On alert for a constitutional coup in Niger?

Niger’s national bar association has warned that the ruling party’s proposed constitutional referendum to allow President Mamadou Tandja to stay on beyond the 10-year limit – deemed unlawful by the country’s highest court – amounts to an illegal takeover of power.

“Talk from the country’s leaders [of changing the constitution] constitutes not only potential crimes punishable by law, but are also threats to peace and social stability,” the legal association wrote in a 17 June statement. 

As of 23 June, the army has started patrolling in the capital of Niamey after 18H.

(See timeline for updates)

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has threatened Niger with economic sanctions if it behaves “undemocratically”, said on 23 June it has received assurance from Niger’s prime minister that the rule of law will be respected.

“It is impossible to pledge constitutionality while planning an unconstitutional vote, “said Laoual Sayabou, national coordinator of a coalition of human rights and democracy NGOs.

The constitutional court’s decisions are legally binding under the existing constitution, which also prohibits changes to the presidential term-limit. Sayabou told IRIN the president’s supporters have said President Tandja could take “exceptional measures” to run the country, granted under Article 53.

But this would require approval of the parliament, which Tandja dissolved on 26 May.
 

''...It is impossible to pledge constitutionality while planning an unconstitutional vote...''

Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa and regional director at the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), told IRIN mounting challenges to the constitution will inevitably turn violent. “The risk of conflict is imminent,” he said. "I do not see a peaceful exit for [President] Tandja if he pursues this authoritarian path.”

Even though the military has declared neutrality during the referendum debate, NGO coalition leader Sayabou said a military coup is possible given Niger’s history of authoritarian military rule. “To restore democracy, elements of the military could carry out a coup d’état.”

Sanctions

NDI’s Fomunyoh said Niger can ill-afford a donor backlash or ECOWAS sanctions. “Niger is a landlocked country that cannot endure ostracism.”

Along with ECOWAS the UN, the French government and the International Trade Union Confederation have also called for Niger’s return to constitutional order.

The desert country is near the bottom of a 2008 UN ranking of living conditions around the world. The infant mortality rate was 129  per 1,000 live births and less than a third of the population was literate in 2006, according to government data.

Democratic dispute 

A civil society member and former government minister who requested anonymity told IRIN the country is following the rule of law to oppose a new constitution – for now – citing protesters applying for permits to demonstrate, union leaders seeking court permission to order a national strike and then cancelling the strike when it was not granted and entrusting the referendum question to the courts.

“We have worked so hard to grow this fruit of democracy,” said the ex-minister who served 10 years ago under President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara. “We do not want our democracy building to be in vain.”

Apart from a demonstration that turned violent in June in the southeast Dossa region that resulted in gunfire, looting and several injuries, opponents of constitutional change have mostly respected the law, NGO coalition leader Sayabou told IRIN. “However, there is the risk that violence will spread if the referendum is held,” he said.

NDI’s Fomunyoh told IRIN referendum opponents have thus far been “smart” during the constitutional controversy. “Referendum opponents have taken their fight to the courts. [President] Tandja is on weak grounds legally… and it will be difficult for him to persist on this track and emerge with the legitimacy he will need to govern.”

But referendum supporter Ibrahim Hamidou told IRIN a referendum is democratic and that a new constitution would have widespread support. “The previous constitution was adopted during a tumultuous period following a military coup. It was adopted under violence and pressure. This way, the will of the people can be expressed.”

The people’s preference will be made known before the scheduled vote, said NGO leader Sayabou. “The country will rise up and will not allow this vote to take place. It would be a betrayal to our fight for democracy and rule of law to do otherwise.”

pt/bb/np