Niger’s recent 2020 elections has been labeled an important period of democratization: securing its first transition of power between democratically elected leaders (Balima, 2021). This transition did not involve partisan alteration, with the winner, Mohamed Bazoum, being the hand-picked successor of the incumbent, Mahamadou Issoufou (Balima, 2021), nor, arguably, was it the result of a free and fair election. While the Economic Community of West African States has argued otherwise, opposition leaders have made allegations of election fraud and international observers have confirmed a historic use of state resources to suppress the opposition (Freedom House, 2020). In contrast to the claims of democratization, I argue that Niger’s 2020 election denotes a shift not to democracy, but rather stealth authoritarianism.
“Stealth Authoritarianism refers to the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends”, namely the erosion of the alteration between political parties (Varol, 1684). In Niger’s use of stealth authoritarianism for subverting the 2020 election, it is most clearly seen in its formation of anti-opposition electoral laws, use of non-political crimes to jail and disqualify opposition leaders and proponents and widespread strategic election manipulation.
Changes to Electoral Laws:
In 2017, the government passed an electoral law which had two main areas of concern: the creation of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) and the creation of a biometric voter list for all future elections.
Independent electoral commissions are a tool often used in democracies to bolster the validity of their elections. Yet, in Niger, the CENI shows a clear deviation from the electoral commissions seen in democracies through its structuring in favor of the majority party (US Department of State, 2018). With a stealth authoritarian frame of view, such a body would, to the naked eye, carry with it the democratic credentials of the similar bodies in democracies, despite containing “subtle reconfigurations that deviate in meaningful ways from those laws typically found in democracies” (Varol, 1685). This deviation allowing for majoritarian rule would place complete rule over election planning into the hands of the majority. In the wake of the election, the opposition has made claims against the vote count conducted by the CENI, arguing that Mahamane Ousmane won by 50.3% of the vote (Balima, 2021).
The requirement of a biometric voter list presents a similar issue. Similar to the voter registration laws which exist in most democracies (Varol, 1701), the narrative surrounding the law shifts with two considerations. First, the majority party will control implementation of enrollment through the Ministry of Interior, something opposition parties and civil society groups have argued will be easily abused in choices of communities and regions for enrollment workshops (US Department of State, 2018). Second, with only 20 percent of citizens having the necessary documentation for enrollment, a significant barrier to entry is created.
Prosecution of Non-Political Crimes:
The use of non-political crimes to attack opposition members has been a consistent and effective tactic of the government. The most high profile instances are the arrest and conviction of opposition leader Hama Amadou for baby trafficking, something he contests and claims was to remove him from future elections, and the arrest of two other leading opposition party members on corruption charges, charges critics have claimed to be political and were subsequently found to be false (US Department of State, 2018). Charges like these also often work in favor of the government due to the weak nature of the judiciary, with judges receiving low salaries and subject to reassignment, issues which have created an environment prime for executive interference (US Department of State, 2018).
Important as well have been the attacks through non-political crimes on opposition proponents, namely the media. The Tax Office has been an important tool for the government, placing general strain on and even temporarily closing critical media organizations (US Department of State, 2018). Individual journalists can also face punishment: Baba Alpha, a longtime government critic, spent a year in jail for document forgery (Freedom House, 2020) and Ali Soumana, the owner and publisher of Le Courrier, was charged for the illicit procurement of court documents used in reporting on a corruption scandal (US Department of State, 2018).
These actions have two significant effects on the electoral process: (1) creating a chilling effect on opposition members and proponents, something confirmed by interviews with journalists who confirmed self-censorship around certain ‘taboo topics’ and exacerbated due to the heinous conditions in Niger jails where prison deaths occur regularly due to poor conditions (US Department of State, 2018); (2) removing capacity from the opposition, shown in the fracturing due to the political incapacitation of Amadou (Freedom House, 2020), the closure of pro-opposition media and the general incapacitation of leaders of groups with limited capacities.
Use of Strategic Election Manipulation:
Perhaps the most pervasive method of stealth authoritarianism displayed by the government is its widespread use of “a range of actions aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of [the] incumbent” (Bermeo, 13). Simply looking at the previous sections, it is easy to see a few examples: Amadou is being kept off the ballot, certain media receives more harassment, certain communities are more likely to receive support in participation and the government counts and confirms the outcome of elections. On top of these examples, the regime has historically excluded opposition journalists from press conferences and events, subjected opposition media organizations to a disproportionate amount of tax audits, censored opposition statements and activities, denied permission for opposition demonstrations, banned general activities by opposition parties and limited their access to state media (US Department of State, 2018). The government has also played by a different set of rules when it comes to electioneering, not allowing opposition candidates to campaign until the start of the campaign period, the month of the election, while claims were made that Bazoum was campaigning early (Freedom House, 2020). Such actions can have a serious impact on the capacity of the opposition to be successful in elections, especially when looked at cumulatively.
Despite claims of democratization, in the lead-up to the 2020 election Niger’s government has maintained and expanded its anti-opposition repressionary tactics while at the same time reinforcing its use of elections. Despite its use of electoral institutions, anything but the most shallow interpretation of democracy would ask for more. Therefore, in light of the consistent use of repressionary methods against the political opposition to hamper instances of partisan alteration and the continued claims against the validity of the elections without meaningful rebuttal, Niger ought to be categorized under the classification of a stealth authoritarian regime.
Balima, B. (2021, February 23). Niger ruling party’s Bazoum declared winner of presidential election. Retrieved April 09, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-niger-election/niger-ruling-partys-bazoum-declared-winner-of-presidential-election-idUSKBN2AN0JP
Bermeo, N. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5-19.
Niger: Freedom in the world 2020 country report. (2020). Retrieved April 09, 2021, from https://freedomhouse.org/country/niger/freedom-world/2020
United States, US Department of State. (2018). 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Niger. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/niger/
Varol, O. O. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review, 100, 1673-1742.
Wow, I had no idea that Niger was leveraging the institution of elections as some sort of façade to cover up the reality that they still exist and seek to thrive as an authoritarian regime. For most of my life up until this point I didn’t have much of an understanding as to why there was so much chaos in the news and media around the government institutions within Niger, and now that have had some relative education of the topic, I find it absolutely valid for the people of Niger to be angry and outraged as well. As I read more stories such as this one of the democratizing of a lot of institutions within Africa, I can only think about how much a lot of this is a direct result of the hundreds of years of colonization that left much of Africa in disarray and instability. Many nations in Africa are fighting for their well-being on a daily basis at this point and I find it incredibly disheartening to see so many communities still struggling with proper government after all that’s been experienced from colonization by the west.