Why Niger’s elections may be less important than they seem

Niger’s zero-sum politics just sees the same tiny class of politicians moved from post to post, from the government to the opposition and back.

President Mahamadou Issoufou with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde. Credit: Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe.

President Mahamadou Issoufou with IMF Managing Direisstor Christine Lagarde. Credit: Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe.

When Nigeriens go to the polls on 21 February, the country will have another opportunity to accomplish a peaceful handover from one elected president to another. Since independence in 1960, this has never happened in the landlocked giant – 80% of which is desert – in which an estimated 19 million citizens are crammed into a narrow ribbon along the Nigerian, Beninois and Burkinabè borders.

And once again in 2016, the likelihood of Niger breaking this duck remains low. Mahamadou Issoufou – president since 2011 – and his PNDS-Tarraya party are generally tipped as winners, and will probably even avoid the need for a second round of balloting on 20 March.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the ruling PNDS is increasingly unpopular in big cities, but the huge rural vote will likely be swayed by projects aimed at helping small farmers or by local officials who tell people which way to vote.

As with every prior election, the ruling party will likely end up the largest party, but still have to rely on allies to govern. In 2011, PNDS garnered just 33% of the vote, but formed a majority with smaller parties and independent candidates.

In total, 15 parties will be putting forward a presidential candidate. And if the vote does go to a second round, the largest opposition parties have agreed to form a coalition. Meanwhile, almost 30 parties will be contesting seats in the National Assembly.

New beginning or an old script?

To understand Niger’s current political intrigues and protagonists, one needs to go back to the rule of Mamadou Tandja and his MNSD party. A former military officer and junta member, Tandja first came to power in 1999 in an election that came hot on the heels of two coups. In 2004, he won a second term. But by 2007, a hunger crisis, popular protests, a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north, and arrests of journalists led to growing disillusionment with his administration. His prime minister at the time, Hama Amadou, bore the brunt of this anger as he lost a vote of no confidence led by Mahamadou Issoufou and Mahamane Ousmane (all three of whom are now vying for the presidency).

President Tandja himself survived on to 2009 when, according to the constitutional two term limit, he was required to step down. But he was reluctant to do so and moved to organise a referendum to change the law.

In response, former PM Amadou now joined forces with Issoufou and other leaders to oppose the vote. The two found themselves jailed on a series of unrelated charges along with journalists and civil society leaders. Then, in 2010, amidst a growing crisis and with waning support from the French, a handful of Niger’s military officers staged a coup. Tandja was arrested.

In 2011, fresh elections were called. Issoufou ran and won the presidency in a second round run-off. This victory was significantly aided by support from Amadou, who had been eliminated in the first round, and his Moden-FA/Lumana party. Amadou was rewarded with the role of President of the Assembly.

On becoming president, Issoufou launched his “Renaissance” programme. He aimed to tackle endemic food insecurity. Schools were to be built and infrastructure rebuilt. Hardball deals with French resource extractors netted Niger an oil refinery, while further mining interests with the Chinese and other parties were promised. Even the promise of a rail line from Benin’s ports to Niger’s capital of Niamey appeared to be in the offing.

But by 2013, the wheels had begun to come off. The rail connection got stuck in legal disputes. The Chinese refinery still works below capacity and much of the petrol gets mysteriously transported over the border to Nigeria. Domestic fuel prices never dropped to the levels demanded by Nigeriens. And the uranium craze ended, with the French virtually abandoning their new mining operation. Meanwhile, for many in Niger, Issoufou’s rule in the country has become synonymous with graft.

At the same time, the fallout from conflicts in neighbours Libya, Mali and Nigeria led to violent chaos in Niger’s border regions. To cope, Issoufou signed up to the US’ Global War on Terror. This was an embarrassing move for a self-declared socialist leader who had developed strong personal relationships with several European socialist parties and was once considered the most ideological of Nigerien politicians. When Issoufou joined leaders marching in Paris after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, he earned the derisive nickname ‘Charlie’ in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

Another upshot of the alliance with the US was that Niger became a host for drone bases, while Nigerien troops were widely deployed. In Mali, they became part of the French-led fight against Islamist militants. In Nigeria, they joined a regional force against Boko Haram. And on the borders of Libya and Algeria, they conduct patrols, looking out for militants and occasionally smugglers.

Conspiracies and crackdowns

Through Issoufou’s first term, the internal politics of the country also developed and deteriorated in often dramatic ways.

Most notably, Hama Amadou’s MODEN quickly came into conflict with the government and personal relationships deteriorated until, in 2013, Amadou joined the opposition. Rumours of bad blood between the leaders spread and MODEN split with defectors joining the ruling PNDS coalition. Amadou, however, refused to step down as President of the Assembly until finally losing his plea before the Constitutional Court.

