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.

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.

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.”

Other powers defaulted to noninterference. In 2009, both the European Union and the US cut aid programs to Niger in response to Tandja’s power grab – and continued to suspend aid during the period of military rule. On June 20 of this year, the EU resumed development aid to Niger. Yesterday the US followed suit. So neither the EU nor the US aided the military government. But I imagine that there were sighs of relief in both Brussels and Washington when policymakers became certain that the coup leaders did intend to cede power to civilians. Brussels and Washington may not have helped the military council, but the council helped Brussels and Washington.

Even this kind of reaction, though it might appear hostile to the idea of coups, sends a signal that coup planners could interpret as tacit acceptance of their actions, at least under certain circumstances. The EU and the US are not, for example, calling for prosecutions of Nigerien officers involved in the coup.

Niger may well remain a civilian democracy from this point forward. But that does not mean that the issue of whether the military can be a referee for democracy has become merely theoretical. It has come up in many cases other than Niger, including in Egypt right now, and it will come up again.

The dilemma has no easy solution, perhaps no solution other than case-by-case, ad hoc policy responses. I am not faulting the decisions of either the World Bank and France on the one hand or the EU and the US on the other. I do think, though, that the relatively tolerant response to the coup in Niger says a great deal about Western powers’ prioritization of stability over democratic ideals. For the West, Tandja was a problem because he undermined democracy, but even more so because he undermined stability. The coup, as an action, may have lain outside the normal range of democratic activity, but its contribution to stability was recognized, even appreciated, by Western powers. I am not so cynical as to think that democratic ideals mean nothing to Western powers. But sometimes leaders honor those values in the breach.

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

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