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The Return of the African Coup

NEW YORK – The conventional wisdom that sub-Saharan Africa has moved beyond military coups may be wishful thinking. In the past two years, Africa has seen successful coups in Niger, Guinea, Madagascar, and Mauritania. In addition, there have been a handful of indirect interventions, failed coups, and whispered threats elsewhere.

Despite the development of democratic institutions in some parts of Africa, coups appear to be once again an option when democracy seems to be failing, political gridlock has taken hold, or impoverished populations are alienated from constitutional authority. Successful coups legitimated by popular support (or at least acquiescence) and oiled with promises to “restore democracy” may become infectious, encouraging copycats in neighboring states where governments are also weak or failing.

At the end of February in Niamey, Niger’s capital, armed troops surrounded the presidential palace and arrested President Mamadou Tandja in the midst of a cabinet meeting. While the African Union, the United States, and other members of the international community protested, popular reaction in Niamey was jubilant.

Tandja, originally democratically elected, had become increasingly autocratic, dismissing the National Assembly and the constitutional court, and eliminating presidential term limits. As his governance descended into authoritarianism, the military and at least a visible part of the population came to view a coup as the only way to stop Niger’s downward course. Accordingly, the army rode in promising democracy and free and fair elections.