Niger:Piling on the Pressure

ECOWAS and it's Nigerian representatives are playing rough.

ECOWAS and it's Nigerian representatives are playing rough.

On the 11th of November, the government of Niger confirmed the elections for it’s new parliament, boycotted by opposition and assailed as undemocratic from abroad. Two days before Finance Minister Zeine, who now serves at the will of the first President of the Sixth Republic, Tandja Mamadou, also announced the government budget for 2010. Like the August 18th unilateral transition from the semi-presidential Fifth Republic, this first budget of the Sixth Republic is a mixture of unchecked opacity and optimistic bluster.

Niger’s government announced it would spend some 735 billion CFA Francs (1.1 Billion Euros), up from 730 Billion FCFA the year before. Of course, 2009 saw hundreds of millions — no one is quite sure how much — being paid to the government of Niger for new foreign mining and oil contracts. Still, Niger says that they expect their internal tax revenue to increase to record levels and and their foreign supports budget to increase almost nine and a half percent, to 330 billion FCFA (505 million Euros). With projected internal tax and and contract revenue, of around 614 million Euros, the government has confidently promised to exactly cover their expenditures. These figures, with a projection of a %4.3 economic growth for the coming year — almost entirely based on exports of uranium — sound good enough.

Venture capitalists reading the regurgitation of such projections in outlets like Bloomberg News, might be fooled. Except that these figures are largely meant as propaganda. The independent Niamey Canard Dechaine paper asked the obvious question in response: “who are these foreign sources of income” who will make up half of the revenue in direct payments, and much of the contract revenue?

The constitutional coup of President Tandja has ground these foreign payments to a halt. The EU has frozen 180 billion Euros in direct payments for this year, and given a 30 day ultimatum for a return to constitutional government, before they cut off further funds. IMF organized funding for infrastructure projects, including support for the African Development Bank managed Kandadji Hydroelectric  Dam project, as well as for the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) fund, has not been reviewed since the beginning of September, and will likely be effected, especially as Kandadji funding was funneled through ECOWAS, an organization which has suspended all work with the government of Niger. Add the suspension of US and French non-humanitarian programs, and Niger has a rather large hole in its pocket, even if France continues to buy their uranium and China keeps investing in oil, mining, and infrastructure.

If more bad news were needed, the agricultural season was poor in parts of Niger, a nation where over eighty prevent of the population rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. While not a disaster, a June dry gap following the first rains caused some areas to have to replant, and millet yields are low. Couple that with the knife edge politically, Niger is in even worse shape.

Goods being confiscated at the Nigerian border with Niger

Goods being confiscated at the Nigerian border with Niger

ECOWAS president Nigeria seems to be taking a hard line, regardless — or perhaps because of — that nation’s less than transparent 2007 presidential elections. President Yar’Adua has placed former General and President Abdulsalami Abubakar in the lead for the so called “Abuja I” consultations beginning this week. On the eve of these meetings, Nigeria arranged for a small demonstration of its strength. Border guards at the three main crossings south of Maradi, Zinder and Tahoua stopped all commercial transport for at least a day. Travelers were searched, and goods were impounded. The border between these neighbors cuts through the midst of Hausaland, and the major markets for goods from Niger — apart from those big exports by the government — are sold in the markets of Kano and Katsina. A flurry of denials as to who ordered such a closure followed, but the point was surely made.

The government delegation to Abuja, made up of PM Ali Badjo Gamatié and other high Nigerien officials who have been jetting around the ECOWAS states to plead their case for several weeks, arrived in Nigeria on the 10th. According to the Niamey press, the party which included three former Prime Ministers and several other high level minister, were met at the airport by no Nigerian delegation, and had to rent their own cars.  All experienced officials, the Nigerien  delegation included former Prime Ministers Mamane Oumarou, Cheiffou Amadou, Hamid Algabid, Seini Oumarou, current Press Minister Kassoum Moktar, former Press Minister Mohamed Ben Omar, longtime party leader Sanoussi Tambari Jackou,  and current Foreign Minister Aïchatou Mindaoudou.

At the Abuja Sheraton, they were made to sit a wait several hours by the Nigerians, and then General Abdulsalami refused to meet with the entire illustrious delegation, and insisted that the current Niger PM and Foreign minister be the only officials interviewed. The Foreign Minister’s meeting with the Nigerian Ambassador to Niger was reportedly repeated  halted while the Nigerian took calls on his mobile. Meanwhile a forty member Nigerien opposition delegation has arrived in Abuja as well, and both the EU and ECOWAS are demanding a compromise deal be done directly with the Nigerien anti-Tandja activists.

So here’s the big question: which side will be forced into a deal? On the surface there is no squaring the circle. The opposition will not accept the transition to the 6th Republic as legal, and the 5th Republic’s constitution was very clear that Tandja must leave power on 22 December.

The Nigerien opposition press has begun floating the answer: the 7th Republic. In this scenario, Tandja would become a figurehead President during an 18 month transition while an assembly of all stakeholders would be called to draft a new constitution, overseen by former President Mahamane Ousmane. Meanwhile opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou would become head of government. If you think you’ve heard this before, you may be right. Military dictator Ali Saibou‘s failed 2nd Republic was edged out of power in much the same way, with him as figurehead, while a National Convention wrote a new constitution.

Ali Saibou

Ali Saibou

Will Tandja agree? I would be surprised. He’s shown a remarkable unwavering drive to remain in power at all costs, and there are clearly now powerful family and military cliques who are using Tandja as cover for their enrichment — or to simply stave off prosecutions which might follow a change of government.

The last Nigerien strongman, Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, was overthrown in similar circumstances.

The last Nigerien strongman, Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, was overthrown in similar circumstances.

On the other hand, Tandja might be wise to follow in the footsteps of Ali Saibou. Saibou retired to his home village in 1993, and to the best of my knowledge is still there. The next Nigerien strongman to be removed from power, Colonel / General / President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara left the presidency in two body bags following a 1999 coup. Tandja might be reminded that the murder of that president took place only days after a then Nigerian President, Abubacar Abdulsalami, led ECOWAS negotiators in meetings with Baré Maïnassara over his annulment of promised elections. And the coup leaders who put Baré Maïnassara in power and took him out remain in places of influence in Tandja’s clique as well.