Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

POLITICS-NIGER: First Steps Towards the Restoration of Democracy?

Ousseini Issa*

NIAMEY, Feb 26 2010 (IPS) - 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, FUSAD) 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.

This opinion is shared by a wide spectrum of political and social actors in the country.

“It would be pointless to botch the transition and end up in the same political quagmire faced in recent months. The junta will need time to reorganise and create conditions for sustainable democracy,” Hadjio Issa, a teacher in Niamey, said in an interview with IPS.

Tandja’s attempt to remain in power beyond the end of his maximum two terms as president led to political deadlock in 2009, ultimately paving the way for February’s coup d’état.

For Daouda Hamani, one of the leaders of the Coordination des forces pour la démocratie et la République, a Niamey-based coalition of political parties and civil society organisations, “the junta has the internal and external support necessary to conduct a smooth transition.”

During the transitional period set out by the junta, a constitution and electoral law will be developed, said Boureïma Idrissa.

“However (the Feb. 22 decree) doesn’t provide any details as to the type of government that will be created. The only information is that its members are appointed by decree by the Head of State,” Idrissa said.

A source close to the junta, who requested anonymity, told IPS “the team will be composed mostly of civilians, but most importantly people with integrity and skills.”

“Our intention is not systematic exclusion, we want to create the conditions to return to a viable and sustainable democracy,” the source told IPS.

The issue of exclusion is of particular concern to supporters of the ousted president, who fear the junta will launch a “witch hunt” in response to persistent demands from Tandja’s opponents.

“The CSRD has promised to involve all components of the nation in the process, and should not let itself be carried away by a wave of political settling of scores,” said Abdoulaye Boubacar, a supporter of Tandja’s government.

“These are basically the same players – that led President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara to his death – who today pushed Tandja out. There must be sanctions against them to avoid another interruption of our democratic process in a few years,” Maria Amadou, a female board member of FUSAD, told IPS.

Maïnassara himself staged a coup in 1996, again intervening in a civilian struggle for power; he presided over the drafting of a new constitution by May, was himself voted in as president in a contested poll in July, and ruled until his assassination in 1999.

Tandja is being held in a military barracks. Six other members of his government are also in detention, including the former ministers for the interior, the economy, mines and energy, and the prime minister, Ali Badjo Gamatié. IPS’s source close to the junta did not provide any reason why they were still in detention, despite the CSRD’s promise to release them.

“These ministers will be released later,” the source said.

Marches demonstrating popular support for the junta in Niamey and various places in the interior have provoked some concern from state employees, among them Ousseini Diori, secretary general of the teachers’ association in Niger.

“The junta’s strong internal support should not serve as a pretext to shirk its duties, such as the regular payment of wages,” he said.

“We still remember the sad experience of the military transition of 1999 when no wages were paid to workers for nine months. We are not willing to live through that sacrifice again,” Diori told IPS.

Charles Fromm adds from Washington: U.S. officials called for an expedited transition to democracy as hundreds of supporters rallied behind military leaders in the wake of a coup in the central-african nation of Niger.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Fitzgerald said the coup may well launch a democratic turn for Niger, which saw the majority of its international aid frozen and sanctions imposed last year after President Tandja dissolved parliament in a bid to extend his rule.

“The U.S. position is clear: (the junta) have got to show as soon as possible that they are genuinely seeking to restore the constitution and to move to a return to democratic and civilian rule,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Reuters over the weekend.

State Department official Philip J. Crowley, told reporters the U.S. does not “in any way, shape, or form, defend violence of this nature. But clearly, we think this underscores that Niger needs to move ahead and – with the elections and the formation of a new government,” in reference to the military junta.

Earlier in February, the United Nations pledged to provide the impoverished West African state with supplementary funding to avoid food shortages. More than half Niger’s population, 7.8 million people, is projected to face moderate to severe food insecurity in the coming year.

“It is imperative to support the Government in its efforts to mobilise the resources to satisfy the food needs of the most vulnerable,” resident UN Humanitarian Coordinator Khardiata Lo N’Diaye said.

*This article has been slightly modified since the original appeared in French on Feb. 24


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