The governments of two West African neighbors are in a state of flux. Nigeria's president was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia in November and to the north, the government of Niger underwent a military coup and the presidential palace was attacked in broad daylight. We speak with Robin Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, the co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH-Boston. The governments of two West African neighbors are in a state of flux these days. Nigeria's president was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia in November and Vice President Goodluck Jonathan is serving as the country's acting president. To the north, the government of Niber underwent a more tumultuous change last Thursday. The military attacked the presidential palace in broad daylight. The president was ousted and a new military government is in place. Jennifer Cooke directs the African program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jennifer, we'll talk about Niber in a moment but first, let's land in Nigeria. It is the fifth largest oil supplier to the United States, Africa's most populous country and now there's a man in charge that the United States doesn't really know that well. Who is the new acting President, Goodluck Jonathan?
JENNIFER COOKE: Goodluck Jonathan has actually been a fairly low profile figure in Nigerian politics. He comes to this position through a somewhat circuitous route. He comes from the Niger Delta which is the oil producing part of Nigeria and we haven't really seen that many senior level figures from the Delta in the Nigerian government in the past decades. He's an environmentalist, a zoologist by training. He was chosen by President Yar'Adua in the last election as a running mate, partly as a sop to the states of the Niger Delta. There's an ongoing insurgency there. Partly perhaps because he wasn't considered threatening. He didn't have much of a political profile and a quiet, kind of not politically ambitious person.
WERMAN: I mean it kind of fits in line with what some people have been saying. He sort of seems to be an accidental president now but Nigerians seem almost delighted to have him as their new president. Do you think he's kind of cut out for the rough and tumble of Nigerian politics?
COOKE: Well, that's the trick here. I think Nigerians are sighing a huge sigh of relief simply because their president has been out of the country for three months, incommunicado, surrounded by his wife and a very tight inner circle. Meanwhile, an amnesty in the Niger Delta is unraveling. There's been ethno-religious violence. It's killed several hundred. Nigeria's being put on the no-fly list of the United States because of the Christmas Day bomber and no one has been in charge. So the fact that he's now taken up that office, I think is, Nigerians as I say, are very much relieved. But whether he's able to kind of hold a coalition together, whether he's really going to be able to move the political machinery that is very difficult in Nigeria, in the run-up of an election that happens next year, that's going to be the real test of his ability. Nigeria is a tough place to govern.
WERMAN: Hm, okay Jennifer, let's talk about another West African nation, just north of Nigeria, Niber, twice the size of the U.S. state of Texas. It's also become a staging ground for operations by militant Islamists calling themselves Al Quaida in the land of the Islamic Maghreb. It also has a new government as of last Thursday and one that also seemingly is being acclaimed by the people of Niber. Why are the Niberwa enthused about this coup?
COOKE: Well President Tandja who was ousted in the coup, came to power in a coup in 1999 and the coup leaders eventually led democratic elections but since his time in office, he's gone seriously off the rails, in violating and changing the Constitution and in violating the rule of law, stamping out dissent and opposition as well. So I think the fact that the military came in and removed him and has so far promised to hold new free and fair elections, is being welcomed by the Niberian people and somewhat more cautiously by the international community, in fact.
WERMAN: So if President Tandja went off the rails as you said and overthrown last Thursday, this kind of puts the United States in an awkward position. If they support this coup, then they're seen as endorsing this kind of radical change of government, but it might also make life a little more kind of stable for the United States in dealing with Niber.
COOKE: Every coup leader says I did this to oust a corrupt president and I will usher in democratic reforms and democratic elections. Not that many follow through on that. I think there's a real possibility that they will in this case. They did in neighboring Mauritania in 2005 but the problem is that it then sets a precedent for future militaries to shortcut their way around the Constitution.
WERMAN: So new leadership for Niber and Nigeria, two very different places with rapid changes in power in the last couple of weeks. Could these changes in leadership, Jennifer, actually reinforce one another in some way and improve prospects for stability and democracy in both places?
COOKE: Well I think it says something about kind of the trend lines in democracy more generally right now. After a wave of democratization in the 1990's, we're seeing a lot of these uncertainties kind of backsliding and two steps backwards one step forward. I think these two countries and particularly Nigeria are important bell weathers in which way this trend may go in the future.
WERMAN: Jennifer Cooke directs the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Jennifer, good of you to join us. Thank you.
COOKE: Thank you.