It was at this point that Nigerien prosecutors uncovered a cabal that had been running a baby adoption ring for some of the most powerful families in Niamey. Nigerian gangsters were said to be paying Beninois mothers to turn over their new-borns for substantial sums. Amadou and his wife were quickly targeted as having a role in the criminal network. Amadou eventually fled the country for France and Belgium, before returning in November 2015 when he was arrested upon arrival.

Then on 19 December, the government announced it had uncovered a coup plot, a claim greeted with scepticism by the opposition and many foreign observers. Arrests followed, mostly among the military and the intelligence service. Opposition figures were also detained and questioned, with some claiming Amadou had been involved in the scheming. If the coup plot was a fiction, the government was turning on powerful former allies. If fact, opposition skulduggery had reached new lows. Still, Amadou’s bid to become a presidential candidate was certified by the courts, even as he sits in prison.

Many officials from Amadou’s MODEN party have been in and out of police custody on a variety of charges ever since 2013. And more recently, these opposition figures also contend that they have been fired at and that their rallies have been quashed. Indeed, at least one large rally in this electoral campaign has ended in police firing tear gas outside the MODEN Niamey office after opposition supporters were accused of attacking a PNDS motorcade.

In turn, government supporters allege that MODEN and the MNSD were behind recurring violence in Niamey and Zinder, including the post Charlie Hebdo rampage that shocked Nigeriens when not just government offices but Christian schools and churches were targeted. Some say the targets were chosen as being French, not Christian, while others claim Islamist fringe sects were somehow involved.

In its own campaign, the PNDS – in an unprecedentedly glitzy campaign of TV, radio and even social media saturation – promises 2016 will see a one-round election win. Its slogan is ‘Coup K.O.’ – in other words, a knockout blow.

But there are signs of concern as to whether the vote will be fair. New electoral laws promised that the Electoral Commission would provide biometric identification. But attempts to update the electoral register have met organisational failures and political opposition.

Meanwhile, some opposition figures have been detained and arrested. In the ‘swing state’ of Maradi, for instance, former PNDS businessman Sani Attiya was held after helping arrange a massive rally for an opposition contender. In December, former PM and presidential candidate Amadou Boubacar Cissé was detained for reasons that are still unclear. And earlier this month, one of Niger’s most beloved singers and prominent Amadou supporter, Hamsou Garba, was arrested and taken to Niamey Prison before being released.

In these patterns, it is hard not to see a government whose officials were persecuted under the previous regime now criminalising their own opponents.

First as tragedy

In a piece for Niger’s Le Républicain, Franco-Nigerien social scientist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan describes Nigerien politics as unchanging, trapped by “four prisons”. These are, he says: 1) the big merchants funding elections and demanding payback; 2) obsequious party leaders and courtiers who feed off a rentier economy; 3) the immovable political bureaucracy who slow any policy to a crawl and look after their own interests first; and 4) international actors, who constrain budgets, policies, and have engendered a political culture in which Nigerien subservience is rewarded with funding and international status.

It is hard not to see these four prisons reflected in the current government as well as those who want to unseat it. Despite constitutional changes that were meant to formalise opposition leaders in a collaborative structure, Nigerien politicians and business elites are in a zero-sum game. They are either in power or out.

Like the MNSD before it, the PNDS has stripped the political class of all but the most inflexible, drawing all into a government that is simultaneously a parliamentary minority and vast coalition. Every local baron has a party, united by nothing but personal power, and governments become an ever expanding collection of no-show jobs. Niger risks falling into a cycle of two terms for a leader, followed by a coup, and the election of the opposition.

Nigeriens, especially urban ones, understand this, and the complaint that all politicians are the same is axiomatic. The political class remains tiny, and politics sees the same men move from post to post, government to opposition and back. The cynicism this breeds is the greatest enemy of such a system.

In neighbouring Mali, which has lived with similar politics, President Amadou Toumani Touré became reviled by the populace as corrupt and ineffectual, and was ejected by a coup in 2012. In Niger, a nation beset by war on three sides, intractable poverty, and a complete absence of domestic capitalist development, it is this kind of possibility – rather than the outcome of the election – that is the real danger. Alternatives that can claim some legitimacy, whether politicised religion or nostalgia for the time of military rule, wait in the wings.

On 21 February, Mahamadou Issoufou and his PNDS party will likely win the Coup K.O. they promise. But even if they do, they will likely have to govern with a coalition in the National Assembly. It is up to those who hold Issoufou’s political power accountable to determine what he will do at the end of his second term in 2021. Or indeed if he even makes it that far.

Thomas L. Miles is an independent scholar focused on the contemporary history of Niger, Mali, and the western Sahel. He is author of the forthcoming book Sahel: A Short History of Mali, Niger and the Lands in Between (Hurst).

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