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Which coups count?

There are countless ways to screw up a fragile democracy. Two aspects of the democratic process seem to be especially vulnerable – elections, and term limits. Recent events in Iran have reminded us that elections are surprisingly easy to rig if you’ve got adequate control of electoral commissions. (Ideally, you should never need to rig an election. With state control over media, it should be easy enough to marginalize opponents and consolidate the image of a strong executive. The mistake in the Iran elections may have been the televised debates, which established Moussavi as a credible threat to Ahmedinejad…)

And there are a lot of rigged elections. In Africa, we’ve seen recently seen a thoroughly corrupt Zimbabwean election leading to an uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement, a rigged Kenyan election leading to violence and a bloated power-sharing government, a massively flawed election in Nigeria being accepted largely because it didn’t erupt into violence. Even in Ghana, where the 2008 elections were rightly celebrated for providing a peaceful transfer of power (the rare and celebrated “double alternation“), some of my friends affiliated with the ousted NPP claim that the election was flawed, but their party stood down rather than risk Kenya-style chaos. (I have no way of validating these claims, but I’m fascinated that an election celebrated for its smooth running is being questioned by some participants.)

Recent events suggest that we may need to pay close attention to the moment when leaders realize they’re constitutionally obligated to step down. It’s a legitimate concern in fragile democracies that a leader may be fairly elected, and may then manipulate the levers of power to remain in office indefinitely. (The running African joke about democratically-elected strongmen has the punchline: “One man, one vote, once.”) So many constitutions include strict term limits for executives. And popular leaders often try to ammend constitutions to allow them to rule indefinitely – Hugo Chavez proposed such ammendments to Venezuela’s constitution and was narrowly defeated in a referendum in late 2007.

Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is facing the end of his term in office and can’t currently stand for another term due to term limits. He sought a referendum allowing a constitutional change which would allow him to stand again. An hour before polls were scheduled to open, he was seized – in his pajamas – by military officers acting on a Supreme Court order and spirited off to Costa Rica.

That sounds a lot like a coup to me – the military has seized power and ousted an elected leader before the end of his term. On the other hand, the military was acting under court order, which leads to an argument that the presidential ouster was legally mandated. There’s been lively online debate on the topic of coup/no coup – readers on Reddit yesterday morning were greeted with an angry comment, “I am from Honduras. It was NOT a COUP” and a long comment thread debating events. The back and forth on the English-language wikipedia has been fierce enough that the Honduras page is currently protected from future edits (thought the Spanish-language page is not protected at present.)

While the Honduras situation is gaining some media attention – notably because both Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama have protested the events that have transpired – a very similar situation in Niger hasn’t moved beyond the back pages of the newspaper. In Niger, President Mamadou Tandja has been seeking an additional term in office, which has required constitutional changes via a referendum. The constitutional court ruled against his proposed referendum, and earlier this week, he declared he would rule by decree, dissolved the court that ruled against him and appointed 8 ministers who agree with his referendum plans. It’s not technically a military coup, as the military has stayed neutral… but an Nigerois opposition figure has called the situation a coup and been arrested for his troubles.

Mark Leon Goldberg, writing in UN Dispatch, asks “If a coup falls in Niger, does it make a sound?” While Tandja is earning brickbats from ECOWAS and from the EU, the story isn’t getting much play in international media. I can’t find evidence that Obama’s specifically condemned Tandja’s actions (BTW, I do not recommend searching for “obama niger” – it’s depressing, and won’t enlighten you on this story), and there certainly aren’t media pundits demanding an Obama stand on events.

It’s interesting to think about what democratic stresses attract international attention and which fly under radar. Protests in Iran were going to be front-page news, even before demonstrators displayed uncommon persistance and courage. Iran’s a founding member of the “axis of evil” – the Beatles of international media attention – a country that’s always red hot on attention maps. That Iran has a thriving blogosphere and a tech savvy population, many of whom knew how to evade the government firewalls that have been in place most of this decade, helped turn exciting, inspiring political developments into an international media phenomenon.

