Coups and constitutions

Recent developments in the West Africa sub-region provided inspiration for this cursory view of events in a number of West African states during the past five years. The main question I asked myself was whether democracy was a right or a luxury – and who has the right to determine it.

The appetite of democratically elected Presidents to stay in power – by changing their nation’s constitution – seems to be a constant factor in politics in West African countries – to just limit myself to the sub-region. Last but not least, recent developments in Liberia are noteworthy, in particular President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s indication that she is considering a second term.

What is important, however, in all these cases, is whether the answer is coming from the ballot or the bullet.


February 18, 2010 – Today it was announced in Niamey, capital of the Republic of Niger, West Africa, that a successful military coup d’état had taken place. A spokesman for the junta, which seized power, announced on Thursday night in a televised address that the constitution had been suspended, parliament and other state institutions dissolved, the borders closed and a curfew imposed. The following day already the borders were re-opened and the curfew lifted. Shops and banks were open on the day following the coup, and traffic normal. The whereabouts of the deposed President, Mamdou Tandja, were unclear. According to some sources he was reported missing whereas the junta announced that he had been arrested.

The coup plotters said they were motivated to stage their unconstitutional act by President Tandja’s decision, last August, to change the constitution – allowing (only) two presidential terms – in order to remain in power indefinitely.
The junta, which has called itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, is composed of four colonels. The coup leader is col Salou Djibo. The other junta members are col Djibrilla Hima Hamidou (who also particpated in a successful military coup d’état in 1999), col Goukoye Abdul Karimou (spokesman) and col Amadou Harouna. Uranium-rich Niger has known long periods of military rule since independence from France, fifty years ago.

Former colonial power France, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) immediately condemned the bloody coup, in which at least ten people died. A US State Department spokesman publicly suggested that President Tandja may have triggered the coup himself by ‘trying to extend his mandate’, which led to speculation of a possible US involvement in what some called the ‘Uranium coup’.


February 9, 2010 – A week earlier, a ‘silent coup’ had taken place in neighboring Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country, and the second largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. On that day, February 9, the National Assembly declared the Vice President, Dr Jonathan Goodluck, Acting President because of the prolonged absence of ailing President Yar’Adua who is undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua had left the country in November 2009, apparently for a medical check-up, but without delegating powers to an interim leader.

The Nigerian Constitution did not foresee the situation which then emerged. Initially this led to much confusion and agitation, and to tough bickering among legal experts, who often took sides in the debate which reflected rather their regional origin than a constitutional view. The unanimous decision of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to designate Jonathan Goodluck Acting President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria until the country’s legal President is fit to rule again, must be considered unconstitutional since officially a constitutional change would have been required to legalize this decision even when unanimously taken by the National Assembly.

The Nigerian political situation is a very complex one. The federal republic comprises of thirty-six states and one Federal Capital Territory (Abuja). Each of the thirty-six states could be considered a mini republic, the Governor as its President. The fragile peace and precarious balance among the states, in particular the North versus the South, has led to the present system in which the President alternatively comes from the North and the South. The previous President, Olusegun Obasanjo originated from the South. After failing to change the constitution and to stay in power for a third term, he gave way to the Northerner Umaru Yar’Adua – the winner of the contested 2007 presidential elections. But Jonathan Goodluck is a Southerner and his nomination as Acting President may disturb the precarious political balance. The contemporary history of oil-rich Nigeria is one of coups, counter-coups and military dictators.


December 2008 – Another West African country, bauxite-rich Guinea, witnessed a military coup d’état, only hours after the death of military dictator, President Lansana Conteh. He had ruled Guinea with iron fist after seizing power in a military coup, twenty-four years earlier, after the country’s first President (1958 – 1984) had died, the charismatic but ruthless Ahmed Sekou Toure. Also see my December 2008 and March 2009 postings.

The December 2008 coup was strongly condemned by the international community, but welcomed by many Guineans. The junta’s strongman was Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, originally the junta spokesman but who soon became its leader. Like many ‘putchistes’ before him, the leader of the military junta, which called itself the National Council for Development and Democracy, promised speedy elections but soon changed his mind and clung to power.

In September 2009, over 150 people were killed and more than 1200 injured when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators who wanted military ruler Moussa Camara to step down. A couple of months later, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was shot in the head and seriously injured by a former aide. He now is recovering in Burkina Faso, upon the invitation of President Blaise Compaore. Camara was replaced by his deputy, General Sekouba Konate.


August 2008 – Another West African country where the military could not resist the temptation to intervene in domestic politics, was Mauritania. On August 4, Mauritanian army officers announced the overthrow of the country’s president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and the creation of a military council to rule the country, named the Military Council for Justice and Democracy. More than two-thirds of the members of parliament, and the same proportion of senators, supported the coup. The politicians said the army had merely done its duty in removing President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who they accused of acting anti-constitutionally.

The coup, which drew widespread international criticism, was given a mixed reception domestically. France and the US had cancelled their aid. The African Union also suspended the country following the 6 August coup. The governments of South Africa and Nigeria – both major players in the African Union – also criticized the military takeover. Mauritania has a long history of coups – more than 10 military coup attempts over the last three decades – with the military involved in nearly every government since its independence from France in 1960.

Togo, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia

The second half of the first decade of the third millennium had started with the young Eyadéma succeeding his father, Africa’s longest serving ruler who had died at the relatively young age of 69 years. In February 2005, 39-year old Faure Gnassinbe Eyadéma was hurriedly installed by the military as Togo’s new President after his father Gnassingbe Eyadéma had died. Dynestic succession is to become a constant characteristic in politics in African countries, notably in francophone Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the murdered head of state Laurent Kabila was succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila (2001). When in another Central African Republic, Gabon, the then longest-serving African Head of State, Elhadji Omar Bongo, passed away, in 2009, he too was succeeded by his son, Ali Ben Bongo – albeit through democratic elections.

In three other small West African countries a new president was sworn in during the 2005 – 2010 period. In all three countries this happened after a civil war characterized by much violence.

In March 2009, President Vieira (‘Nino’) of Guinea Bissau was killed by renegade soldiers, apparently in a drugs-related conflict. Guinea Bissau has in a short span of time become Africa’s most notorious narco-state. See my March 2009 posting. Nino’s successor Malam Bacai Sanha was installed in September of the same year – after elections in which one of the presidential candidates was killed by military policy, apparently in a bid to foil a coup.

After the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, in 2002, President Kabbah was sworn in as the country’s president. In 2007, he was succeeded by his opponent, Ernest Bai Koroma. A commendable transfer of power, given the country’s contemporary history of chaos and conflict.

In neighboring Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had become Africa’s first democratically elected female President, in 2006. Recently, she announced that she will contest the 2011 presidential elections. Her decision, announced at the State of the Nation address on January 25, 2010, surprised many. In her 2005 election campaign, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had indicated that she would not run for a second term.

The Liberian 1984 Constitution allows for a two-term presidential term, therefore Sirleaf is legally able to do so. But her position is a controversial one, in particular in view of the Truth and Reconciliations Commission’s recommendation that she be banned from public office for 30 years for her support of Charles Taylor when he invaded the country in 1989.

To be continued

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