Niger: Onward to Kleptocracy

Democracy in Action

Monday was Republic Day in Niger, the 49th celebration of the day the West African nation finally achieved independence from France. Tuesday the nation voted on a referendum — directly in violation of the 1999 constitution — which would give dictatorial powers to sitting President Tandja.  Of course “the nation” did not vote: the political class boycotted, the peasants worked in their fields, and a small cadre of the President’s friends falsified the election, smothering what was left of Niger’s democracy in a rush to secure their hold on Niger’s growing mining and oil revenues gained from French, Canadian, Chinese, and U.S. corporations.

Reports of a minuscule turnout seem destined to make little difference. Soldiers and police voted on Monday, and so this Republic Day of late celebrated by the planting of trees across the nation, witnessed lines of uniformed men at polling places.  It was as good a metaphor as any for Niger current political culture. The only institution which could have enforced the late lamented Constitutional Court’s rulings banning the President’s flatly illegal extension of his mandate was instead all in a row, waiting to affirm his power grab.

President Tandja Mamadou, former army Colonel, a former interior minister of the 1974-1991 military Junta, leader of the corporatist – military party (MNSD–Nassara) since 1991, and longtime opposition leader, came to power in free elections following the 1999 counter coup against 1996-1999 President/Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara.  Tandja had been the power behind the politically ostracized MNSD during the democratic hiatus of the 1993-1996 Third Republic.  Under Bare, he had led pro-democracy strikes alongside the two other political heavyweights: Mahamadou Issoufou of the Social Democratic PNDS-Tarayya and former President Ousmane of the Zinder based centrist CDS-Rahama.  When Bare was murdered by his own men, Tandja, with newly burnished both his democratic and military reputation, was elected president in a tightly fought race with Issoufou. The MNSD’s alliance with Ousmane kept Tandja President and with a working majority in 2004.

But the 1999 Constitution mandated that the President can only be elected twice, and that no measure may change this constitutional restriction.  So Tandja’s announcement in May that “the people have demanded I stay” was met with governmental collapse, political isolation, foreign threats, the dismissal of the National Assembly and the Courts, and the packing of party and government bodies with Presidential loyalists.

A Fraudulent election

Around six million of Niger’s 14 million citizens were reported registered, and the opposition (in fact all but two minor parties and the rulers) demanded a boycott of the Constitutional project. Reporters in Niamey and Zinder described empty stations with bored workers, while in Dosso and Illela (small departmental capitals in the southwest) there were attempts to block polling stations.  No doubt those who chose to vote were supporters of the President, or wished to be seen to be.  The voting was done by placing a white “yes” or gray “no” card in a ballot box, so you can imagine those trying to please the government had little choice in the matter.

The government wasted no time declaring victory, placing “thank you” billboards and making announcements before the CENI ( the Nigerien independent electoral commission) released the provisional results.  When the CENI announcement came, it’s numbers showed clear signs of tampering, and seemed too near the 75% turnout figure the President himself “estimated” on the day of the election.  Given that the boycott and less than private voting conditions might support the 92% “yes” figure, the announced 68% turnout is more convincing evidence of fabrication.

The fact is that politics is an urban game in Niger, and is led by members of traditional elites, who group their parties around patronage and locality more than ideology.  The rural majority simply take government as a fact of life, like the fickle rains of the Sahel.  There are political classes, Unions, students, and more civil society groups born over the last decade.  But these form a minority of a population, over 70% of whom live in rural areas and rely on farming, herding, and seasonal travel abroad for odd jobs to feed their families.

In this election, press and observers reported pathetically low turnout in cities, and even if rural stations had been swamped, previous elections in Niger come nowhere near this turnout.  The 2004 elections saw 45% and 48% turnout for the two Presidential rounds, 44.7% for the national assembly: all these results were considered high at the time and lines were seen at polling stations. The 1999 referendum creating the 5th Republic drew only 31.2% of those registered to vote.

In fact, since the advent of democracy in 1991-3, turnout has stayed in the 30% to upper 40% range.  There have been two exceptions: the pre-democratic elections in the late 1980s in which the single party state reported more than 90% turnout, and the rigged 1996 elections following the Bare coup.  These were reported at 66%, and were condemned by international observers as fixed, especially given that the CENI was dissolved mid election and replaced by a military body. Although this might be evidence of the development to which the President claims he is guiding Niger.

