10 February 2016

West Africa: Niger Elections - Why We Must Pay Attention

Photo: Le Pays
President Mahamadou Issoufou

General elections will be held in Niger on 21st February 2016. This is a significant moment for the country, which has faced years of unstable governments since gaining independence in 1960. Following its last national dialogue that ushered in a new government in 1993, Niger has alternated between democratic and military regimes. There have been three confirmed coups d'état as well as a more recent alleged coup attempt in December 2015, just a few months before the elections are due to be held.

President Issoufou announced a foiled coup attempt, according to him: "The government has just foiled an evil attempt at destabilisation" by individuals trying to overthrow the democratically elected power. This was followed by the arrest of several military personnel and civilians.

While the government has announced four of the coup plotters have since confessed to the crime, majority of citizens continue to dismiss the coup as mere rumor with opposition parties claiming it is another attempt by the Issoufou led administration to stifle opposition.

For instance, Ibrahim Hamidou was arrested on 19th December 2015 for questioning the alleged coup plot during a televised debate. Some believe on the contrary that the attempted coup may be true after all, considering the high levels of tension permeating the polity. Another school of thought claims that previous elections have always been truncated by a coup d'état, so an historical analysis makes the possibility of a coup d'état likely. It is questionable what outcome such a coup may have elicited if indeed true and successful, considering ECOWAS intolerance for power acquired through unconstitutional means.

Tension continue to rise ahead of the elections, allegations of a witch hunt of opposition parties have refused to die down. As far back as 2014, several opposition figures have been arrested on charges including but not limited to violating state security, unlawful assembly, and organizing a bomb attack on the headquarters of the ruling party. The clampdown has particularly targeted members of the Nigerien Democratic Movement (MODEN) and National Movement for the Development of Society (MNSD-Nassara).

The MODEN Presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections, former Speaker of the Parliament Hama Amadou is presently behind bars over charges of baby trafficking. In 2014, Amadou fled Niger for France, where he sought refuge following allegations of complicity in a baby smuggling ring from Nigeria.

His wife and 29 others equally charged for smuggling newborn babies from Nigeria to sell to rich families in Niger are out on bail pending the determination of the suit. Amadou, A former ally of Issoufou claiming a political witch hunt, had returned to the country on 14th November 2015 to contest the presidential election and was immediately arrested. He has since been held at the Flingué prison outside Niamey.

Though the constitutional court has since cleared Amadou to contest in the 21st February presidential elections, a bail application brought by Amadou's lawyers to secure his release was refused by the court. Amado'u's party, MODEN has been campaigning on his behalf while he remains in captivity.

A recent rally hosted in Niamey was reported to have been attended by over 10,000 of Amadou's supporters. Further proving that Amadou remains a strong force in the upcoming presidential elections, especially considering the fact that there are 14 other candidates including Mahamadou Issoufo, the incumbent presidential candidate and chief opposition leader Seini Oumarou.

To present a formidable front against the incumbent President Issoufous' Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in the upcoming elections, opposition parties coalesced under the umbrella of Patriotic and Republican Front (FPR), comprising of 30 political parties, civil society and labour unions.

Amadou, ex-prime minister Seyni Oumarou, and former President Mahamane Ousmane are members of this formed coalition. However, the coalition did not put forward a consensus candidate to represent it in the upcoming presidential elections. Instead, politicians within the coalitions, including Oumarou, Amadou and others, all having personal ambitions and are contesting for the presidency individually. If the elections move into a second round it will be seen what, if any, alliances are formed.

The organization of the elections have also been fraught with challenges. For instance the CENI (Independent National Electoral Commission), the body charged with the responsibility of organizing the elections, have been accused of partisanship.

Political parties under the aegis of The Alliance for Reconciliation, Democracy and the Republic (ARDR), and a coalition of about sixteen Nigerien opposition parties in its initial rejection of the electoral timetable argued that the timetable was unilaterally designed without reaching out to the other political parties.

The sequence of elections has also generated some controversy as this will be the first time local elections will be held after the presidential and parliamentary elections. In the same vein, the constitutional court has also been accused of partisanship in a white paper issued by opposition political parties, citing close ties to President Issoufou.

Even the validation of the candidates by the constitutional court was alleged not to be thorough as some argued that the past records of some candidates were not taken into consideration during the screening process.

The voters' register also did not come without its own controversies, however an audit was eventually carried out by the Organisation of Francophonie (OIF). The OIF recommended the removal of about 300 "ghost" polling stations and 25,000 voters who had been counted twice.

This change has since been effected and the voters' register are now perceived to be valid and reliable for the polls. However, in a sudden twist, an estimated 1.5 million people may not vote in the February election.

This is because these potential voters lack documentation to prove their identity. CENI had proposed a system of using witnesses to vouch for those affected, but the politicians failed to agree on the modalities in which this would be undertaken. This challenge has further heightened the stakes in the forthcoming elections.

The voters' register includes an estimated 7.5 million voters out of Niger's total population of 17 million with previous elections recording just 48 percent voters turn out. How the exclusion of a further 1.5 million potential voters will play out in terms of legitimacy, or how it will affect the opposition parties are scenarios waiting to unfold.

The security situation in the Africa' number one Uranium Producing country is shaky, Niger is currently caught between the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria and the crises in Northern Mali and Libya.

The country has had its fair share of terrorist attacks, and kidnappings of foreigners for ransom. However, the current Boko Haram insurgency in the country has culminated in an extended state of emergency in the Diffa region.

The militant Islamic group, based in North East Nigeria is making regular incursions into Niger - killing and maiming people, coupled with looting and burning of villages.

Launching a counter-insurgency against Boko Haram insurgents coupled with the spillovers from the crises in Northeast Nigeria and Northern Mali is seriously putting a strain on the finances of the country. Having to cater for the increasing number of refugees, while appropriately budgeting for security are additional strains that cannot be overlooked.

Niger is widely viewed as the launching pad for the western war on terror in the Sahel, as it presently hosts a drone program and the base of the US and French special forces. However, more attention needs to be focused on Niger as they go into the February 21 elections.

President Issoufou's administration continue to be criticised for his high-handedness in dealing with the opposition, corruption, and inability to properly manage the insecurity plaguing the country. A continuous clampdown on opposition parties and voices may not only lead to the potential radicalization of the opposition, but may also result in the refusal to accept electoral outcome vis a vis outbreak of violence such as witnessed in the 2011 elections.

Despite the coalition formed by the opposition parties, President Issoufou still remains the front runner in the upcoming elections. However, the elections may run into the second round, the likelihood of rejection of electoral outcomes by opposition remains high.

The ECOWAS have appointed an envoy for the elections and deployed long term observers to monitor the electoral processes. However, more needs to be done, especially in terms of advocating for preventive diplomacy to avert a repeat of the violence that erupted after the 2011 general elections.

In spite of these issues surrounding the management of the elections, the possibility of a coup d'état is very low. The responses of ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) to any unconstitutional changes in government across the African continent have been loud and clear - making coups d'état's 'unfashionable'.

The recent response of the people and other actors in Burkina Faso's failed coup impasse further offers a clear example of intolerance towards power acquired through unconstitutional means. However, our attention should be focused on Niger to ensure that peaceful elections hold and the violence that followed the January 2011 elections will not repeat itself.

By Idayat Hassan, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and an OSIWA partner


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