Nigerien junta preserves Chinese alliance

It’s about time to do a follow-up post on my informal series of posts on the February military coup in Niger, and along comes a NY Times article on the matter. The Chinese had been underwriting the (previous) Tandja government, according to detractors, and the article says the Chinese made a “smooth” switch to the new regime, which is led by military officers who insist they are cleaning up government in Niger and have pledged elections in the (unspecified) near future. With basically the only significant export being uranium – Niger has some of the world’s largest deposits – the coup government recognized quickly that they needed to maintain the Chinese alliance to prevent collapse and chaos. Add to that the Western pre-coup sanctions that remain in effect until the elections, there was no other option.

China, reportedly, had been supplying the increasingly dictatorial regime with hydroelectricity installations and resource extraction sites that could eventually improve the country’s economy but in the short-term served to bolster the President Tandja. Shortly after the coup, Chinese projects and operations in Niger returned to normal. Tandja remains under arrest.

No word yet on whether China will put up the $132.9 million adequate food to head off an impending hunger crisis, as reported by the United Nations’ news service. Seems unlikely.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Niger junta taking steps to restore democracy

As previously pledged, the military regime that suddenly seized power in Niger from the democratically-elected president just over a week ago in a violent coup d’état has begun taking steps to restore democratic rule:

As its promised transition to democratic rule begins, the military junta that overthrew Nigerien president Mamadou Tandja on February 18 has named a former information minister, Mahamadou Danda, as the new prime minister while retaining legislative and executive powers for itself.

Danda, 59, is seen as unaffiliated to any political party, was appointed on Feb. 23 by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (known by its French acronym, CSRD).

In a declaration broadcast nationally the previous day, CSRD head Djibo Salou was announced as head of state and the government; the junta will, for the moment, have the final word in governing the country.

Marou Amadou, president of a coalition of groups opposed to the ousted president known as the United Front To Safeguard Democratic Gains (FUSAD, after its French acronym) believes this first decree provides further guarantees of the junta’s intention to return power to civilians.

“The length of this transition will be decided after the consultations with all political and social stakeholders in the country announced by the junta,” Amadou told IPS. He hopes the transition will be neither too slow, nor overly hasty.

Because of the falling popularity of the democratic administration — due to it’s consolidation of power and the famine conditions nationwide — the coup has been met with generally positive reactions within Niger, though some expressed concern of a repeat of the breakdown of bureaucratic function seen in the months after the more violent 1999 coup.

Outside Niger, there were mixed reactions as most major power diplomatic corps struggled to decide whether to condemn the coup, encourage the rapid reintroduction of democratic norms, or help the average Nigerien get critical food supplies. Since sanctions placed on the democratic regime were already aggravating a food crisis, further sanctions would have been damaging and entirely unproductive. The United Nations pledged food aid, while the United States cautiously urged the junta to continue steps toward democracy and lightly condemned the illegal seizure of power (which involved heavy exchanges of fire right near the US embassy in Niamey). An interview about the coup with the Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Fitzgerald, can be read here.

As I previously examined, Niger is a major uranium-producing country, so there is a good reason for the world to be paying attention to its politics.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

A day later, Niger is calm

Following yesterday’s sudden, violent military coup in the West African nation of Niger, reports suggest all has returned to calm today:

The military junta that overthrew the president of Niger began asserting its authority on Friday, amid signs of public support within the country and condemnation from abroad.

Tanks continued to be posted at strategic locations in the capital, Niamey, a day after an assault on the presidential palace ended in the removal of President Mamadou Tandja, whose turn toward autocracy in the last year had made him widely unpopular in the nation’s cities.

Local journalists said that Mr. Tandja was imprisoned in a military barracks, as supporters of his ouster marched in the capital. “The situation is calm,” said Moussa Kaka, who runs radio station Saraounia and had been jailed by the Tandja government. Mr. Kaka said he and hundreds of others went into the streets of Niamey on Friday in a show of support for the coup. Another demonstration is planned for Saturday.

There is some confusion outside the country as to who is in charge of the military regime. Reports I read earlier today say a “squadron leader” was heading the new junta, but the NY Times currently says a major in the army is head of the “Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy,” the junta’s official title. Many past coups in Africa have been led by junior officers (e.g. Army Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso), while most coups in Asia and Latin America have been led by generals, but a squadron leader seemed a bit too junior, so this makes more sense. Earlier today, the military announced that it would be keeping civilian ministers and bureaucrats in office, to keep the government running as smoothly as possible under the circumstances. Several briefly jailed ministers have been released.

