A presidential election is scheduled to take place in Niger on 31 January 2011. The election is likely to hold the key to the future of democracy in the country. This is the first significant election to be held after years of authoritarian rule were interrupted in February 2010 with the ousting of former President Mamadou Tandja. Having been exposed to recurrent military interventions, the upcoming polls also hold significance for the political stability of Niger and the greater West African region.
Free, fair and peaceful elections that guarantee the restoration of democratic rule in Niger could equally contribute to unlocking the potential of the country’s economy. Years of mismanagement have resulted in Niger being one of the least developed countries in the world.(2)
Military interventions and constitutional amendments define politics in post-independent Niger
The Republic of Niger is a landlocked desert state with a population of 15.8 million people.(3) Since obtaining independence from France in 1960, Niger has had a turbulent political history, characterised by three military interventions and the redrafting of the country’s constitution five times. As was the case in most post-independent African states, dissatisfaction with one-party rule in Niger gave Col. Ali Saibou a pretext to take power in 1974. Saibou’s 16-year military rule, however, succumbed to the wave of democratisation that swept across Africa in the 1990s resulting in the installation of a democratically elected Government in 1995.
Beginning in 1996, three successive coups d’état – accompanied by constitutional amendments and economic decay – interfered with Niger’s multiparty democratic project. It was amid this political turbulence that Mamadou Tandja assumed the presidency of Niger, after winning presidential elections organised by the previous military Government in November 1999. Tandja was sworn in as Niger’s new democratically elected president on 22 December 1999 under a new constitution that had been designed to curb the powers of the president.
Mamadou Tandja’s demise opens the door for the restoration of democracy
Mamadou Tandja was re-elected to serve a second term in 2004. However, a period which was to be his last term in office as president was characterized by military unrest and an ongoing economic crisis due to severe drought. In May 2009 Tandja dissolved the Parliament after the Constitutional Court ruled against holding a constitutional referendum. The referendum was to determine whether Tandja could run for a third term. Tandja’s attempt to prolong his presidency against the wish of Nigeriens triggered a constitutional crisis. This not only increased political opposition to his increasingly authoritarian regime, but also triggered social unrest due to worsening economic conditions.
Efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to mediate in Niger’s constitutional crisis failed to bear fruit, paving the way for a coup d’état on 18 February 2010, which ousted Tandja. The Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) was established by the ruling junta. The CSRD appointed a transitional Government in March 2010 and established a one year timetable for returning the country to democratic rule. In addition to a constitutional referendum that was successfully carried out in October 2010, Niger’s roadmap to democracy made provisions for new presidential and parliamentary elections.
Low turnout anticipated in a presidential election vital for Niger’s economic recovery
The first round of the Nigerien presidential election is scheduled for 31 January 2011. A second round is scheduled for 12 March if no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes cast. Concerns remain over the voter turnout. The credibility of previous elections in Niger was been blighted by low voter turnout, arguably because of the country’s long history of authoritarian rule. In the 2004 presidential elections only 48% of the 5.2 million registered voters cast their vote.(4)
The turnout for the January 2011 presidential election is also expected to be affected by famine and diseases such as malaria which reach their peak at this time of the year. The CSRD has asked the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) to observe the election in order to boost its legitimacy. This is vital given Niger’s desire to secure international aid, which is much needed to fight a deepening economic crisis. Most of the country’s foreign donors suspended aid to the country following the political crisis. Holding open and peaceful elections will go a long way to guaranteeing Niger access to international aid.
Former Prime Ministers and President up against one another
Niger’s Constitutional Council has approved 10 candidates for the upcoming presidential race. Among the frontrunners are three former Prime Ministers and a former president. These include Mahamadou Issoufou, the candidate of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS). Issoufou is a former Prime Minister who has earned political currency through his steadfast opposition to Mamadou Tandja’s regime. He will be challenged by two other former Prime Ministers, Seyni Oumarou and Hama Amadou. The former served in Tandja’s Government from 2007-2009 and will be representing the former ruling party, the National Movement for the Development of Society (NMDS). He is currently out on bail after being arrested for embezzlement by the Junta in July 2010.
Amadou was Prime Minister of Niger from 1995–1996 and again from 2000–2007. In 2008, he was convicted of corruption but served only 10 months of his jail term due to ill-health. He later went into voluntary exile in France from which he returned in 2010 to form the Nigerien Democratic Movement (MDN). Another returnee who will be contesting the election is former President Mahamane Ousmane of the Democratic Social Movement (CDS). He escaped arrest by Tandja in 2009 and only returned from exile when the latter was deposed in 2010.
A great deal rests on Niger’s forthcoming presidential election. The conduct and outcome of the polls will have a bearing on the political stability of the country as well as its engagement with the international community. If the results are contested within the country, social unrest is likely to develop and this could provide further set-backs for the democratisation process. What is more, the well-being of millions of Nigeriens reeling from the effects of constant drought and acute food shortages depends to a large extent on the ability of the country’s leaders to manage this electoral process in such a way that it unlocks the economic and development potential of the country.
(1) Contact Madie Schutte through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Election Reflection unit (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(2) United Nations ‘Human Development Index’ http://hdrstats.undp.org.
(3) Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Country Profile: Niger’, The World Factbook https://www.cia.gov.
(4) ‘Elections in Niger’, African Elections Database, www.africaelections.tripod.com.
Written by Madie Schutte (1)