Niger: Lucky Seven. Can a New President Signal More Responsive Politics in Niamey?

Mahamadou Issoufou of the PNDS and Seyni Oumarou of the MNSD vote for themselves, presumably.

Saturday the 12th of March will see second round voting in Niger’s Presidential elections, marking a return to civilian rule and the beginning of the Seventh Republic.  It seems certain that front runner and PNDS-Tarayya candidate Mahamadou Issoufou will become the first President of the new republic on 8 April when the military junta that deposed Mamadou Tandja on 18 February 2010 formally cedes power.

From one of several opposition parties Issoufou and the PNDS stepped remarkably into the breach left by Tandja.  The party has gone out of their way throughout this campaign to present an image of a unified body of ideas and change.  Issoufou has engaged in unprecedented face to face campaign rallies across the nation, not relying on the Nigerien tradition of local notables cobbling together coalitions to turn out votes.  The PNDS has also presented slick campaign materials, and from early days released a detailed manifesto of the process by which they will raise and spend development funds, including plans to empower local subsistence farmers (not usually a focus, but one that effects a majority of Niger’s often politically silent population).  The PNDS is undoubtedly the most ideological — social democratic — of the major parties, but it too remains mired in the traditional games of regionalism (Tahoua and Illea being the base) and constantly shifting coalition building.

The MNSD HQ in Niamey: Don't rule out the Big Baobab.

No one should discount their major rival, the MNSD-Nassara.  While bruised and bloodied by their association with disgraced President  Tandja, the MNSD predates Tandja’s leadership from 1991 to last year.  It was formed in 1987 by the military dictatorship which ruled Niger from 1974 to 1991 as a single party built on a corporatist model. Local communities, traditional leaders, elders, youth groups, and professional organizations were channeled into the MNSD, for most as their first experience of mass politics.  The politics which had led to independence in 1960 devolved rapidly into a one party state under Hamani Diori, open only to the elite and generally uninterested in popular mobilization for even the most superficial purposes.  One aspect that the MNSD did carry on from the First Republic was the drafting of traditional rulers and notables into the unitary party.  The MNSD has thus become a traditionalist, conservative and non-ideological body with tremendous support from elites, the military, and many rural communities who remember the rule of Seyni Kountché (1974-87) and his successor Ali Saibou (1987-93) as a reaction against corruption and famine which dominated civilian rule. The MNSD, for all the purges and infighting which Tandja introduced from 2007, remains for many the “Grand Baobab”, the big tent party that welcomes all who profess love of country and traditional values.  Their relative success even in the wake of an extremely popular coup against Tandja’s corruption and misrule should demonstrate the deep roots that still feed the MNSD.

This is best seen in the aftermath of the first round of these elections.  Just days before the vote, almost every political party other than the favored PNDS met to form the Alliance for National Reconciliation.  This included all but two of Issoufou’s closest allies. The ARN promised to support whichever of their number could make it to the second round against the PNDS, tipped to be either the  MNSD-Nassara or the new personal party for former MNSD Prime Minister Hama Amadou, the MODEN-FA Lumana.  Two things were stunning here.  One was that so many parties that had led marches to oust and faced repression by Tandja’s MNSD-Nassara in 2009 were willing to reconcile so quickly with their former foes.   Perhaps more stunning: Hama Amadou, the former heir apparent to the MNSD signed on so enthusiastically.  Hama had been impeached on curiously timed corruption charges in 2007, just as he seemed ready to take the party’s leadership from Tandja, and then found himself imprisoned for over a year, his supporters ejected from their party and purged from the government.  At one point Hama claimed that prison had struck him so low with disease that he feared death.  On his temporary release he fled the country, saying that the government was planning to assassinate him should he stay. And yet he was willing just a year later to literally embrace the man who led the MNSD purge of his supporters, Seyni Oumarou. Nigerien politics is nothing if not dramatic.

The question on everyone’s lips leading up to the Parliamentary and first round Presidential elections was what support Hama’s untested MODEN-FA Lumana would have.  Taking with him elements of the vaunted MNSD machine in strongholds like Tillaberi, many thought he might cruise into the second round.  In the event, Hama’s new cadre was no match for the entrenched party system.  The PNDS scored %36 in the presidential vote and 39 of the 113 assembly seats.  The MNSD followed with %23 and 26 seats, while Hama’s supporters provided a reasonable showing of 23 seats but only %19 for his presidential bid.

The first round candidates, clockwise from top left: Hama Amadou, Mahamane Ousmane, Mahamadou Issoufou, Seyni Oumarou, Ousmane Issoufou Oubandawaki, (second row, right to left) Amadou Cheiffou, Abdoulaye Amadou Traoré, Amadou Cissé, Bayard Mariama Gamatié, Moussa Moumouni Djermakoye

The following 48 hours proved again the mercenary nature of Nigerien politics.  All but two of the sizable parties in the ARN coalition again defected, clearly demonstrating that the desire to side with a winner was more important than any ideology, personal loyalty, or even shame.  Hama led the charge back to the Issoufou camp, and speculation remains rife whether he has demanded the Prime Ministership or the Presidency of the Assembly as his price.

