Upholding Niger’s Constitution
Upholding Niger’s Constitution

 

The over-extension of presidential term limits is not a rare phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. The latest country to join this unfortunate trend is Niger.

The international community and domestic Nigerien groups have responded dramatically to Niger’s President Tanja’s bid to stay in office beyond his term. Foreign nations and development organizations have suspended aid to Niger. Additionally, Nigerian military officials have staged a coup d’etat to oust the president from office.

Trends in Africa

There has been a tradition of African presidents seeking to extend their offices beyond the constitutionally allowed number of terms.1 Most of these rulers came into office before the wave of constitutional reforms that limited the presidency to two, five-year terms in most African nations.

In 2005, Blaise Compaore, the President of Burkina Faso, sought a third term after a constitutional amendment limited the chief executive to two, five-year terms.2 President Idriss Deby of Chad oversaw a referendum in 2005 that abolished a constitutional amendment limiting the president to two, five-year terms and ran for a third term. The referendum also abolished the Senate and replaced it with an Economic, Social and Cultural Council, whose members would all be nominated by the president. The opposition accused Deby of fabricating the results of the referendum.3

President Sam Nujoma of Namibia also altered the constitution in 2005 to run for a third term in office, but upon the completion of his third term Nujoma promptly retired.4 In 2008, riots took place in Cameroon in protest to President Paul Biya’s attempt to change the 1996 constitution in order to run in the 2011 elections.5 Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, also amended the 1996 constitution to allow himself to rerun for office despite a two, five-year-term limit.6

President Country Duration of Presidency Number of Terms Allowed by the Constitution Total Number of Years in Office
Blaise Compaore Burkina Faso 1991- Present Two five-year terms 19 (as of 2010)
Idriss Deby Chad 1991 – Present Two five-year terms 20 (as of 2010)
Sam Nujoma Namibia 1990- 2005 Two five-year terms 15
Paul Biya Cameroon 1982- Present Two seven-year terms 28 (as of 2010)
Yoweri Museveni Uganda 1986 – Present Two five-year terms

While some of these leaders were esteemed as democratic icons serving to improve the conditions of the countries’ citizens, others were deemed to be tyrannical dictators with a proclivity for corruption and repression. Whatever the reputation of the president, a move to amend the constitution to preserve power was often regarded with fear and suspicion. Without sufficient balance-of-power, it is easy for democratic governments to fall back into the type of dictatorship that plagued the continent in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

Although in each of these cases there was a lack of adherence to the original constitution, the international community had no choice but to respect the nations’ sovereignty. The political leadership of a country must be determined by the people of that country, and foreign nations cannot interfere unless there are blatant violations of human rights or if the conflict posed a threat to other nations. In most cases, the actions of the international community are limited to public disapproval and economic sanctions.

Tandja’s Bid to Stay in Office

Mamadou Tandja was elected President of Niger in 1999 and reelected in 2004. When the end of his second term approached, Tandja pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow him to extend his term.

Tandja’s supporters claim that country benefits from his continued leadership, as he has brought economic growth and stability to the nation. Tandja himself argued that he only wished to remain in office long enough to see to the completion of projects such as the country’s first oil refinery, the construction of a dam on the Niger River, and the mining of uranium sites in the north. These projects would presumably improve the nation’s economy and increase the standard of living.7 The opposition argue that such a move by the president is unconstitutional and a threat to democracy.

In June 2009, the Constitutional Court ruled against Tandja’s plan for a referendum to allow him to remain in office for three more years. Tandja then assumed emergency powers and dissolved parliament and the court. In August, the referendum was carried out. 8 The opposition boycotted the referendum, and Tandja won with 92.5 percent of the votes.

International Response

The international community immediately voiced its protests. The European Union suspended development aid to Niger in July of 2009.9 In October, Niger was suspended from the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS).10 By December, the United States had also suspended non-humanitarian aid to Niger.11

Niger is one the poorest nations in the world. As a landlocked country in Western Africa, the northern four-fifths of the country is desert, while the southern one-fifth has rolling plains, suitable for livestock and agriculture. Its agrarian economy is frequently disrupted by extended droughts. As a result, the country relies on international aid to cope with food shortages.12

Many believe the discontinuation of international aid was what led the military to interfere. Even more so than the constitutional breech, “Many in Niger think it was the international isolation caused by President Tandja’s changing of the constitution to stay in power that posed the biggest threat to Niger’s well-being.”13

Coup D’etat


“Niger Coup” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boS5gtrquw4&NR=1

On February 18, 2010, a coup led by senior military officer Salou Djibo ousted President Mamadou Tandja of Niger from office. After a gun battle in the nation’s capital, Niamey, the military junta placed the president under house arrest, dissolved all state institutions, and closed the country’s borders.14 Calling themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), the coup organizers have declared that their aim is to restore democracy to the nation.

Aside from the arrest of the president and government officials, the coup has been mostly peaceful, and the population has been supportive. Citizens interviewed in the markets made statements such as, “it’s regrettable that we have had a coup d’etat, but the politicians have failed us and so I am glad the army stepped in,” and “we’re proud of what the soldiers have done and we expect them to manage a clean, honest transition, because the soldiers who have taken over are not eager and ambitious, they don’t want power.”15

The military junta promised that it will not seek to tamper with the political future of the state, beyond ensuring the completion of a new presidential election. Djibo addressed the nation on television with the following statement on March 1, 2010:

I do solemnly swear that none of the members of the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), nor a member of the transition government will contest whatever position during the up and coming presidential elections. Our ultimate ambition is to help restore the democratic process in our dear nation.16

As of now, the interim government has yet to set a date for the presidential election. However, Nigeriens have much reason to hope that the military junta will keep its word. The last time a coup seized hold of Niger in 1999 there was an eight month transition period before elections took place that made Tandja president. What’s more, as long a military government is in place, international aid will remain suspended. Niger’s dependence on aid is a major incentive for the interim regime to return the country to civilian rule.17


1 “What’s the point of Presidential Term Limits”. BBC News. July 20, 2009.
2 “Compaore’s decision to bid for re-election raises opposition hackles August 11, 2005. IRIN. 3 Strong Yes Vote in Referendum Allows President Deby to Seek a New Term”. June 22, 2005. IRIN.
4 “Profile: Sam Nujoma. BBC News.
5 “Cameroon: Not Quite Back to Normal”. IRIN. March 6, 2008.
6 “A Threat to Africa’s Success Story.” The Boston Globe. May 1, 2005.
7 “Profile: Mamadou Tandja”. BBC News.
8 “Timeline: Niger.” BBC News.
9 Niger lawyers to strike, EU delays aid over vote row. Reuters. July 12, 2009.
10 “Africa trade bloc suspends Niger.” BBC News. October 20, 2009.
11 “U.S. Suspends Aid to Niger Over President’s Term.” Reuters. December 23, 2009.
12 “Niger.” CIA Fact Book.
13 “Niger, A Coup for Democracy?” BBC News. February 25, 2010.
14 “Military Coup Ousts Niger Leader. “BBC News. February 19, 2010.
15 “Niger, A Coup for Democracy?” BBC News. February 25, 2010.
16 “Niger.” BBC News. March 1, 2010.
17 “Niger pressured for 2010 polls but food crisis looms.” Reuters. April 15, 2010.

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