African business, politics and lifestyle
Niger following Mauritania’s blueprint for an African coup
“We didn’t launch a coup,” said Colonel Djibril Hamidou Hima, spokesman for the military group which had days earlier overthrown the president of Niger, “We just re-imposed legitimacy.”
The statement was almost a carbon copy of the one I heard in Mauritania in 2008, where the soldier who had hustled an elected head of state out of the presidential palace spent the first few days denying his actions amounted to a coup d’etat.
Niger is the second military takeover in West Africa since the Mauritania coup – Guinea followed less than six months later — and the strongest indication yet that Abdel Aziz’ putsch is becoming the blueprint for aspiring presidents who don’t want to waste time standing in an election.
The Aziz model: For a start, you don’t shoot the man whose power you’re taking. That looks bad. Get him out of the palace and under house arrest, but keep bloodshed to an absolute minimum. The first pictures you want broadcast are of crowds cheering the coming of the liberator of the people, not of soldiers in shades firing machine guns.
Mauritania got away without a shot being fired and Guinea there was nobody to shoot anyway as the president had died. In Niger, at least three soldiers were killed, but ousted president Mamadou Tandja was captured without taking a bullet.
From here, the Mauritanian model shows how to make it stick. Once you’re in power, don’t do anything silly. If there are opposition parties, let them be. If people march against you, let them march. Keep the country running, talk about elections, allow the international community to have its say and to get involved.
In Guinea, even wild-eyed coup leader Dadis Camara was on the right lines for the first few months, confrontations with foreign investors aside, until the paranoid violence he had threatened erupted and his troops killed 150 demonstrators: exit Dadis.
Mauritania held elections less than a year after Abdel Aziz took over, and though the opposition grumbled about the result, former colonial power France welcomed the country back into the international fold and Abdel Aziz’s descriptor went from “junta leader” to “President”.
If Niger’s de facto head of state Salou Djibo chooses to play his cards like Abdel Aziz did, it might only be a matter of months before he is voted in as leader of a country that’s bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, but one that’s not without cashflow, and very much on the radar of the West and of China.
Niger matters not just strategically, but also economically. Mauritania ships iron ore, and Guinea bauxite, but from Niger comes the uranium that goes into France’s nuclear power stations, and France’s nuclear weapons. Thanks to a few billion dollars of money from China, soon enough Niger will have its first oil refinery.
So, on top of dealing with a rumbling Tuareg insurgency, Djibo has a lot to look forward to. As long as he remembers, whenever the next gang of men with guns kicks in his door, it’s not a coup. It’s a restoration of democracy.