NIAMEY (Reuters) - Markets, banks and schools in Niger’s capital opened as usual on Friday, a day after troops ousted President Mamadou Tandja in a military coup, and the only soldiers on the streets were few and lightly armed.
The international community unilaterally condemned the overthrow, but diplomats and analysts said it could create an opportunity to hold elections that were postponed by Tandja’s unpopular constitutional reform in 2009.
“It is likely the new military government will be under pressure from the international community to restore the rule of law and hold elections in the medium term,” said Samir Gado, Vice-President of Rencap Securities.
The head of the military junta that seized Tandja during Thursday’s gun battle called for calm and said the work of government ministers and regional governors ousted in the coup was being done by their secretary generals.
After months of political wrangling over Tandja’s amendment of the constitution, which provoked international sanctions and demonstrations, there was a sense of relief and hope for change in the uranium-producing west African desert nation.
“I hope the soldiers restore some order ... clean up the political environment,” said taxi driver Moussa Issa.
“We need to start from scratch, without being compromised by the current political class which has been discredited over the last 20 years,” he added.
The junta, calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSDR), gave no indication of how long it intended to hold power but called on Niger’s people and other countries to support its actions.
Its fighters on Thursday captured Tandja and his ministers in a gunbattle, before it suspended the constitution and dissolved all state bodies. At least three people were killed. Tandja’s whereabouts is unknown.
The president of the CSDR has been identified as Salou Djibo, an officer trained in Ivory Coast, Morocco and China who has served in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Other leaders of the coup include Colonel Djibril Hamidou, a former spokesman for a junta responsible for the last coup in 1999, paving the way for elections that brought Tandja to power.
The coup operation was led by Colonel Abdoulaye Adamou Harouna, who commands Niger’s standby force for West African regional bloc ECOWAS, military sources said.
Tandja drew criticism and sanctions after dissolving parliament and orchestrating a constitutional reform in 2009 that gave him added powers and extended his term beyond his second five-year mandate, which expired in December.
Tandja justified it by saying he needed extra time to complete large-scale investment projects.
Several of the officers in the CSRD were involved in Niger’s last coup in 1999, which led to free and fair elections, making some analysts hopeful that delayed polls may take place.
“IHS Global Insight has upgraded Niger’s political risk rating, but the CSRD pedigree could mean a return to constitutionalism within the short to medium term,” IHS said.
Senegal, mediator for West Africa’s ECOWAS bloc, dispatched its foreign minister but the diplomat was unable to enter Niger as all borders remain closed.
Former colonial power France joined the African Union and ECOWAS in its criticism of the military takeover.
“France advises all parties in Niger, including the armed forces, to find a solution to the constitutional crisis via dialogue as soon as possible,” a French spokesman said.
The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it did not defend the violence but Niger needed elections and a new governemnt.
Despite political turmoil over the last year, Niger has attracted billions of dollars in investment from major international companies, including French nuclear giant Areva and the China National Petroleum Corp, who are looking to tap into uranium and oil reserves, respectively.