A Coup in Niger Adds to West Africa's Instability

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Colonel Goukoye Abdul Karimou reads a statement signed by Colonel Salou Djibo, leader of a military coup that ousted Nigerian President Mamadou Tandja

The military coup that deposed Mamadou Tandja, the President of Niger, on Thursday, Feb. 18, could be seen as yet another putsch in a remote West African country, save for two things contributing to a growing instability in the region: cocaine and al-Qaeda. The coup is just the latest in a series in West Africa, making the region an increasing focus for Western governments in their ongoing battles against terrorism and drugs.

The coup itself was over just hours after it began Thursday, when shots were heard at the presidential palace in the dusty capital of Niamey, where Tandja was holding a Cabinet meeting. Late that night, a group of army officers calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy appeared on national television and announced the suspension of the constitution and dissolution of all state institutions. An unnamed uniformed officer asked the people of Niger to "remain calm and stay united around the ideals postulated by the council," which were to "make Niger an example of democracy and good governance" and to "save Niger and its population from poverty, deception and corruption." The whereabouts of Tandja were unknown.

Hope is becoming more common across Africa. Armed conflicts are on the decline, democracy is spreading, and economic growth is healthy. But rebirths can be fragile. And after a few years of optimism in West Africa, instability has suddenly returned. The past two years have seen coups in Guinea and Mauritania and the tit-for-tat assassinations of the President and army chief in Guinea-Bissau. More recently, the regional superpower, Nigeria, endured three months of political uncertainty when President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua underwent medical treatment in Saudi Arabia but refused to hand over power to his deputy for three months. (The transfer was eventually forced by parliament.) And on Friday, two people were reported to have died in Ivory Coast during protests against President Laurent Gbagbo's decision to dissolve the government and electoral commission, once again delaying a presidential election originally scheduled for 2005.

Tensions have been simmering in Niger since last year, when the democratically elected Tandja, whose second term in office was about to expire, suddenly assumed emergency powers and changed the constitution to extend his term by three years. As is the habit of autocrats, he justified his actions by saying he wanted to continue his mission of serving the people. And they need serving: Niger's population of 15 million is growing at the fastest rate in the world (an average woman there gives birth to seven children). Nigerians are also among the world's poorest, subjected to periodic droughts and famine. But Tandja's claims were made hollow by his track record in office — his government has been accused of corruption and harassment of political opponents, journalists and aid workers. Among those unconvinced by his motives was the West African regional group ECOWAS, which suspended Niger last October over Tandja's moves to hold on to power.

So why the new insecurity in the region? Two reasons are terrorists and drug smugglers, who have been attracted to West Africa by its weak governments and whose presence has weakened them further. First, the region has become a staging ground for operations by militant Islamists calling themselves al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group largely made up of Algerian fighters who fled south in the late 1990s after losing a decade-long war against the government. AQIM specializes in the kidnapping — and occasional execution — of foreigners, something that prompted the Paris-Dakar rally to move to South America last year. In December 2008, AQIM kidnapped the U.N. special envoy for Niger, Robert Fowler of Canada, along with an aide and a driver. They were eventually released, together with three Western tourists — two Swiss and a German — reportedly after a ransom of $5 million was paid. But a Briton with the tourist group was executed.

Second, West Africa has become a key route for the trafficking of South American cocaine to Europe. Guinea-Bissau is now awash with the stuff, which is off-loaded along its coast and then transported by air, sea or land to Europe. The overland route across the Sahara is facilitated by Niger's Tuareg tribe, which has been staging a low-level rebellion in the northern part of the country since 2007. "In some cases, the value of the drugs being trafficked is greater than the country's national income," Antonio Maria Costa, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, wrote in an October 2008 report on the situation. "[These countries] risk becoming shell states — sovereign in name but hollowed out from the inside by criminals in collusion with corrupt officials."

One of the world's poorest regions, West Africa already had its work cut out for it in trying to develop economically, fight the advance of the Sahara and establish rules of law. Now the world's largest terrorist group and biggest drug barons are in the mix — as in Afghanistan, only much larger. Niger adds an extra dimension to this worrying picture: it is home to Africa's largest deposits of uranium, needed to build nuclear power stations and weapons. And lawlessness is endemic. While I was reporting in Niamey last April, my car was attacked twice by mobs wielding steel poles and lumps of concrete, battering its side and smashing its windows. A senior civil servant who got into the car shortly afterward said such attacks happened every day and dismissed the rioters as "des gosses" — "kids" — as he carefully brushed broken glass off his seat.

Others are not so nonchalant. Last year, Jan Egeland, a U.N. special adviser on conflict resolution, said no place on earth was more deserving of international attention. Climate change, resource conflict and trafficking in drugs, arms and humans were combining to create "one lethal cocktail," he said. Speaking last year, a Western diplomat in Senegal concurred. "It looked like we'd turned the corner in West Africa," he told TIME on condition of anonymity, as per protocol. "Then suddenly it's coup here, coup there and cocaine everywhere. These things start spreading, and everything, everyone's interests, is down the tubes."