Niger arrests members of junta for potential coup plans

The arrest of officers from Niger's military junta could complicate the junta's attempts to return Niger to democracy.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Schoolchildren walk past a soldier guarding the entrance to an army camp where members of Niger's ruling military junta were meeting in Niamey, Niger, on Feb. 22, 2010. A top leader of Niger's new military junta defended the coup on Feb. 21, saying that the army overthrew the uranium-rich nation's dictatorial president to restore democracy after he refused to step down when his mandate expired.

Over the last week the military junta in Niger arrested several top officers. Reports emerged that those officers had been planning a coup. Coming shortly before a planned Oct. 31 referendum on a new constitution and only a few months before new elections on Jan. 31, the incident could trouble Niger’s plans to return to democracy. The divisions within the military also suggest that some top officers in Niger do not view the military simply as custodians of democracy, and on the contrary desire a longer-term role for the military in government.

Reuters (linked above) has details on the arrests:

Abdoulaye Badie was the second-in-charge of the junta and Abdou Sidikou was a top commander in the national guard. There was no immediate comment from either officer.

The junta, led by General Salou Djibo, has been in power in Niger since a dramatic February putsch against former President Mamadou Tandja who had angered many Nigeriens for altering the constitution to lengthen his rule.

Djibo has since won international plaudits for pledging a return to civilian rule within one year.

An official at West African regional bloc ECOWAS said on Friday he was aware of rumours of arrests within the junta but had been assured by Djibo the talk was unfounded. The junta has not commented publicly.

A senior police official told Reuters Badie and Sidikou were arrested for having planned to unseat Djibo in September during his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He did not say how the alleged plot was discovered.

Djibo has also sacked his minister of equipment, Amadou Diallo, according to an announcement on national television on Friday. No reason was given.

AFP reported yesterday that a total of four officers were under arrest – Badie, Sidikou, Diallo, and Lieutenant Colonel Sanda Boubacar. AFP adds, “Rumours of a coup have swirled in Niamey over the past few weeks. For several days, the military presence in the capital and its suburbs has been stepped up with larger patrols, particularly at night.” Afrique en Ligne says there is an “uneasy calm in Niger.”

How seriously did the (alleged) coup plot threaten Djibo? Maybe not very much. The pattern that emerges is one where Djibo first fires officers and then arrests them, indicating that he felt in control the whole time. He acted methodically and does not appear to have panicked. That so many officers have been arrested points to a real split, but Djibo has for now come away with the larger piece of the pie.

Still, divisions in the military could convince Djibo to delay the hand-off of power, or a more serious coup attempt could really challenge his position. This does not seem to be over yet. And as I said above, if the potential for a coup means that some officers are not content to bow out quietly and leave things to civilians, then assessing the military’s motives and goals during this transition becomes more difficult.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student of Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and he blogs at Sahel Blog.

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