Other countries can have profoundly strange goings-on and healthy citizen media coverage, and won’t get a fraction of the coverage. See Madagascar, which has been in the throes of a deposed government, where bloggers have emerged as a key alternative to mainstream media. Or Fiji, where the military has been in control since late 2006, the fourth coup in recent years, and where recent restrictions on freedom of the press has been called “coup 4.5” and turned bloggers into outlaw media outlets. We’ve covered both crises closely at Globa Voices, but we’ve not had the mainstream media interest we’ve received around Iran.

So why does Honduras get the Iran treatment, while Niger is ignored like Madagascar? Proximity? Strategic importance? (though Niger’s got massive uranium reserves – you remember yellowcake, right?) It’s not population – Niger’s roughly twice the size of Honduras. Expectation? Perhaps we’re sufficiently accustomed to African coups (Madagascar, Mauritania and Guinea in the past year) that Niger’s not a surprise.

Or perhaps all the pundits are still trying to figure out which one’s Nigeria and which one’s Niger…

10 thoughts on “Which coups count?”

  1. Notably, Sudan’s headline grabbing President Bashir has withstood several coup attempts in recent years, and an ICC arrest warrant.

    You’ve likely answered your own question politely: in the United States at least, we *expect* Africans and African leaders to behave this way, and so it makes the news only when there’s the smack of high stakes, sensational corruption, or mass atrocity.

    When will we get over it? I’m still holding my breath.

  2. everyone i know who watched the iranian presidential debates said that mousavi didn’t look all that great. ahmedinejad performed better

  3. There are probably people everywhere who question all elections no matter how legitimate they are/seem, including the US in 2004. There will always be the conspiracy theories, doesn’t necessarily mean the gov’t is illegitimate.

    As for why Honduras and not Niger, proximity is certainly part of it, but it probably also has something to do with the history of US foreign policy in Central America (I’m assuming here that you’re focusing on US media coverage). It’s part of a narrative that resonates with Americans who were around in the ’80s, remember Iran Contra, Sandinistas, etc.

    You could ask a similar question about coverage of celebrity deaths lately. MJ is obvious, but why did Farrah Fawcett get more attention than Ed McMahon? To me, at least, they were as popular at their heyday. Why does she get an hour-long Dateline special and he doesn’t?

  4. That last question is a softball, CB – Farrah’s a little easier on the eyes than Ed. What red-blooded tv network could pass up the opportunity to air that red swimsuit again and again. I think you’re right about the LatAm/US narrative – it’s certainly a richer vein than US involvement with Francophone Africa. I’ll spend some time looking at French-language media and see if we’re getting the same pattern, or whether they’re hyperfocused on Niger over Honduras.

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  6. “Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is facing the end of his term in office and can?t currently stand for another term due to term limits. He sought a referendum allowing a constitutional change which would allow him to stand again.”

    The referendum proposed by Zelaya wold NOT had allow him to run for reelection – the proposition was to make a vote in November (together with presidential elections) about a Constitutional Assembly.

    Then, even if a Constitutional Assembly was elected and changed the constitution to allow re-election, Zeaya could not benefit from that (because this – the new constitution – only could occur after the presidential election)

  7. In fact the Obama administration has commented on the situation in Niger. I bring you a quote from the often hilarious State Department briefing room:

    QUESTION: Do you have anything on the political situation in Niger?

    MR. KELLY: I don’t think so. No, I don’t. What’s going on in —

    QUESTION: There’s a political crisis. The president has dissolved the constitutional court and he is trying to stay in power —

    MR. KELLY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: — instead of getting reelected in September.

    MR. KELLY: Well, that doesn’t sound good.


    MR. KELLY: We’ll get you more information.

    QUESTION: Thank you.
    (Full text- http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2009/125510.htm)

    And there you go: that doesn’t sound good.

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