Niger military protecting democracy with coup

NIAMEY, Niger — It's politics, upside down.

The elected president of a uranium-rich nation morphs into a despot and refuses to relinquish power, prompting the army to stage a popular coup with guns blazing in the name of democracy.

Most governments check executive excesses through sister branches — the legislature, the judiciary. In Niger, the military has assumed the bizarre yet vital role of safeguarding democratic institutions by force — most recently by blowing a hole through the front gate of the presidential palace last week and taking hostage an entire government.

The soldiers who overthrew Mamadou Tandja are vowing to restore civilian rule, a claim that's often proved hollow among Africa's myriad juntas. The difference in Niger, though, is profound: Most people here actually believe them.

Though officially condemned by governments worldwide, Tandja's ouster has been widely praised at home: by unions, human rights groups, civil society leaders, local media. The trust is so great, in fact, that the director of one widely respected independent Niamey newspaper was working protocol for the junta this week.