Kozlowski: Not all coups are created equal

By Mark Kozlowski

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Perhaps the clearest division between the United States and most of the rest of the world is… Perhaps the clearest division between the United States and most of the rest of the world is how the civilian government relates to the military. Our tradition is that through the court of public opinion, civilians have a healthy influence over the military’s decisions.

Congress has some oversight on what the commander in chief does, and the voters can certainly punish those who do things they don’t like. A lot of the world doesn’t work this way. In nations such as Turkey and Thailand, the army considers itself a fourth branch of government and often gets involved in political questions. Military coups have been a part of history for ages, and in the last several years, we’ve seen successful coups in Thailand, Fiji, Mauretania, Honduras and just last Thursday, in the West African nation of Niger.

The Niger coup was the usual affair of a bunch of men with guns seizing the presidential palace and with it, the president himself, Mamadou Tandja. Tandja was taken to an undisclosed location — no doubt the same one Dick Cheney used to frequent. The Wall Street Journal reported that the “coupsters” assure he is safe and sound. Don’t worry, trust us.

The African Union has condemned the coup, as has France, Niger’s former colonial power. The European Union has followed suit, and South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma said this wasn’t good for the prospects of democracy in Africa in general. More immediately, Niger is a major supplier of uranium, which means vexation for Europe, especially France, which, according to PBS, generates 76 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

With so many people roundly condemning this coup as an exercise in anti-democratic behavior, it is easy to assume this was the case. After all, any coup in Europe or the United States would run against every democratic tradition we hold sacred. However, in Niger, the entire story is more complicated, and the world shouldn’t rush to any firm conclusions. Mamadou Tandja wasn’t a cute, cuddly and fully democratic gentleman to begin with.

According to the BBC, Tandja was recently concentrating more power in his own hands. He rammed through a possibly bogus referendum that eliminated presidential term limits and dissolved the nation’s parliament and supreme court. A former president of the Economic Community of West Africa, Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, also tattletaled on Niger, telling the EU that this guy was about as democratic as King George III. The Canadian Press added that Tandja had postponed elections, giving himself a three-year extension of illegitimate power. The press in Niger was regulated, and it looked like Niger was headed for rule by “Tandja the Tinpot” in short order.

While the international community wrings its hands over what a bad example this sets for the rest of Africa, in Niamey, Niger, the party’s on. Thousands have taken to the streets to celebrate the coup, and many in the opposition parties cheered news of the coup. Of course, they sent notes to the junta — the military government — urging them to restore democracy as soon as possible. Granted, this might not be exactly free and fair enthusiasm on the streets. After all, if you’ve got guys driving around on trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on them, are you going to actively and loudly disagree with them? However, unless the army is actually dragging people out of their houses — and there doesn’t seem to be any indication of that — folks are coming out in favor of the coup on their own: They could just stay home. Simply put, at least some of the common folk of Niger think this coup wasn’t a bad idea.

In short, despite how bad coups generally look, this coup looks better than many others. For all the international outrage at how unconstitutional, how very, very unconstitutional this all was, we must keep in mind that the deposed president was himself not ruling accordingto the constitution. From early indications, it appears that this coup successfully removed an autocrat, and the junta has at least made promises of restoring democracy. And what are the odds of restoration of that democracy? After all, very few juntas come right out and say, “Yep, we want to rule this nation with an iron fist. Any questions?”

Juntas also have the unfortunate habit of permanently declaring temporary states of emergency. Elections that occur under juntas also tend to favor the party that electioneers by having guys drive around with anti-aircraft guns. Many of these elections also lend new meaning to the idea of “attack ads.” And you thought campaign finance was a problem.

However, there are some indications that this coup might not lead to extended military rule. According to The Wall Street Journal, the president of Senegal has begun mediating in Niger, and he is confident that civilian rule will be restored in short order. He’s meeting with all of Niger’s major political parties, and a new constitution will probably be hammered out shortly. Mamoudou Gazibo, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montreal quoted in the Journal, notes that some of the participants in this coup also participated in the coup of 1999, which ended in the elections that Tandja won. Gazibo sees no reason these officers would suddenly turn less democratic this time around.

This is not to say that the international community should not scrutinize the Niger junta. If the junta hangs on to power for an extended period of time and makes no effort to restore democracy, then it will be time for condemnation. For the time being, however, the world should await developments and realize that all coups are not created equal.

Write Kozthought@gmail.com.

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