Niger coup risks return to lengthy military rule

Friday February 19 2010

By Richard Valdmanis (Reuters)

Mutinous soldiers ousted Niger President Mamadou Tandja on Thursday in a coup likely to mark a step backward to the central African country's cycle of military takeovers unless its leaders set swift elections.

The coup in the uranium producing nation came after Tandja drew widespread condemnation at home and abroad for a consitutional reform in 2009 that extended his presidential powers and term in office.

Military sources said the coup was led by a soldier named Colonel Adamou Harouna and was aided by Colonel Djibril Hamidou. While little is known about Harouna, his overthrow of Tandja's government marks the country's third military coup since the 1990s and does little to raise hopes for an eventual lasting transition to civilian rule.

"This is just one more military overthrow in a series," said Mark Shroeder, Africa analyst for consultancy Stratfor. "It would be hard to argue this is a step forward."

Hamidou, on the other hand, was a spokesman for the military junta that overthrew military strongman Colonel Ibrahim Bare in 1999 and paved the way for the vote that brought Tandja to power in what observers called a generally fair election.

The coup leaders will likely use Tandja's pariah status to justify the coup and its subsequent agenda.

It remains to be seen how broad the support for the coup is amongst senior military officers. But any fears of a counter-coup may be eased by the relatively short amount of fighting involved on Thursday. Military helicopters flew over Niamey during the coup, apparently in support of the operation.

OPPORTUNITY TO START TALKS

The international community, after widely criticising Tandja and imposing sanctions, will likely condemn the coup, but it could also be used as an opportunity to kick-start talks on Niger's political future.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: "Clearly we do not in any way, shape or form, you know, defend violence of this nature, but clearly we think this underscores that Niger need to move ahead with the elections and the formation of a new government."

Regional blocs the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States have already condemned the coup. ECOWAS had suspended Niger and was pressuring Tandja to restore Niger's constitution.

Niger, which produces about 7.5 percent of the world's uranium, has drawn billion of dollars in oil and mining investment from the likes of French firm Areva, Canada's Cameco and China National Petroleum Corp.

While the coup raises uncertainty over the country's resources operations, the lack of grievances against the industry under prior administrations and the country's reliance on foreign investment in the sector makes it unlikely a new government would seek to change current contracts.

A soldier calling himself a coup spokesman told national television that all prior commitments to treaties and conventions would be respected.

While Niger military forces are seen as crucial in reducing the influence of al-Qaeda cells operating in the Sahel region, there is no immediate reason to believe a new government would end its anti-terror operations and international military cooperation.

Advertisement