Interview
William Fitzgerald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs
Washington, DC
February 19, 2010


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QUESTION: What is the U.S. reaction to the reported overthrow of Mamadou Tandja in Niger?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, it’s very disappointing on the one hand, because we never countenance the violent overthrow of any government. So far, the new government seems to be saying the right things. They call themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy. And if anything, today, we would encourage them to move as quickly as possible if they are serious, and we hold them to that, to restore, in fact, the democracy that existed before Mamadou Tandja himself had begun to modify the constitution and extend his rule extrajudicially.

So at this point, what we’re doing is – the ball is in their court. We are telling them, in our statement today, that they need to move as quickly as possible to restoring civilian democratic rule in Niger.

QUESTION: Have we seen signs that they’re doing that?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, I think we’ve seen some encouraging signs, first being that they actually call themselves the – (laughter) – council for the restoration of democracy. My understanding from press accounts is that curfew has been lifted. We understand that President Tandja is being held along with General (Moumouni) Boureima, who has been a long supporter of him, and that the violence has stopped.

We’ve heard from folks in Niger that once the shooting stopped yesterday afternoon in Niger time, it really hasn’t started again – in other words, that they’re consolidating their power and control of the government. In fact, curfew which was put into effect yesterday – again, according to press accounts – seems to have been lifted already, so that’s a good sign.

QUESTION: So between the possible violence on the ground and curfew, are we satisfied that the situation on the ground is indeed calm?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, I think it is calm. We’ve been speaking with the Embassy out there and they report, in fact, that it is calm.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. Embassy open and operating?

MR. FITZGERALD: The U.S. Embassy is open for consular services. Friday is typically a shortened day for many posts, including Niamey. We’re not operating normally, but we are open and we are basically helping out American citizens who need assistance and keeping an eye on things.

QUESTION: What do we know about the group behind the overthrow?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, some of them – that’s a very good question because the leaders are a group of three colonels so far as we know. Again, this is – the overthrow of the government less than 48 hours ago, so a lot of this is not confirmed. It’s a very sterile, very fluid situation. There are three colonels, two of whom participated or were involved in the coup in 1999, which was, frankly, much more violent. Two of them, like I said, were in the – have participated in the ’99 coup. The other fellow did not, but what we heard in their statement last night is that they were tired of what they perceived as President Tandja’s moves away from the constitution and away from democracy.

QUESTION: Where is President Tandja now?

MR. FITZGERALD: We believe President Tandja – again, press accounts – we have not spoken with him. We believe that he is being held at a military base along with some members of his cabinet, as well as perhaps General Boureima, the equivalent of our Joint Chiefs of Staff – the head of our Joint Chiefs of Staff – are being held at a military base outside of Niamey, just on the outside – just on the outskirts of Niamey.

QUESTION: First, what is it that we expect of the CSRD?

MR. FITZGERALD: Here’s what we expect from the CSRD. They have to make – they have to return to civilian democratic rule as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: What have we – what has been the international reaction? What have we heard from some of our friends in the region?

MR. FITZGERALD: Right. Well, the ECOWAS – the West African organization – we support completely, and have been supporting. They’ve already been trying to facilitate the difficulties within the Nigerien Government since Mamadou Tandja tried to extend his rule. They are – again, they have sent up a team to Niamey to meet with the de facto government, and we support all of their efforts. They are likely to be telling them how to go about getting back to democratic rule.

QUESTION: Are there any overriding concerns for citizens, whether it’s foreigners, United States citizens, or obviously Niger citizens?

MR. FITZGERALD: That’s an excellent question. Really, what we’re seeing and what is going on here in Niger is amongst the Nigeriens. The only danger I could see, frankly, is if Americans get out in the middle and are caught in the crossfire and get in the middle of stuff that they don’t need to be. As I said before, it is calm, but still, Americans, as we say in our Warden Message to them, should just stick around the house for the next few days.

Again, it’s an overthrow of a government. It’s a very fluid situation. While the government – the de facto government appears to be taking measures to establish control, there’s always that chance that there could be some other sort of difficulties and other sort of conflicts emerging. So I think if Americans stick close to their houses, I think everything will be fine.

QUESTION: Are we satisfied this is a path to democracy for Niger?

MR. FITZGERALD: We’re given a set of circumstances that we have very little control over. Nevertheless, we do have some leverage. We do want to see Niger return to democratic rule. Frankly, I think the majority of the people in Niger want to return to democracy. And we are telling the de facto government that that is absolutely essential for them to be – to return to the international community. It’s to return to civilian democratic rule.

QUESTION: With the latest occurrences over there, what about elections?

MR. FITZGERALD: That’s a good question. Elections and – would be obviously a key benchmark in showing that they are successfully returning to civilian democratic rule. Nevertheless, elections can be a difficult and onerous task for any government, much less in Niger, which is considered to be one of the poorest countries of the world.

Yes, I think that it’s possible to have elections by the end of the year, and certainly, we would push this government – this de facto government into doing that as quickly as possible. Again, with help from ECOWAS, perhaps the African Union, and Niger’s international partners, I think that is a possibility and I think frankly, it’s an important – it would be an important step.

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[This is a mobile copy of Seizure of Power in Niger]