afrol News, 19 February - Salou Djibo, a junior officer, is the new leader of Niger, heading a military junta that yesterday toppled President Mamadou Tandja. The junta seems to be in firm control of the country, for now.
Around noon yesterday, troops stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey, detaining President Tandja and members of government during a cabinet meeting. Hours of fighting between the presidential guard and the coup-makers followed. During the entire evening, nothing was known of Mr Tandja's whereabouts and the identity and aims of the coup-makers.
Finally, late in the evening, the "Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy" - as the now ruling military junta named itself - made its first public appearance on public television.
Colonel Abdoul Karim Goukoye, spokesman of the junta, began by saying "Nigeriens, Nigeriens! On this day, 18 February 2010, we, the Defence and Safety Forces, have decided to take our responsibilities in ending the tense political situation that you already know." Then he announced the suspension of the new constitution, the dissolution of all public institutions and the leadership of squadron chief Salou Djibo.
The junta said that its aim was the restoration of "an exemplary" democracy and good governance in Niger.
The coup d'état had been a reaction to President Tadja's unpopular and unconstitutional drive to maintain power in the impoverished country. Despite protests from Niger's constitutional court, parliament and foreign countries - including West Africa's regional block ECOWAS - President Tandja forced through a new constitution shortly before scheduled elections that allowed him to run for a third term in office.
Since then, Niger was suspended from ECOWAS for breaching democratic ground rules, and both the US and the EU has suspended all aid and economic cooperation with Niger.
In this context, the coup has been hesitantly applauded by many Nigeriens commenting in local media and blogs. In the country, ridden by political tensions during the last year, the coup-makers can count on some initial support from the population.
Junta spokesman Goukoye, obviously aware of the popular demand for a return to a constitutional democracy, in the junta's first appearance plaid his cards well, Nigeriens commented today. After promising a return to "an exemplary" democracy and suspending President Tandja's unpopular new constitution, he appealed for calm.
Surrounded by most of the leaders of the military barracks of Niamey - thus demonstrating there was no split in the armed forces - Mr Goukoye asked the population to remain calm, and the national and international community to support the junta to save Niger from "poverty, lies and corruption."
Not surprisingly, the junta did not present a detailed programme for the return of democracy in its first public appearance. Its faith and popularity will depend on how fast it can present such a plan and show to concrete results in restoring democracy, such as assuring press freedom.
Mauritania's recent history shows both an example of success in such a "democracy restoration coup" and a failure. The 2005 coup leader Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall quickly implemented pro-democracy and liberty reforms and made it clear no member of his junta would be eligible in the elections he immediately started preparing. In Mauritania's 2008 coup, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz held on to power by restricting freedoms and presented himself as candidate in the presidential elections.
Another dilemma facing Niger's new military junta is what to do with toppled President Tandja. The President is still being detained in an unknown locality. His popularity has dropped strongly, but Mr Tandja still has a large number of followers and it would not be impossible for him to win an election if given the possibility to stand as a presidential candidate again.
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