Niger: Military Coup or Counter-Coup?

Niger’s military overthrew former President Mamadou Tandja in February. In a sense it can be seen as a military coup against a constitutional coup that Tandja had carried out last year. But why was Tandja removed? Ola Kazeem and Fred Weston look at the background to the coup and the economic interests that it serves.

Mamadou Tandja on a visit to George W. Bush in 2005. Photo by Eric Draper.Mamadou Tandja on a visit to George W. Bush in 2005. Photo by Eric Draper. The army of Niger seized power on Thursday, 18 February, 2010 and 71-year-old former President Mamadou Tandja was taken prisoner. The new junta, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy under the leadership of Salou Djibo, dissolved the civilian government. The political situation inside the country had been tense since last August, when Tandja made changes to the constitution to allow him to stay in power for a third term. This is what provoked the crisis that finally led to this coup.

Tandja, an ex-army officer himself, first came to power in late 1999 following the assassination of former President General Ibrahim Bare Mainassara in April of that same year. Seven candidates contested the election but all with similar policies and programme and with only one aim: to continue with IMF/World Bank inspired policies. Based on this programme and policy, no matter who had won the election in 1999, they would have ended up exactly the same way Mamadou Tandja’s political gambling has ended.

Bourgeois democracy and “Third World” countries

Bourgeois democracy, which in actual fact is nothing more than the disguised dictatorship of capital, is ineffective without the existence of qualitative and truly organic capital. In advanced capitalist countries, where there is so much capital nurtured by over-exploitation of the former colonial countries, there is enough of a material base to maintain bourgeois democracy.

In contemporary society, all countries are divided into antagonistic classes and the sharper this antagonism, the more endangered this feeble “Democracy”. While the western powers can afford to bribe the top echelons of the labour bureaucracy and soften this antagonism by ensuring some degree of social welfare, such as unemployment benefits, single mother benefits, scholarships and student loans, pensions, etc., all these are non-existent in more backward countries of Africa, Asia and South America.

This therefore constitutes one of the major strains challenging so-called “bourgeois democracy” in Africa. The challenge is rooted more in the economic and social underdevelopment of our countries. It is, however, also worth nothing that, as bourgeois governments of the more advanced capitalist countries attack more and more this social welfare, we see more and more tensions developing within these countries also. The example of the recent threatened coup in Turkey is an indication of the volatility we can expect in the coming period. A bourgeois democracy that is incapable of pacifying the already impoverished masses can only exist in words, but empty phrases in deeds. That is the moral of Niger’s military take-over.

Why the present military take-over?

Bourgeois commentators and their hangers-on have attributed the recent military take-over as simply a reaction against the attempt of Mamadou Tandja to extend his tenure indefinitely and go for a third term in office. In that sense it would appear as a coup to defend the old Constitution, but this is only half the truth.

What would they say of Chavez of Venezuela who has won several elections with overwhelming support of the ordinary masses of the Venezuela? Chavez is popular among the people because he carries out policies that directly touch the lives of ordinary people and therefore against the interest of the imperialists. Tandja was unpopular because he defended the interests of the imperialists at the cost of his own people.

His regime did nothing for the people. It simply served as local manager for powerful foreign countries, such as France and China. The French and Chinese have in fact been in competition with each other over who should get control of Niger’s plentiful uranium reserves. Niger is the world's third largest uranium supplier, and it recently announced it was going to double production by 2012.

It must be said that imperialism did rather well out of Tandja’s period in office. The French energy firm Areva won contracts that have allowed it to begin work on the world's second-biggest uranium mine in the Imouraren region, with investments of around $1.5bn. However, China's National Uranium Corporation has also been exploring in the Azelik region in the north of the country since 2007. China has also managed to get its hands on the country’s oil. China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $5bn deal in 2008.

For all this to continue undisturbed, imperialism requires stability to guarantee its investments. Tandja’s growing unpopularity was destabilizing the country. But he wanted to hold onto power at all costs. The man had become greedy beyond even the acceptable standards of a normal corrupt bourgeois politician.

Last year in August, Tandja promoted a referendum to adopt a new constitution which would allow him to stay in office three years beyond the expiration of his second-four year term, which was to end in December 2009. The same constitutional changes would have permitted him to contest for as many times as he wished.

Shortly before the referendum, which many claim Tandja simply fiddled, he declared a State of Emergency and assumed emergency powers which allowed him to dissolve Parliament and even the country's Constitutional Court, a body that on June 12 of last year had declared the referendum illegal.

All this explains why he was under pressure to go, as was clear from the stance taken by the OAU (Organization of African Unity) and also of Ecowas (Economic Community Of West African States) that suspended Niger’s membership in protest at Tandja’s tinkering with the constitution.

Support from the EU and other Western powers was also weakening. In a desperate attempt to look for support elsewhere, Tandja sought closer links with Libya and Venezuela. It was also rumoured that he was about to sign a uranium contract with Iran. It seem that Tehran had been courting Tandja offering several major agricultural and infrastructure projects since the summer of 2009, hoping thereby to clinch important contracts for the supply of uranium from Niger to Iran.