A power grab hides a money grab

There is no doubt that what has happened since the beginning of the “Tazarche” (Continuity) campaign in December has been a coup by political means. The constitution of 1999 is quite specific in forbidding term extensions, constitutional amendments and revisions, and requirements that Constitutional Court rulings are non-negotiable.  Tandja, with the Army quietly on his side, and his pockets full from new foreign mining deals, simply carried declared that the people demanded he remain, and so he deserved to rule without the aid of other institutions for three years while his government crated a new Constitution, which in rough sketches presents a dictatorial Presidential office, surrounded by institutions which serve at the President’s behest.  This he calls the 6th Republic.

It is unclear, following the referendum, when exactly the 5th Republic ends and the 6th Republic begins, but it is clear that the President has the legal cover to do what he’s been doing for the last two months: ruling by decree.  The Referendum text simply read “Do you support the constitutional project for the 6th Republic?” This was not, as some press have reported, a referendum just on term limit removal or a constitutional amendment.  This was a referendum which gives the President the right to rule under any constitutional fiction he presents, or with none at all until 2012.  While the 1999 Constitution demands that a National Assembly and Municipal election take place this year, it is still unclear if that constitution is in force.  Legally, Niger has entered a dictatorial night of undetermined length.

All this is quite clear to Niger’s neighbors and foreign funders.  ECOWAS, under the rotating leadership of Niger’s powerful southern partner Nigeria, has warned of harsh diplomatic and trade sanctions, potentially cutting off the desert nation’s access to the sea.  France, Canada, the US and the EU have all threatened to end aid payments.  The EU has frozen  $540 million in aid, and more than half of the Nigerien government budget of $600 million comes from direct payment by foreign donors.  The last time this happened, after Bare’s 1996 coup, the nation was convulsed by strikes as the only consistent source of employment in the country is the government, whose workers — including police and soldiers — never knew when they might be paid.  Bare’s 1999 overthrow at the hands of his own general staff was a direct consequence of this foreign borne austerity.

Why won’t the same happen to Tandja?  The opposition, criticized in the last few days for an ineffectual boycott, is following the script of the opposition under Bare.  In fact, most of the leaders are the same.  But while strikes and protests and marches and arrests pressurized the Army to drop Bare, that regime was starved out by international funders.

Today, the World Bank and the EU can cut off aid, but uranium prices have more than doubled, and Niger is set to become the second largest producer in the world, thanks to a $500 million deal with the Chinese state mining company and a  1.2 billion Euro deal with the French state controlled nuclear company Areva.

In 1996, as from the time that uranium was first discovered in the Saharan north  by the French colonialists of the 1950s, France was the sole operator in Niger.  The sweetheart deals with followed independence were signed at the time a Franco-Corsican was private secretary to Nigerien President Diori and the Nigerien army was officered by Frenchmen.  France, which provides a majority of its electricity by nuclear reactors, got most of its fuel from Niger for decades.

Tandja’s first coup was to turn the tables of France by inviting Chinese companies to bid for mining rights, just as Areva’s began to mine out its concession and uranium prices skyrocketed.  The deals that followed, including the first pumping of long identified but never exploited oil fields in the far east of the nation, were larger than any in Niger’s history, and who knows what was in the fine print for Tandja.

What is known is that one of the 71 year old President’s  sons,  Ousmane Tandja  (nicknamed “Gobir”) is special trade representative to China and co-head of Trendfield Ltd, a Sino-Nigerien investment contractor based in Hong Kong and Niamey. The French daily Liberation quoted sources saying that Trendfield was a slushfund of Tandja’s family.  The company of another son of the president, Hadia Toulaye Tandja, was charged in the local press with receiving kickbacks for mining contracts this year, allegedly including a $4 million payment from US mining company Brinkley Mining Project 7 and $5 million from an Australian company.

If those close to Tandja are getting rich, they may already be in too deep to risk turning over government power.  The President won’t live forever, but $5 million will buy a nice home in Europe.  In exchange, China gets a free hand in its Uranium mines and is drilling oil wells, Russia is building an oil pipeline that would run from Nigeria through Niger to energy hungry Europeans, Canadian Gold mines continue to expand in the far west using huge tanks of arsenic and a diverted river to leach gold from ore, and everyone wins.

