Niger’s general elections are quickly approaching. Scheduled for December 27th, the elections will decide who replaces presidential incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), who is currently serving his second and final term. This comes in stark contrast to previous transitions of power, which have all trended towards unrest and turbulence. Nearing the end of his second and final term, Mamadou Tandja, the last president to hold office, dissolved the national assembly and constitutional courts in a desperate attempt to retain incumbency. In fact, assuming Issoufou holds true to his word, this election will mark the first time since independence that a president has peacefully exited office in Niger. In spite of this, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the ruling party will sully the electoral process.
For starters, the 7th Republic of Niger is marred with corruption and scandal. In recent years, large sums of money accrued from economic deals and industrial output have mysteriously disappeared. In light of Niger’s inconsistency with transparency in recent years, these irregularities likely indicate fraud from officials in positions of power. In 2017, a state owned mining company transferred upwards of 320 million dollars to an unknown company’s offshore account in a scandal dubbed uraniumgate. Also, though the perpetrators haven’t been ruled out, an audit conducted by the Inspection Générale des Armées found that over 100 million dollars worth of funds were missing. Notably, Hassane Diallo, head of a Niger-based anti-corruption group, claims that, “All the economic actors mentioned in the audit belong(ed) to the ruling party.” All to say, the ruling party likely wants to maintain power in order to continue exploitative fraudulent practices.
Outside of internal corruption, the ruling party limits the influence of the opposition. In general, though the government has a constitution that can provide for a strong democracy, the ruling party will often circumvent or outright break established rules in pursuit of self-interest. Operating unilaterally in 2019, the ruling party appointed new persons to the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and drafted a new electoral code. The opposition have argued that both the electoral commission and code were “tailor-made” to serve the interest of the ruling majority. This claim isn’t far-fetched, as the constitutional court, in tandem with the CENI, barred the primary opposition candidate Hama Amadou from running in the 2020 elections. In effect, the opposition has been stripped of what little power it already had.
Oppression of the critics has also surged in recent years, highlighting the government’s stealth authoritarian tendencies. In his article titled “Stealth Authoritarianism”, author Ozan Varol lays a conceptual framework for and the mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism. Particularly, he notes a key feature of stealth authoritarianism involves “… concealing anti-democratic practices under the mask of law.” All to say, the government has exploited legal channels to crack down on critics in order to limit any and all attention related to its recent authoritarian proclivities. In 2019, the government passed a cyber-crime law to ostensibly limit online insecurity from terrorist organizations. In practice, the Nigerien government has used the law to detain media critics and protestors. Likewise, in 2017, a law was passed prohibiting protests on “business days.” These changes further increase the likelihood that the ruling party will once again secure the vote, as inhabitants are more likely to be unaware of their current behavior. John Adams puts it best, stating “liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people… [about] the characters and conduct of their rulers.”
Perhaps Niger’s only silver lining is its stability relative to bordering nations and previous regimes in its history. Previous regime changes were usually foreshadowed by economic crises. However, in recent years, Niger’s economy has remained relatively stable. While the living conditions of inhabitants haven’t improved from it, foreign aid from Western Donors contributes towards this stability. In fact, funds from donors now account for over 15% of Niger’s GDP. On top of direct financial aid, agriculture, infrastructure projects, and exports of uranium, oil, and gold have all contributed towards this stability. This isn’t to say that the economy is booming; instead, this indicates that it isn’t severely impoverished. While this stability doesn’t necessarily prevent backsliding, it at least acts as a safeguard against the precipitous unraveling of its democratic institutions.
This all being said, the future of Niger’s democracy is bleak. Niger continues to backslide, with the outright suspension of its democracy looking more and more likely by the day. And while reversal of these trends may be possible, the election certainly won’t mark the beginning of such a change.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1684-1722.