A good year for Niger?

January 27, 2011 § 3 Comments

Niger will host absolutely vital elections on Monday.

In case you’d forgotten Niger is the inland one in north-west Africa that looks like a leaping goldfish. It’s north of Nigeria, west of Chad, south of Algeria, and east of Mali. It had a history which will be depressingly familiar to readers of this blog and students of the region: French Colony -> single party left-wing rule supported by the army -> one ethnic group (Hausa) dominates -> democratization in early 90s -> ethnic civil war by underrepresented minorities (Tuareg and Tobou) in which neighbouring powers (Chad again, and Libya) interfere -> uneasy peace and fragmented democracy interspersed with military coups.

Then in 1999 there was a pleasant change. Mamadou Tandja managed to break not only the (Hausa) ethnic hegemony of the presidency but also the (Djerma) ethnic hegemony of his own party. He ran on largely economic issues (he’s centre right and slightly liberal) and whilst by no means did Niger immediately start to smell of roses (Niger remains the country with the lowest Human Development index (HDI) on the planet) he did give them ten years of stability, relative peace, and politics as normal. Elections were even held which were given a reasonably clean bill of health – and even more remarkably were competitive. Whilst his neighbours wallowed in frankly implausible 80% and 90% majorities, Tandja was happy to twice just sneak in with 40% of the vote (and 60% in the second round). in addition his party (the MSND) rarely win more than about a third of parliamentary seats with the effect that he had to negotiate coalitions for much of his time in power. Niger was, at that stage, one of the most democratic nations in the region.

Of course it was too good to last and, according to his opponents, the power went to Tandja’s head and he turned into another dictator. The facts, from which you can draw your own conclusions, are that when his term expired in 2009 he called a referendum asking to a) abolish term limits (he did himself however promise Sarkosy not to run for a third term), and b) be allowed to continue ruling for at least three more years without the need for another pesky election. The referendum was passed by an unrealistic and un-Tandja like 92% on what Tandja claimed was a 68% turnout. Opposition groups, who organised a boycott, claimed turnout was only 5%, whilst international observers had the temerity to suggest the actual figure was somewhere between the two. With opposition parties boycotting in protest, Tandja’s MSND then swept the parliamentary elections.

Fearing the Tandja presidency was turning into a dictatorship, the Army then launched a coup “to restore democracy”. Of course, whenever an army launches a coup they claim it is “to restore democracy” and it almost never is. Moreover the army (left-wing authoritarian like all armies in the region) had been itching for an excuse to remove Tanjda for decades.

Yet, there are two sides to this, Tanjda was undoing the democratic structures and the Military junta’s subsequent actions were not the traditional ones of a dictator. They put forward a very sensible constitutional amendment which strengthened the  role of Parliament, introduced new checks on the President’s power, and strengthened the role of the judiciary and the separation of church (well mosque) and state. Then they held a referendum on these reforms that didn’t appear to be rigged. And they are holding fresh elections, on time, and as promised. So far so good – but they remain nevertheless the leaders of a military coup.

In other words it seems impossible to tell from the outside, and doesn’t seem to be that obvious from the inside either, who the goodies are in this story. It may be that there are none, but that strikes me as being a somewhat trite analysis. The real motives of the various factions will become much clearer once we know a) how Monday’s poll went and who won and b) how the sides comported themselves after Monday.

The election

Two elections will be held on Monday: the first round of the two-round first-past-the-post Presidential election, and the Parliamentary election. The latter consists of 105 members elected by eight geographical constituencies by d’Hondt PR and 8 members elected by first past the post in eight ethnically based national constituencies for eight protected ethnic minorities (so guaranteeing them one seat each). Here are some quite interesting but apparently unfinished thoughts on the effects of this system.

The election is to all intents and purposes going to be a referendum on Tanjda and the coup. Both sides accept this and, coup and interim government notwithstanding, Tandja’s supporters are running very much an incumbency camapign based upon his record; whilst the other parties are running an opposition “oust the dictator” style campaign. Tandja himself has been forbidden from entering the election (the interim government expressing the clear view that his term limit is, in any case, up) but his MSND will be a strong force (arguably the strongest united force) in both elections. Their Presidential candidate will be Tandja’s close ally: former PM Seyni Oumarou. Oumarou himself is on bail for charges of embezzlement which may or may not be politically motivated.

Almost all the other parties have gathered together into an alliance called the Co-ordination of Democratic Forces of the Republic. They will fight the first round of the presidential election and the Parliamentary election as individual parties but will then unite for the second round around whichever candidate makes it into the runoff – in theory. It is not immediately clear who that is likely to be, but there are some frontrunners.

The leaders of the opposition for much of the last ten years has been the centre-left PNDS. They are a fairly new party: formed in the early nineties and which first started to poll encouragingly around 1998. Perhaps surprisingly, and unusually for the area, they don’t have much in the way of links back to the old Diori dictatorship, or to leftists in the army, but appear to represent a genuinely new left. Their leader for the last 17 years, and presidential candidate, is Mahamadou Issoufou. They traditionally get around 30% of the seats in parliament with the help of their many allies (smaller left wing parties, including parties that do stem from the old dictatorship).

Also usually winning around 30% of the seats in parliament are the CDS party of former President (in the 90s) Mahamane Ousmane. Ousmane is the candidate this time around as well; he had been living in exile as there was a warrant out for his arrest but this was quietly dropped to allow him to run. The CDS is kind of centre-right and Hausa based but lacks a strong ideology: its basically a one man band. There is bad blood between the PNDS and the CDS: they were allies in the 90s but then the PNDS pulled out of the ruling coalition bringing down Ousmane’s presidency.

Then there is a new party: the MDN. This is the creation of Hama Amadou, a perennial party-swapper and serial Prime Minister who, until 2009, was leader of the MSND  and a supporter of Tandja but fell out with him, and lost the leadership of the party, over the constitutional crisis. It is not clear how much of a following Amadou has, or how big his party is, but some news organisations are taking his candidacy very seriously indeed.

A final party worth a mention is the Social Democratic Rally, or RSD, of Amadou Cheiffou. Cheiffou is an interesting character, he’s from the Peulh ethnic minority and rose to prominence in the last days of the old dictatorship – serving as the transitional prime minister between 1991 and the full restoration of democracy in 1993. He was then a prominent member of the CDS, until he split from them in 2004 at what he saw as their obstinacy in not supporting their fellow centre-rightists in the MSND. The RSD has since always been close to the MSND with the result that it never did that well electorally – the three more established and distinct parties (MSND, PNDS, and CDS) dominating parliament.

However, in keeping with its policy of critical support for the MSND, it did not boycott the 2009 elections – unlike all the other opposition parties – and as a result it is currently the only party of any size (apart from the MSND of course) in parliament. Incumbency might count for something, but in this highly polarised election I would expect them to get squeezed. They have refused to join the Co-ordination of Democratic Forces of the Republic and the expectation is they will back the MSND in the second round.

I imagine we won’t have the full results for a good while after Monday.

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