UPDATE @ 9:31 PM: I’ve been looking up some stuff about Niger in the CIA World Factbook because I wanted to know more about the uranium deposits. Most of the country is a desert (it’s in the Sahara) and the remaining savanna zone is rapidly being swallowed into the desert by a combination of water depletion by overuse and global warming. Uranium mining is the biggest industry in the country, which is one of the poorest in the world. Uranium is the biggest export, since the salt trade has lots its preeminence over the past several centuries, and Niger probably has the biggest uranium supply worldwide. This unfortunately makes Niger a major chess piece in the modern geopolitical “game.” President Obama just announced yesterday major support for investment in nuclear energy, which due to US laws against repeated enrichment probably means the US needs even more uranium soon, assuming the projects go forward. And I think China is also expanding its nuclear energy program. Basically, this coup will change very little, and the people of Niger will continue to get screwed over by great powers and moneyed interests, as well as by geography.

UPDATE II @ 9:43: I’m also curious about how this coup played out yesterday. I wonder if it was intended to be a bloodless coup or not (it was not). That’s been the more modern trend in military coups. This was pretty violent, by all accounts, with the nearby American embassy staff reporting heavy gunfire and even shelling for several hours, apparently between the presidential guards and the attacking troops. However, the coup leaders notably did not assassinate the president, according to what we know right now, but they merely arrested him and are holding him captive somewhere. This suggests the violence may not have been part of the plan, but it’s also conceivable they would plan on attacking the presidential palace first before making arrests as a scare tactic or a way of eliminating armed opposition quickly… either way, now that they have him in custody, they can spin this to the people and the world as a political intervention to protect democracy, rather than a naked power-grab. It’s also a useful insurance policy if anything goes wrong, much like the Russians during their revolution held the family of the Tsar captive for a while and was rumored to have kept one member alive significantly longer (this has since been disproven). The world these days tends to be much more tolerant of coups that leave the civilian leaders alive than coups that involve bloody, cold-blooded purges of senior officials. They’re not happy with this coup right now, but they’ll be more likely to get over it if the president remains alive.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Military coup in Niger

It’s unclear what’s going on, but apparently there’s been a military coup d’état in the West African nation of Niger:

Soldiers in Niger assaulted the presidential palace in a coup attempt on Thursday while the government was meeting inside, according to officials and diplomats.

After a day of gunfire, explosions and nonstop military music on the radio in Niger’s capital, Niamey, the whereabouts of the president, Mamadou Tandja, remained unknown.

“There’s been a coup d’état,” said Boureima Soumana Sory Diallo, a high official at the state media regulatory agency under Mr. Tandja.

“I don’t know where he is,” Mr. Diallo said of the president. “They told us he has been taken by the soldiers.”

A spokesman for the American Embassy in Niamey, Robert Tate, said, “We’ve gotten several unconfirmed reports that he is in the custody of the insurgents.”

Late Thursday, a colonel who claimed to represent the coup leaders said on state media that they had decided to suspend the Constitution and dissolve the nation’s institutions, news agencies reported.

The president had allegedly been taking unpopular anti-democratic actions of late, so the military may claim to be protecting democracy. Food shortages due to US and regional sanctions had destabilized the government, along with opposition protests. It’s unclear how this development might affect the security of the country’s large uranium deposits, if at all.

We have to be careful here in analyzing the situation because as we saw with the 2009 Honduras coup, the pro-coup people tend to spin the situation to claim the democratically-elected leader was going to become a dictator without military intervention. I don’t know if there’s a possibility that some foreign powers might be backing this coup to gain control over the uranium mines, but there are often allegations of that sort of thing when military coups occur. I’ll look into it more.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Little Somalia?

The political mess in Guinea-Bissau, a small former Portuguese colony on the coast of West Africa, has gotten to the point where the United Nations found that drug traffickers are leaving due to perpetual instability. When the traffickers leave, it’s pretty much a failed state. Is Guinea-Bissau the next Somalia? There’s an election today, but nobody expects anything useful to happen.

Recent events include (NYT, link above):

First the general was blown up. Then the president was shot dead, the former prime minister was arrested and tortured, a presidential candidate was killed in his villa, and the former defense minister was ambushed and shot on the bridge outside town.

So people have pretty much given up there. At least there still is a government.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.