This was clearly beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour for the imperialists. For a country so rich in uranium to start lining itself up with Venezuela and Iran, that for different reasons have come into conflict with imperialism in the recent period was too much.

However, a simple comparison of this coup with the anti-Chavez coup in 2002 underlines one very basic point. Chavez was not overthrown because he was seen by the people as defending their interests against those of the local oligarchy and the imperialists. Tandja was easily removed because he was hated by the masses.

Despite its riches, Niger is one of the world's least developed countries, with 60% of the population living below the poverty line. Tandja simply added to the problems. The main problem faced by the former president of Niger was therefore one of legitimacy; he had lost the entire social base required to govern. He was so hated by the people and all they wanted was for him to go. Having lost any support he may have had in the past, once he stepped out of line, looking for support from regimes not to the liking of imperialism he was a finished man.

So far, however, in spite of the people’s relief that Tandja has gone, the present military junta has not in any way demonstrated that they want to carry out any policy directly favourable to the masses of Niger. It has presented itself to the world as just a mere transitory regime, a kind of caretaker administration. The worsening living conditions of the working classes and ordinary people of Niger are not considered primary by the junta. What they desire is to establish a government that meets the requirements of the imperialists and their local lackeys.

Niger is an extremely poor country, with around 90% of its working population involved in subsistence farming and many other eking out a meagre existence in the cities. However, in the past there was a certain degree of economic growth. GDP per capita grew substantially in the 1960s reaching a peak in the 1970s, after which it began to shrink back in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by an even sharper fall the 2000’s.

However, much of GDP is generated by uranium extraction. Ore is partially processed on site by foreign mining corporations and then transported by truck to Benin to be shipped to the industrial powers to feed their energy needs. Fluctuations in Niger’s GDP can be mapped by following the changes in international uranium prices, as well as price negotiations with the main mining company, France's Areva NC. Price rises in the mid-1970s were followed by a collapse in the market price through much of the 1980s and 1990s. But official GDP per capita has little bearing on the real average income of the people of Niger. The wealth generated by uranium exports does not “filter down”, although uranium funds much of the government’s operations (over 85% of government revenue). The 2006 Human Development Index ranked Niger sixth worst in the world, 174th out of 179 nations with a HDI of 0.370.

There is no doubt that Nigeriens urgently need a government that will utilize the natural resources of Niger in the interest of the working people. Although Niger is very rich in uranium, this is directly under the control of French imperialism which has been exploiting the people and resources of Niger since colonial times till date.

The nationalisation of Areva NC, the French company that monopolises the extraction of uranium, which generates over 90% of foreign earnings and over 85% of government revenue, putting it under workers’ control, would therefore go a long way to set Niger on the path of genuine emancipation and political freedom. Further to this, the nationalisation of the banks and other commanding heights of the economy would for the first time in the history of Niger free the resources of Nigeriens from the imperial marauders and make them available for a rapid development of Niger.

Power of the Niger workers

Instead, this mineral-rich country has been hit by famine on more than one occasion in the past. In July 2005, 3.6 million were on the brink of starvation, among them 800,000 malnourished children. To make matters worse, the Tandja government had cut back subsidies on essential food items. This had provoked a protest movement with several strikes and demonstrations, which brought the capital, Niamey, to a standstill in March of the same year.

The government at the time clamped down by arresting dozens of the movement’s leaders. The movement became known as the “Coalition Against Costly Living (CACL)”, set up by 30 different groups that were opposed to the introduction of a new 19 percent value added tax (VAT) on basic goods and services, including flour, milk, sugar, water and electricity.

The movement in 2005 clearly demonstrated that although Niger is an extremely poor and underdeveloped country, the working class has the power to paralyse the country. Again, last year on 25 June, the CDTN trade union confederation organsied a 24-hour national general strike against Tandja’s plans to call a referendum.

The huge response to calls to protest and strike in recent years shows the real mood of Niger’s workers and poor. They would be prepared to follow a lead for genuine change, but that change can only come about through the overthrow of the local oligarchy and the nationalization of all the economic interests of the imperialist powers. This would also have to be combined with an international struggle across the whole of West Africa for the building of a socialist federation. Only thus would the economic resources of the region be able to be used in the interests of working people.

It is clear that recent events in Niger are obviously not about the smartness or stupidity of any single person or group, but about an economic arrangement which favours a tiny privileged minority over the majority. It is about a system that exists for profit and not for the interests of the people, a system that promotes the dead over the living, a capitalist system which plunders the resources of Niger and other “third world” countries and tramples on their right to live. As long as capitalism survives in Niger, instability will continue, and more Mamadou Tandjas will appear on the political scene and there will be more military take-overs and more agony for the working class and ordinary people of Niger, just as in Nigeria, Ghana, the whole of Africa and the entire world. The way is to be found on the path of class struggle.

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