Presidential Elections in Niger: Tense Climate, Uncertain Future
This is a translation of a commentary originally published on Jeune Afrique.
On 21 February, Nigeriens will go to the polls to elect their next leader. The choice will be between incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou and fourteen other candidates. The previous election in 2011 was seen as the final step toward a peaceful democratic transition after the military coup d’état in 2010. Issoufou’s victory in 2011 was made possible by a second round alliance with other key players in the Nigerien political scene, and had brought about a new wave of optimism among the population, and temporarily restored the country’s image abroad.
A longtime figure of the opposition and the head of a party of militants, Issoufou was elected on the promise of an ambitious “Renaissance” program. This project was meant to promote economic development, put an end to food insecurity, and fight corruption and impunity. Five years later, the atmosphere of the new presidential election, and the general attitude vis-à-vis Issoufou’s candidacy, has changed. Hopes for change have largely crumbled. The majority of Nigeriens have lost confidence in an aging political elite, be it those in power or in opposition. The regime appears to be chiefly concerned with maintaining its power and guarding its own political interests. Such a tense pre-election climate suggests more difficult times ahead.
However, in Issoufou’s defence, his country is at a difficult regional crossroads. To the north, there is the Libyan chaos; to the east, the Malian crisis; and in the south east, the expansion of Boko Haram. Thus, the Nigerien government is faced with threats on all sides, which could seriously cripple the country’s stability. Faced with this, the regime has placed its Renaissance program on the back burner, opting instead to focus on security concerns. Western partners have largely encouraged this move. As a result, the defence budget has seen strong gains, at the expense of social expenditure.
Although Issoufou is now trying to defend his track record, his 2011 project failed to bring about any substantial change for the average Nigerien. Public services are still greatly insufficient, and the political space remains marred by corruption. However, it should be noted that he inherited a country ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index. Faced with such a challenge, it seems easier to present a positive track record on security issues in the short term, rather than insisting on long-term socio-economic development.
All this is compounded by a deteriorating internal political situation. For the past two years, the regime has progressively slipped toward authoritarianism. At first, it sought to weaken opposition parties by sparking division within them. In the past few months, it has taken more direct action, increasing arrests and intimidation of opposition members, journalists, and civil society activists. The situation in Niger may not be as worrying as in other countries in the region, but it is still discouraging to see a regime, elected in 2011 with strong popular backing, now instrumentalising the security argument to shut down any internal dissent.
Last November’s arrest of Hama Amadou, the previous president of the National Assembly and main opponent to Issoufou, was another step in this authoritarian drift. Due to an alleged involvement in a child trafficking case, Amadou has been forced to conduct his campaign from prison. Whether or not he is guilty, such an incident presages little good for Nigerien politics.
In December, the allegation that a military coup had been foiled cast even more doubt upon the future stability of the republic of Niger, a country marked by several intrusions of the military in the political sphere in the past. Although its recent history has not been marked by strong instances of electoral violence, the deadly January 2015 riots in Niamey, Zinder, and Agadez, represented a mixture of social frustration, religious indignation and anti-French sentiment resulting from the president’s mismanagement of the Charlie Hebdo affair. This is a testament to how violence can be manipulated.
The difficulty of the state in dealing with street protests is, in part, the result of its own strategy to neutralise all opposition. Some of those who contest the current ruling party, either within the army, radical circles or other political parties, are now convinced that change will come from the street rather than the ballot box.
Despite this pre-electoral tension, the regime has not attempted to play a conciliatory role. On the contrary, it proclaimed that President Issoufou would emerge “victorious by knockout” in the first round of elections (something unprecedented since the 1996 coup and the disputed election of General Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara). As for the opposition, while its demands for international expertise helped correct a number of errors in the electoral process, its continued refusal to accept a system of vote by testimony for members of the electorate who don’t have identification papers – a common practice in previous elections – does not indicate a willingness to keep the peace.
Through their incessant quarrelling, the ruling party and the opposition not only risk aggravating tensions during the election, but also contribute to discrediting the political class in the eyes of the population at large. Even if President Issoufou is re-elected, he will have to carry out his second term under much more tenuous circumstances, without the popular momentum that carried him to the top in 2011.
Apart from the International Organisation of La Francophonie, the UN Special Representative for the EU, and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in West Africa, other partners of Niger – in particular their Western military allies – have remained silent in the face of the slow deterioration of the political climate. For these countries, Niger’s short-term stability outweighs the need to ensure an open political system. On the contrary, the best tool to prevent the growing violent extremism, which threatens the entire Sahel region, is to regain the people’s trust by representing and defending their interests. Looking beyond this presidential vote, this is perhaps the real challenge for Niger.
Note: President Issoufou won 48 per cent of the vote in the first round of the election. A second round will be held on 20 March in which the other remaining candidate is the jailed opposition leader Hama Amadou. While globally peaceful, the first round was tainted with suspicion of rigged election as the opposition threatened to reject results