Niger Coup Just a Blip in Exploitation of African Resources
“Military junta seizes power in Niger coup”
In news from the Sahara: late last week a military coup in the West African nation of Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, toppled the government of President Mamadou Tandja and has subsequently drawn sanctions from the African Union. But rather than cause the normal murmurings about the intractability of African state collapse, these events have drawn quite positive evaluation from analysts in articles circulating in the international media with titles like, “When is a coup a good coup?” and “Niger Coup Another Chance At Democracy”. Around ten thousand people also took to the streets in Niger on Friday and Saturday rallying in support for the takeover. The United Nations and African Union have, however, condemned the events and noted their “disapproval of unconstitutional changes of government”.
During the Cold War, Niger was ruled by a series of pro-Western dictatorships funded and armed by states like France and Israel. Rather than working against these anti-democratic regimes, France often stationed elite troops in the nation in order to sure up their control (as it does to this day in countries like Gabon). President Tandja was first elected in 1999 and was returned to power in an election in 2004. While his second term as president expired in December last year, he had delayed elections by decree supposedly to allow time to complete some major investment projects. But 71-year-old Tandja’s longer-term intentions were made clear earlier in 2009, when he changed election laws to abolish the limits on presidential terms of office – a move deemed unconstitutional by the nation’s highest court. Niger was subsequently suspended from the West African regional organisation ECOWAS.
Troops stormed the presidential palace in the capital Niamey during a cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon, arresting the government and announcing the suspension of the constitution. Senior army officer Colonel Salou Djibo, was then named head of a military government that is calling itself the ‘Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy’ (CSRD). Meanwhile the main opposition movement, ‘Co-ordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic’ (CFDR) – which combines political parties, trade unions and human rights groups – has welcomed the take-over, criticising Tandja’s “stubbornness in power”, and saying that Tandja was never going to leave power without violence.
The new military council has promised a return to civilian rule after they draft a new constitution and hold elections. This was also promised in other regional coups over the last two years, in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, with mixed success. In the case of Mauritania, the coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz subsequently resigned from the military and was elected president as a civilian candidate, though in obviously dubious circumstances. This series of coups thus demonstrates a concerning trend of pseudo-legitimate seizures of power by military figures; and generally looking around the region there are more than a handful of leaders who either came to power over the years in coups, or have been in power for several decades.
Niger, which ranks 182nd on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, below Afghanistan, suffers from entrenched poverty – with 61% of its 15 million-strong population living on less than $1-a-day. Yet it has large and yet untapped reserves of minerals (including uranium), making it a target for strategic machinations by global powers like the United States and China. Indeed, false allegations about Saddam Hussein’s designs on Niger’s uranium helped to justify the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. During Tanja’s rule the French energy firm Areva began work on a $1.5 Billion project to build the world’s second-biggest uranium mine, while China’s National Petroleum Corporation signed a $5 Billion deal in 2008 to begin oil extraction by 2011.
The importance of Niger’s minerals, and its people’s lack of international political power, makes it likely that democracy in Niger will continue to take a back-seat to global realpolitik over the coming years. An anonymous senior French diplomat has already spoken positively of the coup as a resolution to political stalemate, while US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has said that Tandja brought the coup upon himself by “trying to extend his mandate in office”. Peter Pham, Senior Fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, points out that, “If you are a leader in Africa and you want to hold on to power all you need to do is hold periodic polls, make sure you aren’t caught in mass atrocities, avoid arbitrarily rewriting contracts –and don’t start wars with your neighbours”.
It is likely that in the next few months to a year Niger will transition back to civilian rule, but almost certainly under a president beholden to the will of international investors. What will be interesting to see is whether a conflict develops between Western and Chinese-backed factions trying to control the state, or if the looting of Niger’s natural resources can be conducted in an orderly and bi-partisan fashion by the global powers. It is also clear that strategically the Sahara is becoming far more important to the energy security of Europe. Billions of dollars are being invested in the extraction of oil and uranium, and the production of solar power, in order to break European dependency on fuel products shipped from Russia, and through Russian-influenced territories in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.