Niger’s coup d’etat on Thursday has provoked widespread international reaction, as the country has been suspended from the African Union and the coup leaders condemned by Ban Ki-Moon, the EU and ECOWAS. Citizens of Niger, on the other hand, seem to be fairly happy about the development. Last year, President Mamadou Tandja sought to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term in office, and promptly disbanded the constitutional court when it ruled against his attemnpt. He then called a snap referendum on the issue (see earlier discussion here), intimidating the opposition and probably rigging the outcome. The country’s politics have been frozen since.
I can only hope that this is one of the situations in which the international community “condemns” the coup-makers with a wink and a nod. Condemnation is appropriate to incentivize the return to democracy, but seems inappropriate if motivated by moral approbation about the removal of Tandja. Everything now depends on how the coup-makers live up to their name, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy.
More broadly, the removal of Tandja illustrates the risks involved in suspending term limits. To be sure, many popular and democratic leaders (think Cardoso in Brazil and Menem in Argentina) will amend the constitution to stay in office, and it is not clear as a normative matter that this is a bad thing. In Africa, however, there seems to be a trend for leaders elected during the third wave of democratization to backslide once in office, and to refuse to step down once their initial term draws to a close. Since 1990, term limits have been relaxed in at least Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, Tunisia and Uganda.
Our ongoing research on the topic suggests that about 80% of leaders who attempt to overstay their term are successful in their attempt. Given these odds, its perhaps not surprising that Mamadou Tandja thought he could get away with his faux referendum last year. But sometimes just proposing a relaxation is a risky strategy–just ask Manuel Zelaya.