, however, came with sad breaking news: President Issoufou Mahamadou announced in his traditional Address to the Nation that his government had foiled a coup attempt that was supposed to happen on the anniversary day. His announcement came five days after the government conducted a series of arrests that targeted nine high-ranking military officers, including the former Chief of Army Staff, General Salou Souleymane, and the Air Force commander Colonel Dan Haoua. All this happened against the backdrop of heightened social and political tensions related to the arrest of the former President of the National Assembly, Hama Amadou, as well as the contentions surrounding the organization of the 2016 presidential, legislative and district elections, and the fight against Boko Haram.
Niger is known for its history of political instability and recurring military coups. Since the democratization process started in 1992, the country has experienced three military coups, including the last one in 2010. Recently, rumors of another coup have intensified in the country, reflecting the sour political climate that originated from the breakup of the ruling coalition in the late 2013. In brief, President Issoufou’s announcement was not totally unanticipated. But it raises numerous unanswered questions that animate passionate discussions in the fadas, and social media in Niger. One of these questions concerns the credibility of the allegations, whether there was really a coup attempt or whether this is yet another strategy by Niger’s government to divert public attention from crucial challenges that are facing the country while at the same time justifying crackdowns on the political opposition.
Only a few details have so far emerged regarding this alleged coup attempt, but in light of the recent developments, each of these hypotheses can be plausible. On the one hand, there are reasons to believe that a coup might be attempted given the high level of social and political tensions in a country where military coups have often been the ultimate solution to political crises. Yet on the other hand, recent developments in the region might discourage would-be coup makers. If anything, the lesson learned from Sanogo and Diendere’s misfortunes in Mali and Burkina Faso, respectively, is that the period of military coups in the region is becoming outdated. Many Nigeriens are asking how such credible military officers as those arrested in this coup plot might have failed to learn this lesson. Could such officers really have thought they could get away with a coup in such unfavorable circumstances? Many Nigeriens simply do not believe the coup narrative.
The current political tensions started in August 2013, when in response to the deteriorating relationship within the ruling coalition, Issoufou’s government started broad consultations with the opposition parties in order to create a government of national unity. After several months of negotiations, the initiative failed at the last minute. As a result, and in order to prevent losing the majority in the National Assembly, which would result in a tumultuous Cohabitation, Issoufou’s government resorted to extracting allies from within the opposition parties, in complete disregard for the hostility of the parties’ leadership. This strategy produced profound divisions within the opposition parties leading to the breakup of the major ones, including MNSD Nassara, Moden FA Lumana Africa, and CDS Rahama – into pro and anti government factions. Since then, the so-called “crushing of opposition parties” (le concassage des partie de l’opposition in French) resulted in a growing animosity between the government and the opposition.
Hama Amadou – leader of Moden FA Lumana Africa – initially member of the ruling coalition and President of the National Assembly, decided to leave the coalition in favor of the opposition. But soon after he shifted sides, his name appeared in the heavily mediatized baby trafficking “scandal,” where he was accused of illegally claiming the parenthood of two babies that were allegedly “bought” in neighboring Nigeria. He fled the country to avoid arrest and sought asylum in France, where he positioned himself as a radical opponent to President Issoufou and potentially the major challenger of the incumbent President in the upcoming elections. Hama returned to Niger on November 5th 2015, after spending more than a year in exile, and following his nomination as presidential candidate on behalf of his party, the Moden FA Lumana. His party, which enjoys strong support in the capital city Niamey, mobilized thousands of supporters to welcome him at the airport. But the crowd was violently dispersed by the police, and Hama was arrested at the airport and immediately transferred to prison in Filingue, a small town located at around 180km northeast of Niamey.
The arrest of Hama heightened the already tense political climate, and quite importantly, it also generated an unprecedented level of ethnic tension in Niamey. Hama and his followers have often used ethnic arguments in their struggle with Issoufou’s government. Many of their statements suggest that Hama, who is Zarma (the second largest ethnic group in Niger representing 22% of the population) is victim of an ethnic adversity orchestrated by Issoufou’s government allegedly dominated by Hausa (the largest ethnic group, representing 52% of the population). Hama’s supporters in the diaspora have contributed to the heightening of the ethnic tensions in Niamey. One of his strong supporters based in New York published videos on youtube and Facebook in which he call Hama’s supporters to engage in violence to protect their leader. The videos created an outcry particularly after the violence that occurred upon Hama’s return from exile. Ethnicity has been less of an issue in Nigerien politics when compared to other African countries. All the major political parties have rallied significant support across ethnic groups. The ethnic discourse becomes salient when elections approach. During their campaign, for instance, political leaders sometimes use ethnic argument to mobilize support.