There are several sidelines here worth noting.  Former President Mahamane Ousmane and his CDS–Rahama, once the dominant party of the 3rd Republic and a powerhouse based in Zinder collapsed completely, with %8 of the Presidential vote and only 3 seats in the assembly.  The CDS had played a pivotal role in first opposing, then supporting Tandja, while becoming a linchpin of the opposition to the President’s 2009 power grab called the 6th Republic.  Whatever the basis, Ousmane has long been among the top vote traders in the Niamey political game.   Not content to crash and burn, the CDS seemingly ripped itself apart in the post election realignment.  Elements of the youth section and the central committee fought Ousmane to remain tied to MNSD-Nassara, when he seemed to jump ship.


Signs welcoming the 2010 military coup: the year long military rule has reinforced many Nigerien's view of the military as a more trustworthy than most civilian governments.


This is important because the CDS and Ousmane represent the quintessential personal party in Niger.  It has long been assumed that most parties — with the exception of the PNDS and the MNSD — are entirely vehicles of their leaders.  There certainly is little ideological content to Nigerien parties, and the regional bases, while relied upon for a foundation, do not make most of them strictly regionalist or ethnic parties.  Nigerien parties are invariably a constellation “big men” and more quiet local traditional notables with the backing of one or two regionally important business moguls.

While much of this definition remains, the utter destruction of the CDS was mirrored in several other smaller parties that had long provided vehicles for individual party heads and their backers to demand a cut of the benefits that come with governance.

Political fixture Amadou Cheiffou’s RSD-Gaskiya disappeared from the assembly, former PM Amadou Cissé’s UDR-Tabbat fell to six seats.  And while the RDP-Jama’a  and ANDP-Zaman-Lahiya retained 7 and 8 seats respectively, these two regional parties (Agadez and Dosso) lost their charismatic leaders, and seem to survive only as supports for larger parties.  Of the former loyal PNDS coalition partners throughout the last decade (PNA-Al’ouma, PPN-RDA, and UNI), only UNI managed to win a single seat.  Publishing magnate Sanoussi Jackou’s PNA-Al’ouma has hardly caused a ripple as the last of the 35 small parties to endorse Issoufou in the second round.

The pattern here is of political coalescence.  As in the days before the second round and grand total of 35 political parties lined up with the PNDS, Niger’s political ecosystem might appear varied, there is some reason to believe two major parties and three or four major political barons are emerging to dominate.

Rumors have challenged this reading, especially from within the CDS faction fight.  There are those who claim the MNSD, after signing parties onto their ARN coalition in the first round, passed out campaign materials in areas dominated by their new partners that advised supporters of smaller parties should vote on the MNSD line, and that vote would be then divided between the coalition partners at counting.  Honestly, I have not seen a explanation of this strategy that is coherent enough to have convinced many voters.  It’s likely that it is just recriminations on the part of ARN partners, whose obvious craven maneuvering — even by Nigerien politician’s standards — drove their voters to other parties, or to abstain.

The actual institutions of the Seventh Republic are worth noting as well.  Niger has now seen three cycles of democratic rule, political deadlock, and military coup since the protests and National Convention in 1991.  Every time the new constitution has been rewritten to avoid the failure of the last.  Niger’s recent political history has been an oft-ignored constitutional laboratory unlike few others in history.  A too weak and divided semi-presidential Third Republic was revised into a more strongly Presidential Fifth.  The power grab that resulted when it was time for the President to leave has led to a more divided governing model for the Seventh Republic.  Among the more interesting innovations, the Leader of the Opposition is given formal powers, and must play a part in successful legislation.  The Prime Minister and the President of the National Assembly share powers given to the Prime Minister in a Parliamentary system, and both check the President.  Is this a recipe for gridlock? Or is this a system designed to function despite gridlock?  This last might be a healthy innovation, where no office is expected to do much alone, and therefore doesn’t feel they are being prevented.  Sadly, the success or failure of this system will once again come down to the relative personalities of a handful of political leaders, notorious for their outsized egos, and frequently the subject of whispers about personal enrichment.

It should be noted as well, that for all the talk of change, the same men (and they are almost entirely men) of the Nigerien political class were players from the beginning of Niger’s multiparty experiment in 1992-3. If Issoufou us to make good on his rhetoric of principled governance, opening the doors to every political operative with a party office is not a promising start.

Any discussion of Niger’s political future, even on a purely formal basis, would be remiss if it did not mention the majority of Nigeriens to whom politics means very little.  Three million voters came out for the first round in a nation of over fourteen million people.  The seventy or eighty percent of the population who are engaged in subsistence farming and seasonal labor abroad have no time for politics, and are rarely included in the discussion.  The PNDS has pointed out ways in which it will tackle the chronic malnutrition which has been a fact of life for many rural communities since the 1970s.  But those struggling in rural areas are more acted upon than actors.  Were they to be given real power themselves, we might see the depth of changes Niger needs.


Some background:


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