Niger’s autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja has received an unusual rebuke from ECOWAS, the association of West African nations. He’s been told he faces “full sanctions” for his failure to leave office.
Tanja, who is a dictator in all but name of impoverished and landlocked Niger, wants to remain in office beyond two terms despite the country’s constitutional limit. He’s dissolved parliament and altered the constitution to provide a rationale for his continued stay in office. ECOWAS, a regional body that mainly influences policy on trade and security, generally takes a hands-off approach to internal politics of its members, only intervening in cases of civil war, if at all. The move against Tanja suggests a shift in the priorities of ECOWAS.
Niger is one of Africa’s poorest countries. Tanja’s insistence on ruling for many years more might be acceptable if he were an enlightened and effective leader. He is not. The people of Niger of suffered chronic food shortages under his rule, and he has failed to mount any credible attempt to meet the basic human needs of even some of the country’s population. Tanja did not deserve a second term; he hardly deserves a third one.
Calling Tanja a “pariah,” as an ECOWAS official did this month is hopefully not the end of the organization’s push to “retire” him. Tanja deserves his ouster. He is a flagrant case of AAD: aging-African-dictator syndrome. His country is desperately poor; aside from mineral deposits, which include uranium, Niger’s assets are few: even agriculture is difficult for its people. Tanja’s only compelling options are the organization of robberies against providers of humanitarian aid. And vanity. He likes the trappings of presidential life, which don’t call for monastic living even in one of the world’s poorest countries. Tanja’s rewards for sacrificing any chances for reform in benighted Niger seem laughably small compared to the problems he causes by hanging onto his office.
That Africa’s central leadership problem remains satisfying the vain requirements of old men is not in doubt. Mo Ibrahim’s ambitious foundation, which believed it had a plan to “incentivize” autocrats to leave the political scene by giving them cash awards for doing so, is no answer. This month the foundation admitted that there were no leaders who deserved the award this year, though surely candidates such as Tanja exist.
How to politically neutralize the Tanjas of Africa — who also go under such names as Mugabe, Bashir and Museveni — is usually presented as a task for the so-called internationally community: the United Nations and the like. Yet the task inevitably must fall to Africans themselves. The removal of African dictators — old men with outsized appetites and a lust for looting the state under their control — must be a project mounted in Africa, by Africans and for Africans. Whether the project succeeds isn’t the litmus test for whether to proceed.