Current and Upcoming Developments
2016 is an election year in Niger. The first round of the presidential and legislation elections are scheduled to happen on February 21st. The opposition has expressed grievances regarding the organization of the elections, demanding particularly an international audit of the electoral list, the removal of the President of the Constitutional Court, whom they accuse of partiality given her personal acquaintance with President Issoufou, and finally the rescheduling of the district elections. The main opposition parties have threatened to boycott the elections if these demands are not satisfied. But the absence of direct dialog between the two parties has made it difficult to reach to a negotiated settlement of the issues. The National Council for Political Dialog (Conseil National de Dialogue Politique in French), the traditional venue through which government and opposition discuss and settle political matters has been dysfunctional, constantly boycotted by the opposition.
These tensions are exacerbated by the further deteriorating security situation in the region of Diffa where the military is trying more or less successfully to defend the border from Boko Haram’s recurrent assaults. The government has often used this tense security context as a pretext to justify restrictions on civil liberties. Until recently, in fact, the local authorities have systematically rejected all requests for protests authorization, and have violently dispersed all demonstrations organized by the opposition and the civil society under the pretext of preventing further destabilization of the country. Prominent civil society actors were arrested and accused of complicity with Boko Haram after they denounced violence allegedly committed by the army on local population in the conflict zones in Diffa.
Given all these tensions, and particularly following the recent altercation between Hama Amadou and Issoufou’s government, rumors of an imminent military coups became a major topic of discussion in Niamey. Hama is suspected to have acquaintances with certain influential officers in the army, and every time that he seems in trouble with the government, rumors of an imminent military coup come to surface. This was notably the case in 2008-9 when he was jailed by Tandja’s regime, and in 2014-15 during and upon his return from exile. In the same way that the crisis during Tandja’s regime led to the 2010 military coup, many would suspect that history might repeat itself once again.
Yet, despite these tensions, the current circumstances are far more unfavorable to a military coup in comparison to the 2010 context. First, although there is an increasing social and political tension in Niamey as the result of the arrest of Hama Amadou, the “crushing” of the opposition parties, and the restrictions on civil liberties, the tension has not yet reached the point where it can credibly and legitimately justify a coup, let alone to earn it the broad popular support that it needs in order to succeed. Historically, military coups happen in Niger under the conditions of a complete paralysis of the government or a serious threat to the survival of democracy, as it was the case during Tandja’s Tazarce. None of these seem to be the case in the current situation in Niger. Thus, if this alleged coup is real, then it would be the first of its nature, where the military attempts to overthrow a regime that despite major shortages remains democratic and legitimate.
Second, recent developments in the region, particularly the failed coup attempts in Mali and Burkina Faso, are not very encouraging to potential putschists. Both local populations and the international community appear less and less willing to tolerate the reckless military eruptions in politics. This might be even more so in the current situation in Niger where the likely scenario – would the coup attempt succeed – looks like a déjà vu: a country that is two months away from general elections, more or less successful in keeping the jihadist assault on its periphery, and all of the sudden a military coup occurred in the capital city, the state collapse opening widely the doors to the jihadist to conquer and occupy large portions of the territory… The last time this scenario happened was in Mali in 2012, and the consequences were so terrifying that neither the Nigerien population nor the international community would dare to accept such a risk.
Third, President Issoufou enjoys strong international support due to the focal role that he plays in the struggle against the spread of jihadism in the Sahelo-Saharan region. Niger is viewed as a crucial fortress that prevents the reunion of Saharan jihadist groups operating in Libya, Mali, and Algeria with the sub-Sahara African jihadists, notably Boko Haram operating in the Lake Chad area. Reinforcing this strategic position was certainly part of the reason why France and the US have deployed drone and military bases in Niger. One could bet that neither France nor the US would allow the destabilization of their major ally in the region, even if that would necessitate the intervention of their military forces stationed in Niamey. Moreover, foreign military intervention to save an allied regime in difficulty is not a new practice as suggested by the French military support to Idris Deby’s regime in the 2006 foiled coup attempt in Chad.
For all these reason a military coup is unlikely to succeed in Niger in the current context. One would assume that no one knows this reality better than the military officers who are arrested in this alleged coup plot. Did these officers really conspire to overthrow Issoufou’s regime? Currently the information beforehand is inconclusive, as only the government side of the story is known. The following days and the ongoing investigations will certainly tell us more.