Democratization in Desperate Places: Niger’s Seventh Attempt

  • photo courtesy of etrenard www.flickr.com/photos/9059498@N06/564228200
    Jan 28, 2011

    On October 31, 2010 Niger passed a new constitution in a national referendum; the proposed document gained the support of 90% of all votes cast. This so-called “seventh republic” constitutes the latest attempt to create sustainable democratic institutions. In line with the timetable for the return of democratic rule drawn up by the interim military government, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, local elections occurred on January 10. Administrative shortcomings led to severe delays and as a consequence uncertainty persists as to whether the Independent National Electoral Commission has the organizational capacity to ensure sound national elections. For the time being, presidential and national assembly elections are scheduled for January 31 with a run-off between the two frontrunners most likely to be held in March. In theory, a new civilian government should be in place by April.

     
    The leading political force in the forthcoming elections is the Mouvement National pour la Société de Développment (MNSD), the political home of deposed President Tandja. The MNSD performed poorly in January’s local elections but still holds the advantage going into the national polls. The MNSD’s presidential candidate Seyni Oumarou has held a variety of senior ministerial posts and served as prime minister between 2007 and 2009. The party’s close attachment to former President Tandja will work against the MNSD in the confined urban circles of the literati, but it will work in its favour among those who profited from eight years of MNSD rule: civil servants, soldiers and their respective dependents. These groups will back the party given the favourable financial treatment they received from the Tandja government. Like all MNSD candidates before him, Oumarou will profit from the party’s organizational capacity to penetrate almost all parts of Niger. Many traditional leaders from all communities share a historical affinity to the MNSD. The political influence of chiefs is particularly strong in the vast countryside, where over 80% of the population live. By contrast, media coverage critical of the MNSD plays a negligible role due to an illiteracy rate of 71.3% and an almost total lack of private radio coverage.
     
    Oumarou will still face several political heavyweights, however, who like him have shaped the political landscape of the last twenty years. These include Mahamane Ousmane of the Convention Démocratique et Sociale (CDS), the former president of Niger’s third republic; Mahamadou Issoufou of the Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie de le Socialisme (PNDS), the runner-up to Tandja in the 2000 and 2004 elections; and finally Hama Amadou, a former prime minister between 2000 and 2007, who broke away from the MNSD and is running on the ticket of his own party, the Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien (MDN).
     
    The potential impact of four factors will be interesting to watch as voting gets under way. First will be the reaction of voters to the series of events which led to the toppling of former President Tandja in a military coup last February. Tandja was overthrown after trying to defy constitutional limits on his power. Since its takeover, the military junta has taken a tough line on corruption, targeting members of Tandja’s former inner-circle, including MNSD front-runner Oumarou.
     
    A second question to consider will be the extent to which former Prime Minister Amadou is able to make in-roads into MNSD strongholds. Amadou was long seen as Tandja’s hand-picked successor, before he was subjected to a vote of no-confidence and fell from office in 2007. In the local elections, Amadou’s MDN surprisingly emerged as the second strongest political force, seriously denting the voting share of the MNSD, which came in third. This result suggests that the MNSD’s dominant position in Niger’s party system can no longer be taken for granted.
     
    The third, and probably most important factor to watch, will be the ability of the opposition to form a political alliance capable of securing an absolute majority in a likely run-off election. Initially, the CDS, the PNDS and the MDN announced their intention to join forces in the likelihood of a run-off with Oumarou. However, following the surprising outcome of the local elections, the MNSD, the CDS and the MDN formed an “alliance for national reconciliation”: a de facto coalition against the PNDS, the winner of the local elections. Political alliances in Niger are notoriously fleeting, more often based on temporary alignments of common interest rather than shared ideologies. It is likely that the winner of the presidential race will be determined in backroom negotiations between the four major political parties. This tendency toward fickle alliances risks producing an institutional deadlock in the medium-term given that the constitutional drafters of the seventh republic left the French-inspired semi-presidential system in place. Such a system can allow a majority opposition in parliament to block a President’s agenda, a situation which occurred in Niger in the mid-1990s and provoked a military coup.
     
    The final factor which is likely to play an important role in deciding the outcome of the parliamentary elections is the recent ruling by the interim Constitutional Court, which refused to validate several parliamentary candidates for failing to fulfil certain educational criteria set forth by the new constitution. This ruling disproportionately affects the CDS and the MNSD in their respective strongholds, which means that both are likely to underperform in the legislative elections.
     
    While the election outcome is difficult to predict, assessing the future challenges of the new civilian government is comparatively straightforward. The most pressing issue is Niger’s exceptionally dire socio-economic predicament. Despite receiving extensive debt relief under the World Bank/International Monetary Fund-administered Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), in addition to significant increases in donor aid since 2000, there has been no progress in reaching any of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Even though the last few years have seen stable GDP growth rates, in large part due to foreign-financed (in particular Chinese) investment in road and dam construction, the exceptionally high population growth rate of 3.9% increases poverty and puts undue pressure on the already fragile education system.
     
    In the medium-term, Niger is heading for a severe budget crisis. By keeping the oversized public administration in place, the Tandja regime appeased the powerful trade unions and thus avoided the social unrest that plagued the country in the 1990s. However, the end of HIPC relief makes high budget deficits unsustainable, budget cuts inevitable, and social protests more likely. Furthermore, high youth unemployment and the inability of the central secular government to ensure food supply during the droughts of 2005 and 2009 have increased the influence of Islamic welfare associations, which are said to be linked to extremist organisations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Some parts of the countryside – most notably the area around the city of Maradi -- have seen increasing Islamic conservatism, which has manifested itself in calls for the introduction of the Sharia penal code and the abolition of the principles of the secular state order. The recent abduction of two Frenchmen in a restaurant in Niger’s capital, Niamey, and their subsequent killing by the North African branch of al-Qaeda, further illustrates the fact that the state does not have a monopoly of force. Although there is no evidence of collaboration between al-Qaeda and the conservative Islamic forces prevalent in the countryside, their geographical proximity to each other does not bode well for future democratization.
     
    Irrespective of the election outcome, Niger will likely maintain good relations with all donor countries. All of the presidential candidates are allies in the “war against terror” and, if elected, will keep the country committed to the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. None of the national political players are opposed to either the pro-democratic or the pro-secular political agendas of the last twenty years. The West, and in particular the United States, should try to encourage the new government to make the link between Niger’s low level of development and its declining security situation, and to do something to reverse the trend. Niger still lacks an effective master plan that prioritizes development needs. A renewed failure to initiate economic development that benefits a critical mass of the population will inevitably cause a re-run of the political upheavals of the past. In addition to economic development and an improvement of the security situation, donors should stress the importance of improving public access to the legal system. Large parts of the country are characterized by legal impunity, which is a further source of support for the proponents of Sharia law.



    Sebastian Elischer is a research fellow with the Institute of African Affairs at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, Germany.

     


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