Beside this, the $540 million in EU aid seems little price to pay.  Will the US cut off Millenium Fund grants to rural women’s groundnut cooperatives?  Will the French cut off funding to a handful of Tuareg village schools?  These represent no sacrifices to the ruling clique.  And as long as the population remain too poor to bother with politics, but not so poor that they starve in front of Western reporters as they did in 2005, this all works out fine.

Niger, far from the hopes of those who led popular protests that brought democracy in 1991,  has become just another neocolonial resource extractor like the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzavile, or Gabon.  The international community is well practiced in how to deal with these states quietly, deflecting criticism of the whatever “President for life” is in power at the moment, all the while making a mint.  France this week praised General/President of Mauritania Ould Abdel Azziz for winning a fixed election, after damning him to hell as a coup leader a year ago.  You would be a fool to trust them to fix Tandja for you.

Is there a path back to democracy?

The day after the referendum, opposition spokesman and Vice-president of the PNDS Bazoum Mohammed vowed that they and their political and Union allies would continue to march and strike against the regime.  But, Bazoum and others have consistently claimed that unholy chaos will rain down upon Tandja in the form of foreign sanctions.  And while aid will go, and President Yar’Udua of Nigeria has promised tough measures, the real fuel of the new regime is safe.

The rural majority will see higher prices, but the number two export of Niger, locals selling cattle across the border to Nigeria, is unpoliciable already and unstoppable by Abudja.  Nigeria might cut off trade, but farmers will still go on their seasonal “exode” migration for menial labor across West Africa when the harvest is finished in a few months.  Trade sanctions may even prevent millet from being bought up by relatively richer foreign markets, a cause of the 2005 famine.  Nigeria has one card that will be interesting to watch: electricity.  Apart from a couple of rickety coal and oil stations near major cities, Niger is dependent upon its southern neighbor for power.  Most Nigeriens have no connection to a power grid, but Niamey, already suffering from long daytime power cuts, could go dark if it had to rely upon its tiny dilapidated coal plant.

Whatever happens, the responsibility to change this government rests with Nigeriens themselves.  The vast majority of citizens simply must continue to struggle for survival, and have nothing to withhold from the government should they wish.  But the strikes and marches of the 1980s and 1990s might turn the screw.  In 1991, students and workers ground 15 years of military dictatorship to a halt, set up a National Convention, and declared itself sovereign.  Just two years ago, Tuareg rebels on ceasefire since the 1990s, brought mining work to a halt across much of the north.  The relatively affluent political class dragged General Bare through the mud and left him marked as traitors those who worked with him.  The Army has twice unseated corrupt despots successfully, and has tried at least 16 times since 1963 to overthrow the government of the day.

None of these are pleasing prospects, even for the winners.  But Nigeriens, despite the ample chaos and despotism in their past, have a history of taking their fates in their own hands.  Their own history puts a lie to recent analyses I’ve read claiming Niger “has no democratic tradition” and thus can’t be expected to carry out democratic transitions “at this stage”.  One other commentator bangs on about the “Big Man” principle “native” to Africa means that democracy can’t be expected to function “yet”.  While I understand the on the ground observations that lead to such conclusions, they rely upon profoundly ahistorical thinking, no different from the U.S. Christians who idealize some perfect whitebread morality of the 1950s which never really existed as “traditional values”.

The political change to dictatorship in Niger, in contrast to the persistence of fledgling institutions its neighbor Mali, is directly tied to the resources which rich nations extract from the Nigerien soil.  The political system, even the political “culture” is modeled on and continually reinforced these relationships.  It is no accident that Niger’s outline constitution of the 6th Republic looks remarkably like that of Gabon, with a President enmeshed in law but governing as dictator for life (and beyond, should the late President Bongo’s current succession process run to form).

All President Tandja has done this year is to step into the role neo-colonial despot.  Foreign governments and businesses will sooner recast as rewrite the script.  It’s instead up to the citizens of these nations, along with the citizens of Niger, to stop this tired old movie.

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