Adam Nossiter posts an excellent story in the New York Times on the “slow moving coup” in Niger. The situation is basically this: after a decade of democracy, President Tanjda (–>) is refusing to relinquish power when his term expires. In the process, he is subverting a number of state institutions, like the supreme court, to push through a referendum to change the constitution to extend presidential term limits. (Sound familiar?). Nossiter explains the toll this is taking on Niger’s nascent democracy:

One thing the people have dearly acquired, though, after decades of coups, military strongmen and weak governments, is a political order that has resembled democracy, albeit with lapses: two successful presidential elections, defeated candidates who go home without causing turmoil, an outspoken opposition and an alert if beleaguered press.

The citizens are manifestly unwilling to give up their shaky gains. The street protests have given way to strikes and daily banner headlines in the nongovernment press, like the one last week proclaiming “The Dismantling of Democracy” in the leading opposition newspaper, Le Républicain.

This sort of situation is all too familiar in struggling democracies.  It reminds me of a point that Paul Collier makes in Wars, Guns and Votes.  Namely, that it would make a great deal of sense to set up some sort of fund to give “fellowships,” or something of the like, to presidents in the developing world who willingly relinquish power when their term expires. Too often, the incentives cut against giving up power when one’s term limit expires; the personal fortunes of heads of state are often tied to their country’s primary export commodity (in Niger’s case, uranium). Once power is relinquished, so too is ability to exploit that commodity for personal gain.  

As long as institutions of state remain weak, it would seem to make sense to have some sort of fund to provide an incentive for term-limited developing world presidents to relinquish power.  The downside, of course, is buying off retired presidents fosters the perception that developing world leaders enter politics for personal financial gain.  But the upside — firming up fragile democracies — seems to outweigh the drawbacks here. 

Of course, the big question is who or what should fund this endeavor. I nominate Mo Ibrahim.

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