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Niger junta continues cracking down on its own members

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Emmanuel Braun/Reuters

(Read caption) Soldiers from the military junta stands outside a base in Niger's capital Niamey, on Feb. 22, 2010. Niger's military rulers assumed all legislative and executive powers until elections.

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Last week, Niger’s military junta fired and arrested four top officers. This week, another major firing took place. The purge inside the junta, some commentators say, endangers Niger’s upcoming democratic transition and violates principles of transparency.

Yesterday, the head of junta, Salou Djibo, fired and replaced Seyni Chekaraou, head of the secret service. State media gave no reason for Chekaraou’s dismissal, but the BBC reports that he is close to some of the officers arrested previously. If last week’s pattern of sackings followed by seizures continues, Chekaraou may soon find himself in jail as well.

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Meanwhile, the democratic process is moving forward. Campaigning in advance of the Oct. 31 constitutional referendum began yesterday, and analysts are praising the process. The proposed new constitution, which would replace the August 2009 constitution, represents the work of a broad spectrum of citizens. As Voice of America says, “If approved, this new constitution will set the stage for elections in January, delivering on the military’s promise to return Niger to civilian rule within a year of their taking power.”

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Despite progress on the democratic front, the arrests are making some members of civil society uneasy. The BBC says, “There are fears that the splits in the junta could threaten the transition to civilian rule.” Agence France-Presse delves into this theme, writing that politicians in Niger are disturbed by rumors of in-fighting, corruption, and arguments over the length of the transition among the junta officers. With the government providing little explanation for the arrests, the press is left to speculate about the causes, and human rights activists are concerned about the lack of transparency the junta is showing.

As I wrote before, Djibo appears to be maintaining tight control over the government. But as the purge widens it raises more and more questions. Is this simply a factional dispute? A struggle over power? Is there an anti-transition (i.e. anti-democratic and in favor of a longer-term military government) faction within the junta? How serious was/is the threat of a coup against Djibo? And what does all this mean for the democratic process?

One answer to the last question is that the constitutional referendum could be a major turning point in all this. If the arrests slow down and the referendum goes smoothly, I imagine many inside and outside the country will breathe a sigh of relief. If the purge continues, though, or if the referendum goes badly (violence, fraud, etc), then it will definitely be time to diagnose a serious problem with Niger’s attempt to re-start its democracy.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student of Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and he blogs at Sahel Blog.