Obituary: Ibrahim Bare Mainassara

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The Independent Culture
THE ASSASSINATION of Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, President of the Niger Republic, sends a warning signal to a number of military men in West Africa who have converted themselves into civilian presidents, and gone through the democratic motions to legitimise their rule.

Mainassara's coup d'etat of 27 January 1996 surprised an Africa that thought old-style coups were on their way out in the democratic surge that swept the continent after 1990. His justification was the classic Bonapartist one of a breakdown of rule by the civilian politicians - which Mainassara called "democratic disorder".

Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries on the southern fringe of the Sahara, had gone through the process of returning to the multi-party democracy the country had not enjoyed since before independence in 1960. There had been military rule since 1974, but following a National Conference in 1991, a democracy run by civilian politicians was installed in 1993. Rivalry between different political groupings led to a constitutional deadlock between president and prime minister, bringing politicial and economic life to a standstill, which gave Mainassara his opportunity.

Born in Maradi in 1949, he went to the army straight from school, training in Madagascar and France. His major promotion came after the coup of 1974 when he became ADC at the age of 25 to the first military dictator, Colonel Seyni Kountche, to whom he was devotedly loyal. He was promoted in 1976 to command the presidential guard and two years later went to command the prestigious paratroop unit in Niamey.

Small, quick-witted and arogant, he acquired a reputation as politically ambitious. When Kountche became mortally ill in 1986, Mainassara was moved to be a military attache in Paris, and under Kountche's successor General Ali Saibou was kept on the fringes of power, first as Health Minister, then as Ambassador to Algeria. With the return of the civilians in 1993, however, he became Chief of Staff of Niger's 5,000-strong army, an ideal position from which to move into power.

He found, however, that the climate of the post-Cold War Nineties in Africa was against old-style military rule. As Chairman of the National Salvation Council set up in January 1996 he found himself faced with a withdrawal of aid by donors, even by France (one of Niger's traditional supports), which forced him into a rapid programme for new elections and a return to constitutionality. In the presidential elections of 7 July that year he stood as a non-party candidate, but it became clear he planned to succeed himself, as when he dissolved the electoral commission on election day, and placed his four rival candidates under house arrest.

Even so, when the "fourth republic" with Mainassara as President was inaugurated on 7 August, the international community rather supinely accepted it, as observing the form, if not the substance, of democracy.

He did not find power an easy ride, however. There have been a series of attempts to overthrow the regime from within and without the army over the past two and a half years, as well as regional dissidences and increased restiveness from opposition parties and pro-democracy groups, unhappy at the increasingly repressive nature of his rule. Continuing uncertainty meant that an already weak economy deteriorated further.

The political temperature in the week before his death was dramatically raised by the annulment of the February local government elections which the opposition had won, which led to opposition protests and calls for Ibrahim Bare Mainassara's resignation. There were rumours that his fateful trip to the military airport (where he was killed) was in fact to flee the country, and he was reportedly shot down by members of his own presidential guard. Even if army rule continues in some form, the manner of his departure seems likely to ensure an unkind verdict of history on one who tried swimming against the tide.

Kaye Whiteman

Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, soldier, diplomat and politician: born Maradi, Niger 1949; President of the Republic of Niger 1996-99; married; died Niamey 9 April 1999.