Tandja Mamadou (in Nigerian Hausa: Tanja Muhammadu), born in 1938 in Maine-Soroa in eastern Niger Republic (next door to Nigeria’s Borno State), was a military officer who was in 1974 part of a coup that brought General Seyni Kountché to power. Tandja subsequently served as prefect (Governor) of the Tahoua (Tawa) and Maradi regions (states). He was once ambassador to Nigeria, minister of the interior, as well as commander of several army garrisons.
He retired from the army in 1991 to head the National Movement for the Development of Society, MNSD-Nasara, his political party. He made unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1993 and 1996 before being elected in 1999; he was re-elected in 2004 for a second five-year term which ends at the end of this year. But Tandja does not want to go. When he was first elected, he had declared: “My first priority will be political stability and then institutional and social stability.” He is now entrenching the direct opposite; instability.
Granted, Tandja may have done well in his ten years as president, but he has tragically convinced himself that he is the only one that can continue the ‘good work’ he is doing. In his quest for ‘tazarce’, Tandja has dissolved the country’s Parliament and sacked the Constitutional Court (equivalent to our Supreme Court) when the judges ruled that the referendum Tandja wanted to call was unconstitutional. Now he intends to rule by decree, as sole administrator running an emergency government. A dictator.
This is not the first time such political crises have engulfed Niger Republic. A similar one occurred back in mid-1990s. Then President Mamane Ousmane (Muhammadu Usman to you, who was Speaker of the Parliament just dissolved) and his ruling party, the Social Democratic Convention (CDS-Rahama) went into a duel against coalition partner and then Prime Minister Hama Amadou (who was also Tandja’s Prime Minister before he was sacked and jailed) and his party, the now-ruling MNSD-Nasara. The president and the prime minister fought each other to the finish – a military coup on January 27, 1996.
For some geography and history, Niger lies between Libya to the north and Nigeria to the south, with whose northern territories it shares historical cultural ties. Its economy depends largely on the export of uranium; the country’s soils contain about 10 per cent of the world’s reserves of this important ingredient of the nuclear industry. Some coal is mined in the country, some cement is produced and petroleum has been found in commercial quantity. Being a landlocked nation, Niger relies on its southern neighbours, primarily Nigeria and Benin, to reach the coast. The country also depends on Nigeria for 70 per cent of its electrical energy.
Niger became independent from France in August 1960, along with other French West African nations. The French handed over power to the Niger Progressive Party (NPP) led by Hamani Diori (known here as Jori Hamani), who became the first president. The PPN government, ushered in after multi-party elections, soon marginalized the opposition and, as happened to most other newly independent nations, Niger became a one-party state. Leaders of the opposition fled into exile – another common African theme – while others were eliminated. Corruption, another endemic characteristic, soon set in Diori’s government and its cohorts were given the epithet clan de bouffeurs (or band of thieves).
In 1974 the prodigal son of African politics, the military, intervened and ended Niger’s 14-year dictatorship, claiming to be restoring law and order. The ensuing Supreme Military Council (CMS), led by Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché, consolidated power in the wave of popular support. As is usual, the overthrown politicians took residence in the country’s jail, changing places with the jailed former opposition leaders, who regained their freedom.
Counter-coup attempts soon began to rock the boat of the CMS. Many of the original officers were implicated, and subsequently executed. One officer, Major Sani Sido, who was second in command to Kountché, died in ‘natural causes’ in prison in 1977. Under the military, strict social reforms were introduced, all freedoms curtailed and all opposition silenced. Kountché died in 1987 and his deputy Ali Saibou was named successor. Saibou relaxed his predecessor’s authoritarian style which made the hitherto silent political class start to feel optimistic. In 1990, the government succumbed to pressure and convened a national conference to fashion out a constitution and chart the way to multi-party politics.
The subsequent elections of 1993 saw the triumph (after a run-off with MNSD’s Tandja Mamadou) of Mamane Ousmane, who began a five-year term in April of the same year. The CDS-Rahama formed a coalition with many smaller parties, principally the Democratic Socialist Party of Niger (PNDS-Tarayya), the leader of which, Mahamadou Issoufou (Muhammadu Yusufu to you), became the first prime minister in the new dispensation. By 1996, the military was back.
Another fault-line in Niger’s political and social fabric has been the deep-rooted ethnic cleavage which was created and fostered by France, although it has never come to the surface in any visible form, thanks to the uniting effect of Islam – Muslims constitute 98 per cent of Niger’s population – and the universal adoption of the predominant Hausa language and culture.
Niger’s Hausa people, according to a 1981 United States Agency for International Development (USAID) report, make up nearly 60 per cent of the country’s population (and, with their natural allies, the Fulani, the Kanuri, and the Touareg who have all taken to Hausa ways, they constitute nearly 80 per cent). But for the first few decades of post-colonial governance, the majority were effectively denied power. The French, fearful of uncooperative dominant Hausa elite, had shifted Niger’s administrative capital in 1927 from Zinder, in the heart of Hausa country, to Niamey, in the Zarma-Songhay country.
The French cultivated the ethnic Zerma-Songhay (Zabarmawa to you, constituting 22 per cent of the population according to the USAID report) for leadership. The Zarma provided all Niger’s leaders from independence till the election of Mamane Ousmane in 1993 as the first Hausa president. His Prime Minister, Hama Amadou, was Zarma. Tandja himself in Kanuri-Fulani, raised as Hausa like many Nigeriens.
The ethnic cleavage, fortunately, has never erupted into any unpleasantness as it has elsewhere. The common dominators of Islam and the Hausa language and culture ensure that. For example, all political parties in Niger today have Hausa epithets, so that they could be easily identified by the masses. One finds Sawaba (good fortune), Shamuwa (crested crane), Nasara (victory), Zaman-Lafiya (peace), Tarayya (federation), Na-Kowa (popular), Alkawari (promise of good tidings) and so on.
But Tandja does not seem to want Zaman Lafiya. What he wants is to win at all costs. After all, his party’s epithet is Nasara, victory.