There's No Such Thing as a Good Coup

It's hard to feel sorry for Niger's deposed President Mamadou Tandja. Before he was ousted in a coup on Thursday, Tandja had tried to evade Niger's constitutional term limits by dissolving Parliament and the country's constitutional court, and then holding a sham referendum to extend his rule by three years.

So the move by the country's military to arrest Tandja is likely to provoke debate about whether some coups are, in fact, good. After all, Tandja's official term ended Dec. 22. Why should he be allowed to remain in power? Sadly, the impression that some coups are good is one left by the Obama administration last year when it took a soft line toward a coup in Honduras that ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Though the Honduran coup was publicly denounced by Obama himself, the United States later undermined democratically elected Zelaya by failing to prevent the coup leaders from running out his term, and then by endorsing elections that replaced him with a pro-coup figure. In doing so, it essentially signed off on the outcome, even though Zelaya had never been allowed to serve out his term. The episode has raised questions as to whether the Obama administration might view some coups as acceptable compromises—an attitude the Bush administration showed in its support for the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002.

Niger, and Africa, deserve better. As unsympathetic a figure as Tandja is, the junta just undermines efforts by the African Union and regional African blocs to bury the continent's history of changing presidents by shooting or jailing the incumbent. International tolerance of coups makes presidents unlikely to enact unpopular reforms, like slashing military budgets or raising taxes on vested business interests, because those groups could grab the presidency with impunity. And it further encourages presidents to buy off their generals through corruption and lucrative business deals.

"I don't believe there is a 'good' extralegal coup," says David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to neighboring Burkina Faso. "What Tandja did by rejecting the decisions of Niger's established judicial and legislative institutions and extending himself in office was reprehensible. But the actions of the coup makers were equally wrong."

It is true that in Africa the AU has made much more progress toughening its line toward coup makers—by suspending them from the organization and leading diplomatic efforts to restore democracy—than in persuading dictators to step down. Given the increasing sophistication that leaders like Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi have shown in precooking elections before polling day, the result is a policy that effectively prevents presidents from being ousted either militarily or through the ballot box, no matter how unpopular they become.

But in Niger, real progress was being made to isolate Tandja, who was twice elected democratically before falling in love with tyranny. The Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States suspended his government from the organization in October. The U.S. and European Union both froze some aid payments, a crippling move in a country where 50 percent of the government's budget comes from aid. A real chance existed that diplomats could yet have talked Tandja out of his perch.

The crisis couldn't have happened in a more unfortunate place. In 2009, despite decades without a major civil conflict, Niger ranked dead last in the world on the U.N.'s Human Development Index, trailing war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country's exploding population and rapidly decertifying farmland would make Thomas Malthus wince. For decades, its main natural resource, uranium, was controlled by France's Areva under a one-sided monopoly agreement that was one of the most egregious examples of neocolonialism in Africa.

Whenever civilian rule is restored to Niger, the new president should ensure that those responsible for the current coup face retribution—not least because coups have a way of coming home to roost. I've seen it firsthand: I was living in Niger in 1999 the last time government radio skipped the news and started playing patriotic music to signal that a coup was underway. The president at the time, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, was torn to pieces on the Niamey airport tarmac by soldiers wielding an antiaircraft gun.

Those responsible, from a presidential guard led by Maj. Daouda Mallam Wanke, were never prosecuted under Tandja. Now Tandja's tolerance of impunity for coup leaders may have come back to haunt him. Early reports indicate that a former aide to Wanke, Abdoulaye Adamou Harouna, led the plot that felled Tandja.