Former tank commander Salou Djibo took over as Niger’s interim president after ousting President Mamadou Tandja in a military coup on Feb. 18. Djibo is described as a timid, self-effacing man. But he holds the strings of power.
"Destroyer of the dictatorship", "Saviour of democracy”…Salou Djibo, a man largely unknown across Niger before a Feb. 18 coup is now a household name – and a popular one at that - in this West African nation. The day after the coup, the head of the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) – as the junta called itself after seizing power – was welcomed in the streets of the capital, Niamey.
For many citizens of the uranium-rich nation, Djibo is a hero who ousted the autocratic president Mamadou Tandja, who had been in power since 1999. Re-elected in 2004, Tandja amended the constitution in 2009, enabling him to stay in power in a move widely condemned by the international community.
Nevertheless, Djibo’s first steps as Niger’s leader seemed to show that he lacked the charismatic appeal capable of enflaming public passions. A week after he took power, Djibo had not yet addressed the people, leaving it to his aides to relay the junta’s goals and reassure governments across the region.
Timid man, strong leader
“He’s a calm and timid man. Even the press hardly knows him,” says Moussa Kaka, head of a local radio station and Niger correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI). His reticence to speak in public is so severe that it has raised doubts about whether the coup chief was just a puppet in the hands of his spokesman, Colonel Djibrilla Hamidou Hima, knows as "Pelé" due to his passion for football.
Hima was the number two during the 1999 military coup against Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara. The leaders of the 1999 coup promptly restored democratic rule and held elections in December of that year, which brought Tandja into power.
But behind the man’s timid demeanour hides a leader with an iron fist. “He [Djibo] says nothing, but he holds the reins,” explains Kaka. “He was on the frontlines when the army attacked the presidential palace. He epitomizes the honour of the military. His men would not accept it if he did not occupy high office.”
“He’s the one who took all the risks”, adds a Tandja opponent. “Colonel Pelé knows he couldn’t have done it all himself, so he accepts the situation.”
Djibo himself seemed to implicitly confirm these remarks in a recent interview on RFI: “In this kind of situation, the person conducting operations automatically takes charge […], and because he is at the head of armed forces, others tend to trust him,” he explained when asked why the junta had designated him as their new leader. The commander’s long and distinguished career in Niger’s army earned him the respect of his peers.
Born in the western village of Namaro in 1965, this father of five joined the army as a simple footsoldier in 1987. He was enrolled in several different divisions before training as an officer in Ivory Coast. He then specialised in artillery warfare in training programmes in China and Morocco. He participated in two successive UN peacekeeping missions, in Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo, before returning to Niger in 2006. There, he commanded a garrison, in Niamey, which lead the recent coup against Tandja.
Yet another observer explains Djibo’s strong popularity within the army by the fact that “he didn’t go to elite military schools, he joined the infantry as a teenager and made his way up the chain of command step by step”.
Now that he has reached his country’s top office, will Commander Djibo keep his promise to organise new elections and lead his country through a democratic transition, or will he be tempted to cling to power in the same way Moussa Dadis Camara did in Guinea?
“Why must you always compare us to our neighbours?” an exasperated Bassou Mohammed, spokesman for Niger’s PNDS socialist party, asks FRANCE 24. “The last time there was a coup, in 1999, Daouda Mallam Wanké handed power to a civilian government after eight months,” he adds.
On Feb. 24, Salou Djibo named Mahamadou Danda, a civilian and former spokesman of Mallam Wanké’s transition government 10 years ago, prime minister of the current transition authority. He also announced that no member of the junta would stand in the presidential elections. What better way for the "Saviour of democracy" to prove his good intentions?
Date created : 2010-03-01