February 23, 2010 / 5:53 AM / 9 years ago

Niger's junta wins popularity, says little yet

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s army attacked the leafy government district as the last of the civil servants were knocking off for lunch. By the time they were due back at work, soldiers were in charge and President Mamadou Tandja locked up.

Members of the military junta stand on a street in Niger's capital Niamey, February 21, 2010. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

Months of frustrations over political wrangling, a clinical operation and remaining low key since last Thursday’s takeover have won the army praise and some time.

Still, working out how to get the West African uranium exporter back on the rails will be more tricky.

Deep in the warrens of Niamey’s Grand Marche, where people were soon back at their stands hawking piles of printed wax cloth, secondhand shoes and wheelbarrows of fruit and cola nuts, support for the military’s action is almost unequivocal.

“The soldiers were late. We are waiting for the soldiers to clean out our house because it is dirty,” said shopkeeper Mamadou Illa, referring to the months of wrangling between Tandja and opposition parties that preceded the coup.

“We must give them some time to clearly read the situation in Niger. I give them 18 months to two years for the transition. There is a lot to do,” he added, listing a new constitution and voter lists as necessary tasks before polls can be held.

The wrangling was over Tandja’s re-writing of the constitution to give himself wider powers and more time to use them after his second term in power ran out last December.

Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets over the weekend to back the coup, which was officially criticised but, in private, diplomats say may have created an opening.

Tandja’s party has condemned the coup but allies and grassroots backers talk more about reinstating democracy than reinstating him.

“There was no other way (out of the deadlock) but a coup,” said Alphary Kabidu, the president of a local branch of Tandja’s MNSD party. “Ninety percent of Nigeriens were waiting for this.”

“It will not be possible,” he said, when asked why the party was not calling for Tandja to be reinstated. “What we are going to ask for is a quick return to democracy.”

TALKS AT JUNTA HQ

The junta, known as the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (SCRD), has promised this but given no details of what form this will take, nor who will be involved.

Over the weekend, diplomats swept into the heavily fortified junta headquarters, where soldiers in armoured vehicles and battle-wagons stood guard, and emerged from talks impressed by promises they were given for a planned return to civilian rule.

The political deadlock between Tandja’s supporters and his rivals, which had escalated bitterly in recent months, also gave way to jovial greetings and back-slapping as the delegations from the two sides met for talks with the visiting diplomats.

However, little information is trickling out as officers from the army, air force and other branches of the military come and go to marathon meetings in the base in the middle of the capital city.

“The situation is still fragile. We must be careful and not say too much for now,” said one senior junta member, who asked not to be named but stressed the importance the army was giving to not impacting upon daily life in the desert state.

Nothing concrete has been said about what the coup means for Niger’s multi-billion contracts with France’s nuclear mining giant Areva or the China National Petroleum Corp.

Niger’s coup is West Africa’s third in 18 months, prompting some fears of slippage in steps towards bringing democracy to the region, particularly after Guinea’s soldiers have repeatedly reneged on vows to hold polls in the world’s top bauxite exporter.

But Niger’s military rulers appear, for now, keen to push a pro-democracy line.

Aside from a few rocket-blasted buildings near the presidential palace, where a handful of soldiers still stand guard, there is little to suggest a coup has just taken place.

The message is not lost on Niger-watchers.

“The international community cannot and will not approve of the coup. However, along with condemnations, the junta should know that if they bring the country around to rapid elections they will be considered international heroes,” said one diplomat.

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