On February 18, 2010, Niger experienced its third coup d’état in fourteen years.
The coup was a response to President Mamadou Tandja’s bid to retain the presidency for a third term in violation of the 1999 Constitution of the Fifth Republic of Niger. News reports suggest that the coup received a warm welcome within Niger, as pro-coup demonstrators took to the streets in celebration. However, reaction from the international community was far less jubilant. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) adopted a resolution condemning the coup as a violation of Article 4(p) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU). Additionally, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement disapproving of the unconstitutional change of government. Now that the coup’s leaders are at the helm of Niger’s central government, it is unclear how soon Niger will return to democratic rule and what tools may be available to Nigeriens ensure this transition takes place
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), through its capacity to coordinate diplomatic negotiations, impose sanctions, and conduct trials, is uniquely positioned to facilitate this transition. Indeed, ECOWAS played a central role in Guinea’s return democratic rule in February 2010 following a December 2008 military coup after the death of General Lasana Conté, Guinea’s dictatorial leader of 24 years. ECOWAS suspended Guinea’s membership within the regional organization, convened negotiations between coup leaders and pro-democracy groups, and marshaled diplomatic pressure from western and African countries. However, over a year of military rule and grave human rights abuses transpired in the interim.
In Niger, ECOWAS has similarly assumed a central role. It suspended Niger’s membership in October 2009 because Tandja dissolved Parliament and the Constitutional Court flouted Niger’s obligation to promote democratic governance under Article 4(j) of the ECOWAS Revised Treaty. Additionally, since several months before the coup, ECOWAS has coordinated the diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions in Niger through negotiations. However, the recent coup represents a significant setback to ECOWAS’s pre-coup diplomacy.
In this context, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice represents one additional mechanism that could be employed to return Niger to democratic rule. With wide jurisdictional leeway to pursue cases of human rights violations and broad access to the court for individuals pursuant to Articles 9(4) and 10(d) of the 2005 Supplementary Protocol (A/SP.1/01/05), the Court is well situated to hear a case challenging the legality of the military junta under Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Moreover, as seen in the ECOWAS case of Ugokwe v. Federal Republic of Nigeria (Unreported Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/02/05), a claim can be filed before the Court based on alleged violations of the African Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights relating to national elections. If successful in restoring democracy in Niger — whether through legal action or diplomacy and sanctions — ECOWAS’s growing role in West Africa could serve as a model to other sub-regional organizations on the continent.