Politics Nigeria — April 16, 2010 at 10:31 AM

The devil’s alternative

Everyone knows that leadership in Africa is sorry. For the most part, all that the continent’s 54 countries can boost of are massive corruption, hunger, unemployment, election rigging and a deep- rooted desire by most of its leaders to continue in office for ever. Indeed, most of Africa’s leaders will do anything, by any means necessary, to perpetuate themselves in office. Just a handful, past or present, are exempt.

These leaders during presidential campaigns would promise heaven and earth to the electorate. But once they make it to the presidential palace through an election process that is often rigged they metamorphose into something else. Instead of working towards achieving their election promises they preoccupy themselves with crooked schemes to rule forever. Some of them, if they are too old to continue, scheme for one of their children to take over as if a country is a personal business empire.

Over the years, they have devised sundry methods to achieve their sit tight, never-leave-office ambition. Sometimes when they try and fail to achieve the ambition they resort to back door political sabotages by bribing or encouraging military officers to overthrow the government of the opponent that defeated them at the poll. Though this tactic has worked in the past, it is now considered old school by some. Their new modes operandi is to subvert their respective countries’ constitutions while in office via staged referendums. You don’t need a degree in rocket science or be a lobotomy expert to see that the staged referendums are just means to make it look as if it was the will of the people for them to continue in office. These referendums are civilian coupe d’états, same as military coup d’états; the only difference being in the means of achieving it. While one is achieved by way of a constitutional sabotage the other is attained via the barrel of the gun. Different approaches, same result.

So, when Niger Republic’s former president, Mamadou Tandja hatched a plan to perpetuate himself in office via (you guessed it) a referendum, he must have reasoned it was business as usual. But the country’s military leaders had other ideas. They refused to buy the referendum crap that he was trying to sell to his country and decided, instead, to take matters in their hands to save the country. On February 18, 2010 mutinous soldiers rolled out tanks and headed for the presidential palace in Niamey, the country’s capital. Inside the palace all seemed well as a cabinet meeting took place. Upon arrival President Tandja was arrested and in place of his government the coup leader, Major Salou Djibo, created the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy.

The coup was condemned by some leaders and organizations including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the United Nations. However, despite the condemnations the coup seemed to be popular in Niger as people turned out en masse in a two days rally in support of the new regime. Niger people are not stupid, so they must have a reason for supporting the downfall of Tandja’s regime. Like the coup plotters the civilian population did not buy Tandja’s referendum hanky-panky. They could see through the referendum smoke screen that the whole thing was a ploy by Tandja to rubber stamp his way into presidential perpetuity.

Let me be clear, I am opposed to all forms of political dictatorship, civilian or military. I am also against a forceful military takeover of government. That said, former President Tandja left his country’s military leaders with no good choice in the matter. There were only three choices for the country’s military to chose from viz: Option no.1: President Tandja serves out his term and leaves office without dubiously extending his stay as president; Option no. 2: Ignore President Tandja and do nothing as he subverted the constitution he swore an oath to defend and uphold; Option no. 3: Do something to prevent him from subverting the constitution.

This is a classic case of the devil’s alternative because there was no good option left in the matter. The only good choice which was option no. 1 was not available because Tandja had squandered it when he set in motion the sickening plot to fraudulently extend his stay in office. Consequently, options 2 and 3 were the only choices in the matter, and one of them must be chosen. But neither was a good option because what it really amounted to was to make a choice of the lesser evil, hence the term the devil’s alternative. Niger’s military leaders choose option 3 for obvious reasons.

I am at a loss why some critics condemn the coup plotters. Although they condemn the regime change they offer no plausible solution to Tandja’s referendum trickery. Would the critics have preferred for Tandja to turn himself into a civilian dictator by deviously manipulating the constitution in his favor? I have heard and read some critics argue that the coup plotters should not have stepped in and, instead, should have left it up for the Niger people to reject the referendum. That is naïve thinking. It is no secret that rogue leaders through the instrument of massive corruption and bribery tweak referendums in their favor. Save for the military intervention the people of Niger stood no chance against Tandja’s well-oiled political machinery. At least, this sends a powerful message to other rogue leaders in the continent not to think about it because there will be serious consequences.

The coup leader Djibo had declared that the military’s intention was to stop Tandja from actualizing his devious plot. It was announced that he would rule by decree until promised elections. Meanwhile, a civilian Prime Minister has been appointed for the transition to democracy, elections have been promised and the junta has warned that no one involved in the interim government will be allowed to take part in the upcoming poll. So far, so good.

Sometimes a drastic problem requires a drastic solution and the Niger political conundrum fits the profile. Nothing else would have deterred Tandja from achieving his ill-conceived stay-in-office-forever ambition. Cries of foul play from the press and condemnations from world leaders would have had no effect like water thrown on a duck’s back.

The real issue is whether the junta will keep to his promise. This is not the first time Africans have seen this scenario play out. Sometimes the coup leaders stick to their promise to hand over power to a democratically elected government on a specified date, and at other times they disregard whatever promises they made upon seizing power. For example, when General Murtala Mohammed in 1975 seized power in Nigeria he promised reform and to return the country to a civilian rule as soon as possible. He was killed on February 13, 1976 in an abortive coup attempt led by Lt.Col Buka Suka Dimka, when his car was ambushed while en route to his office at Dodan Barracks, Lagos. Several top officers, including his predecessor and graduate student at Warwick University, England, Yakubu Gowon, were accused of either planning or approving the coup attempt. He was succeeded by the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquaters, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who kept the regime’s promise and completed the plan of an orderly transfer to civilian rule by handing power to Shehu Shagari on October 1, 1979.

Unlike Nigeria, Guinea is not so lucky. A military junta had taken over power there in December 2008 and also promised reforms and elections for a transfer of power to a civilian government. The coup plotters lead by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara announced a grandiose name: The National Council for Democracy and Development. Captain Camara announced that the soldiers had no “ambition to hold onto power.”

One year later with no signs of elections and with Camara refusing to rule himself out for running for president, it took an assassination attempt to break the impasse. He was shot and injured and was flown to Morocco for medical treatment. Upon recovery he was taken to Burkina Faso where a deal was brokered for a return to civilian rule in Guinea. As part of the deal opposition leader Jean-Marie Dore was named the new Prime Minister and saddled with task of organizing elections for June this year.

The world is watching. Whose footsteps will Niger’s new junta follow: General Obasanjo’s in 1979 or Captain Camara’s? Only time will tell.

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