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Can a military coup restore democracy?

Niger's president amended the constitution to remain in power. So the military ousted him, quickly returning the country to democratic civilian control.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / July 1, 2011

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.

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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.”

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