On December 27, 2020 the Republic of Niger will elect a new President and a new National Assembly. The election comes at a critical time for Niger’s 7th Republic. After two terms in office, President Mahamadou Issoufou leaves behind a controversial political legacy. Some, in particular Western state leaders and diplomats, see the President as a guarantor of political stability and a reliable geostrategic partner in an otherwise unstable region. Others, in particular Nigerien civil society activists, regard him as an authoritarian ruler, who has failed to live up to Niger’s democratic aspirations and the political promises of the 2010/11 transition from military to civilian rule.
It is hardly possible to understate the manifold changes Niger has experienced since the 2011 general elections, which brought Issoufou and his Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (PNDS) to power. The deteriorating security situation in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Libya has led to lethal conflicts between the Nigerien security forces and the civilian population on the one hand, and violent extremist organizations on the other. The conflicts have resulted in hundreds of fatalities and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Niger’s border region with Mali and Nigeria are particularly badly affected. Five of Niger’s provinces are currently under a state of emergency. The security crisis across the Sahel has led to the influx of approximately 230,000 refugees. This poses a humanitarian challenge in an already challenging economic environment. The northern city Agadez is a hub for international drug- and human trafficking. Efforts to undermine these illicit activities have either fallen short or provoked new economic uncertainties for local communities.
Niger’s relative political stability compared to its neighboring countries, its successful return to multiparty democracy in 2011, its economic fragility and its geostrategic importance for Western interests all have led to a dramatic increase in donor funding. Donor support now accounts for over 15% of Niger’s Gross National Income. The number of Western military and diplomatic personnel has increased. Several European countries have opened diplomatic missions and established military presences. The influx of donor funding has not improved the living conditions of ordinary citizens though. Niger’s economy remains beset with the same features that have hampered economic progress since the 1970s: an inefficient civil service, an ailing agricultural sector and dependency on world market prices for uranium and oil. Scientists predict that 2021 will see poor harvests and widespread food shortages. In August, flooding on an unprecedented scale destroyed tens of thousands of homes in Niamey.
In 2013 the opposition parties refused to join President Issoufou’s government of national unity. In response, the government has severely undermined basic democratic rights. Issoufou’s reelection in 2015 occurred under controversial circumstances and (too) many administrative irregularities. Since then reoccurring protests have confronted the government with claims that administration officials have been diverting funds for private purposes. In response Issoufou called the protestors Boko Haram sympathizers. Civil society leaders, members of the parliamentary opposition and journalists reporting critically about the government’s conduct have experienced arbitrary arrests. Amnesty International recently noted a surge in human rights violations. Western diplomats frequently downplay the frustration and anger of Niger’s population toward the government. This might be part of a concerted effort to back President Issoufou, who has been a staunch supporter of the West’s efforts to fight violent Islamic extremists and to stop migrants from crossing the Sharan dessert on their journey to the European Union. Recent evidence suggests that anti-government protestors are rightly concerned about the diversion of public funds within the bureaucracy. In August a government audit revealed that the Ministry of defense is unable to account for at least $137m over the course of the last eight years.
Mohamed Bazoum, President Issoufou’s chosen successor, is the most likely candidate to win the election. Bazoum served as Minister of the interior between 2016 and 2020. He has played a key role in the violent suppression of popular dissent. The PNDS is the only party that has a viable party infrastructure across the country. So far, the PNDS has managed to maintain a united front, which is a rare achievement in Niger’s volatile party system. Hama Amadou, a key architect of Issoufou’s 2011 electoral success, managed to reach the second round of the presidential election in 2016. This was an impressive achievement given that he spent the electoral campaign behind bars. Amadou’s political vehicle, Moden FA Lumana suffers from internal rivalries. Seyni Oumarou, the current high representative of the President and a former Prime Minister (2007 to 2009) is another top contender. His party, the Mouvement National de la Société de Développement (MNSD) shaped Nigerien politics throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Since the downfall of President Tandja in 2010 it has experienced many breakaways. Bazoum, Amadou, and Oumarou have been political household names since the return of multiparty democracy in 1993. To what extent either of the three can inject popular enthusiasm into the electoral process is questionable. In recent weeks the candidature of Salou Djibo has gained some attention. Djibo was the figurehead behind the 2010 coup. He resigned from the military months before his party Paix Justice Progrès (PJP) nominated him as their presidential flagbearer in June.
Electoral campaigning is set to start in December. It is too early to speculate about who will emerge as the main challenger to Bazoum’s ambitions and to what extent the coronavirus will impact voting. If the opposition wants to oust the PNDS from the presidential palace, it will need to combine its forces. This might happen if Bazoum fails to secure a majority after the first round of voting. The elections provide a historic opportunity: they might result in the first peaceful handover of power from one elected civilian President to another. However, if the last few years provide any guidance, the elections will not be free and fair and authoritarian backsliding will continue unabated.