A coup d’etat is defined as ‘the sudden, unlawful and often violent overthrow of a government.’ Contemporary African history is replete with countless coups and counter-coups and the continent’s poor economic state is attributed in part by many political and economic observers to this phenomenon. Therefore, conventional wisdom tells us that coups are bad and retards a nation’s political and economic development. However, as the saying goes, ‘desperate situations demand desperate measures’. Going by this logic, some coups d’etat, in my humble opinion, are “good”. They become necessary if the actions of a particular ruling class go against the common good.
When governments ignore the wishes of the people for whom they are elected to serve, and whose wishes they have to respect and abide by; when they choose to use their powers of incumbency to extend their stay in power, enriching themselves by corrupt means to the detriment of the people who elected them to office in the first place, then they become prime candidates for a coup.
The military overthrow of Mamadou Tandja as president of the West African nation of Niger is a prime example of what I consider a “good coup”. Why? Tandja, a former army officer, took part in a coup that ousted Niger’s first elected president, Hamani Diori, in 1974 and served as interior minister. He stood for the presidency unsuccessfully in 1993 and 1996 and was third time lucky when he was voted into office in 1999 and returned for a second and final term in 2004. Instead of making way for a new leader to be elected in December, Tandja caught the virus that afflicts many African leaders and turns them into demagogues.
He had tasted the sweet nectar of power and didn’t want to let go. In a period of increasing democratisation across the continent, Tandja chose to sail against the wind. Ignoring domestic and international objections, he changed the constitution to abolish term limits and grant himself an initial three more years in power without even the pretence of an election. His changes to the constitution also removed most checks on his authority. Opponents challenged his so-called reforms in the constitutional court that ruled against him. His reaction? Tandja dissolved the constitutional court and assumed the power to rule by decree, brushing aside international criticism of the move, saying he was answerable only to the people of Niger. But was he really?
As one Nigerien analyst rightly said, ‘Nigeriens are very proud of their democratic process. They have been really trying to put a democratic institution in place, and everybody was expecting something to happen after president Tandja decided not to play by the rules.’ So Tandja was living in cloud cuckoo land when he said he was answerable to the people of Niger. His actions were designed more for personal rather than national interests.
A vast, arid state on the edge of the Sahara desert, Niger is a drought-prone country that sometimes struggles to feed its people. Its main export is uranium, which is prone to price fluctuations on the international market. The country is counting on oil exploration and gold mining to boost its economic fortunes. So the imposition of economic sanctions on the country – a direct reaction to Tandja’s actions – is bound to wreak more hardship on an already impoverished population. Many in Niger think the international isolation, caused by Tandja’s changing of the constitution to stay in power, posed the biggest threat to their well-being.
Therefore the military overthrow of Tandja and the promise of a return to constitutional governance by the coup makers are most welcome. International bodies and former colonial power France have publicly condemned the coup. The African Union (AU) and the sub-regional grouping, Ecowas, have suspended Niger as a result of the coup. AU president Jean Ping has criticised the coup leaders, saying he was following developments ‘with concern’, while France has called for dialogue to resolve the political crisis. ‘France calls on all players, including the armed forces to find, through dialogue, as soon as possible, a solution to the constitutional crisis,’ a French foreign ministry official said. All the above condemnations are, I believe, obligatory diplomatic rhetoric. But I am sure that privately, officials at the AU, Ecowas, Paris and Washington are applauding the coup. They see it as an opening for the return to constitutional rule.
The people of Niger also welcome the coup and are confident the army will honour its promise to restore civilian rule. ‘We are proud of what the soldiers have done and we expect them to manage a clean, honest transition, because the soldiers who have taken over are not eager and ambitious, they don’t want power,’ one Nigerien is reported to have said. A colleague of mine argues that accepting Tandja’s ouster sets a dangerous precedent for crises elsewhere. I counter argue that each case must be judged on its own merit. Sometimes there are good reasons for a coup. And Tandja’s actions over the past year amply make his overthrow a good one!