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Niger: Many challenges for a new president

Cristina Krippahl
December 22, 2020

Niger holds presidential elections on December 27, which could see the country's first democratic transition of power since independence. But the new president faces problems from insecurity to corruption and poverty.

A woman votes during Niger's 2016 presidential election
About one third of Niger's population is eligible to vote in the 2020 electionImage: picture alliance/abaca/AA

Around 7.4 million Nigeriens will cast their vote in presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, December 27.

Unlike some of his counterparts in neighboring countries, incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou, who has already served for two terms, isn't standing for reelection.

He thus paves the way for a peaceful transition of power between two elected presidents, a first for the West African country, which has seen four coups since achieving independence from France in 1960. 

Despite ongoing security problems along Niger's borders, experts don't think the election will be seriously disrupted.

Read also: Sahel at 'breaking point' as donors pledge billions in aid

"There are jihadist groups on the border with Nigeria and on the border between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. They are making some incursions from time to time but these are very localized attacks," said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a consulting analyst for the Sahel at the International Crisis Group.

'Climate of mistrust'

But political dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition is still deadlocked. 

In November, the Constitutional Court declared the main opposition candidate Hama Amadou "ineligible" to run in Sunday's election.

Although the court didn't give a specific reason, it is assumed Amadou's candidacy was rejected because of a one-year jail sentence he received in 2017 for his links to a network trafficking infants from Nigeria. 

Niger's electoral code bars citizens convicted of crimes with prison sentences of one year or more from running for president. 

Amadou, a former prime minister, maintains his innocence, saying the charges against him were politically motivated.

Former Nigerien interior minister Mohamed Bazoum
Former interior minister Mohamed Bazoum is the frontrunner in the race for the presidencyImage: Getty Images/K. Tribouillard

Just a week later, the same court dismissed doubts around the nationality of Mohamed Bazoum, a protege of President Issoufou and the candidate for the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS). Under Niger's constitution, only those with Nigerien nationality are eligible for the presidential office.

A pre-electoral mission conducted by the African Union and ECOWAS in Niger at the beginning of December noted "the persistence of a climate of mistrust between the main actors in [Niger's] electoral process." It called for a dialogue between stakeholders, something which is now unlikely to happen before the polls.

Progress with Bazoum

A total of 30 candidates are running in Sunday's election. Bazoum, a political veteran, is the clear favorite. The 60-year-old held the position of minister of the interior for the last four years and is a staunch ally of Issoufou. 

The PNDS is hoping its popularity will push Bazoum over the 50% mark in the first round, thereby avoiding a run-off. This would also be a first in the country's electoral history.

Africa expert Paul Melly from Chatham House, a London-based think tank, believes the PNDS has rightly won popularity, especially in rural areas.

"The government has really treated food security and village development as a big political priority over the last ten years. Many villages in parts of Niger that aren't affected by insecurity are benefiting from the sustained effort to tackle basic development problems," Melly told DW.  

That could work in Bazoum's favor considering Niger is a predominantly rural country, which was regularly ravaged by famine up until recently, he said.

A sandal on the ground in Niger's Tenere desert region
Predominantly rural Niger is prone to droughts and faminesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Niger is one of the poorest country's in the world. According to the World Bank, despite some real progress, the poverty rate remains very high at 41.4%, affecting more than 9.5 million people.

Bazoum has turned his attention to Niger's pressing demographic problems, seen as one cause of poverty. The predominantly Islamic country has one of the highest global fertility rates, with an average of seven children being born to every woman.

"Bazoum is stressing the case for more education for girls. But he's tying that to the question of family size in a way that is quite brave politically," Melly said.

Human rights abuses

The government's human rights record stagnated, however, while Bazoum was interior minister.

"It is clear that the government has abused power in terms of reducing people's freedoms and liberties and arresting activists just for demonstrating," said Sahel expert Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim.

There are also reports of military executions of civilians, people who disappear and all manner of other abuses perpetrated by the state.

A Nigerien soldier takes aim with a rifle
The Nigerien army stands accused of human rights violationsImage: picture-alliance/Zuma/Planet Pix/A.F. Echols

This doesn't mean that Niger is rejecting a multi-party political model, Paul Melly believes.

"I think there's a sort of reflex in the Nigerien system. Whether it's a reflection of the fact that the army in Niger has always been a pretty powerful institution and that shapes mindsets is hard to tell," he said.

Corruption as another problem facing the country despite what Melly called "serious efforts" to tackle it. 

Help from the international community

Donors are bound to keep up discreet pressure on the next government to remedy these ills.

The administration of outgoing President Issoufo has benefited from significant aid by the West, intent on fighting jihadism in the Sahel and stopping West African migrants using Niger to transit to Europe.

The Nigerien budget has seen a "staggering increase" said Ibrahim from the Crisis Group, pointing out that this, together with military aid, has helped stabilize the country.

The new government doesn't need to fear a loss of interest by the international community.

"I think the position of Niger now gives it a lot of say in the way that the region is run," said Ibrahim, adding that Niger serves as a barrier that prevents many insurgent groups in the Sahel from merging.

"This is like a dam. If the dam breaks up, then the flood will inundate the entire area," Ibrahim said.

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