A New Beginning In Niger

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On Monday this week, the 6.7 million registered voters in our near-neighbour and sister republic of Niger, went to the polls to choose from ten presidential candidates, including the country’s first female candidate, as well voting in 116 legislative constituencies nationwide. Elections are holding almost one year after the military stormed the presidential palace in broad daylight to kidnap the maverick president Mamadou Tandja, months into an overstay of a legal mandate. They transferred Tandja from house arrest into prison for alleged graft during his ten year rule. The soldiers who overthrew Tandja said they took over in the nation of 15million people in order to restore democratic rule. They called themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and had promised to fight corruption and turn Niger into an “an example of democracy and good governance”. Many Nigeriens had supported the removal of Tandja, even when there are lingering doubts that the election this week could either break Niger’s vicious cycle of coups, countercoups and political instability or the deep-seated underdevelopment, periodic droughts and famine.

Serge Houndolo, Niger’s director for the National Democratic Institute, speaking in the wake of the elections said “there is no doubt that we will return to constitutional government and the military will return to its barracks…but a return to constitutional order does not mean all of Niger’s problems will be solved”. As part of the preparation for this week’s polls, a new constitution was approved by referendum last October, Niger’s seven since independence in 1960. It gave the military regime until April 6 to return power to a civilian administration. Yet this is a country of very poor people which faces huge problems of attempting to recover from famine, has serious issues of unemployment and suffers from a low intensity insurgency in the North amongst the Touareg and in recent years, has had to also cope with the increasing activities of the North African branch of Al-Qaida. And according to the UN Human Development Index, Niger places 167th out of 169 countries. It is one of the least-developed countries in the world.

It is significant that in the lead to this week’s elections, some presidential candidates had called on the ruling military junta to delay the polls and also dissolve the electoral commission because of problems with the local elections held earlier this month, according to VOA reporting from Niamey, the capital. They were expressing their views in a meeting with representatives of ECOWAS that observed the polls. Hama Amadou, the head of the country’s leading opposition coalition had argued that the electoral commission needed to be reorganized for efficiency so that elections will go better than the local polls. Failure to do so, he said, could lead to enormous problems for the country, adding that a delay of this week’s polls was important to achieve the reorganization he sought. Opponents of the party of ousted Mamadou Tandja had dominated the local and regional polls, and the electoral commission agreed they were marked by logistic problems. Some parties called for the results to be thrown out, because of irregularities. On his part, candidate and former president, Mahamane Ousmane said they had proposed a timeline which allowed delay to resolve existing problems without interfering with deadlines for a transition to civilian government.

In the days leading to this week’s vote, the Associated Press [AP] was reporting the sprouting up of campaign tents in Niamey’s streets and a cacophony of music and slogans promising to fight corruption, insecurity and unemployment as well as promises to fix the country’s ailing health and education sectors. Frontrunners in the polls were similarly described as “a familiar cast, many of them longtime politicians or former government officials”. Mahamadou Issoufou is a longtime opposition leader, and his party dominated local and regional elections held on January 11. But analysts say that his lead could be threatened by a new coalition containing two former Tandja prime ministers, Seini Oumarou and Hama Amadou. They pledged before this week’s poll, along with four other candidates, to support each other in a possible runoff. Commenting on the alliance, Souley Adji, a professor of politics at the University of Niamey, told AP that “the men in the alliance have already governed together. We would like to see a true political changing of the guard but it is not likely”.

An unemployed college graduate was also quoted as saying that “whoever is elected the new president of this country, if he does not find a solution to the unemployment problem, he will have to deal with the anger of the young people”. But in fact, that is just one of the many problems on the plate of an incoming president. Southeast Niger has struggled to recover from a devastating food crisis last year, caused by poor harvests and droughts, which endangered half of the 15million people of the country. SKYNEWS and ALJAZEERA carried several reports in recent months of children with distended bellies and dried up limbs carried by parents desperately in search of food. Aid workers say that Niger continues to report alarming rates of chronic and acute child malnutrition. Niger is located in the center of the Sahel, the desert region which straddles West and North Africa. It has become a fertile ground for drugs and human traffickers, smugglers and Al-Qaida.

In 2003, the formerly local Algerian Salafist Organisation of Combat and Struggle became Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. It has since turned broad swathes of the desert from Niger to Mauritania into a no-go zone for Westerners.  Early last month, masked gunmen from the group stormed a restaurant in Niamey and made away with two French men who were later found killed, after a botched rescue attempt by French and Nigerien forces near the Malian border. It was indicative of the security situation that European Union election observers did not deploy in the Agadez region, according to a report from Niamey by the Associated Press. Yet Ibrahima Mory, the Interior Ministry Secretary-General was sure security was not likely to compromise the polls. This week’s election offers Niger an opportunity for a new beginning. But it will still be a difficult period for whoever emerges president in a country that has faced serious difficulties all through its fifty years of independence.

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