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Niger’s democratic transition is good news, but the threat of insurgency remains high

Niger's Independent National Electoral Commission officials sitting in front of laptops and papers with which they compile results of the Presidential election.
Following an inconclusive election in December 2020, Niger’s Independent National Electoral Commission is set for a runoff in February. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the twin problems – poverty and insecurity – that have faced Niger in the past few decades, President Mahamadou Issoufou successfully completed his two-term tenure. In December 2020, the country held the first election to transfer power from one civilian regime to another since independence from France in 1960.

The 27 December election was inconclusive as no candidate got the constitutionally mandated 50% of the vote to emerge as president. A runoff is now scheduled for 21 February.

When President Issoufou assumed power in 2011 (a year after a coup d’etat which led to the removal of Mamadou Tandja), the country was overwhelmed by widespread poverty and insecurity. Persistent agitations came from the Tuareg ethnic groups, stemming from perceived marginalisation and oppression. Issoufou’s first step towards stabilising the country was to appoint Brigi Rafini, a Tuareg leader from Agadez, as prime minister.

Many rebel leaders were appeased with political positions, a gesture which helped stabilise the country and reduce calls for secession. Another boost to the country’s democracy was Issoufou’s decision not to seek a third term but instead organise a free and fair election.

The increase in the number of African incumbent presidents extending or ignoring term limits has been described as reversing democracy.

In addition to achieving relative political stability and entrenching democracy, Niger has grown its GDP during Issoufou’s tenure. GDP grew from $8.7 billion to $12.9 billion between 2011 and 2019, and by 6.3% in 2019. This was achieved through investment in agriculture, which represents about 40% of GDP, as well as the prevention of internal conflicts.

One of the key issues which plagued Niger was trafficking (weapons, humans and drugs). Although this still constitutes a menace, Niger has benefited financially from the European Union in its quest to reduce trafficking. It has been awarded over $840 million since 2011 to help curb the flow of migrants from Africa to Europe through the Sahara. This has helped the country combat trafficking through upgrading security infrastructure.

Landlocked nation surrounded by problematic countries

But despite the efforts of the Nigerien government to attain political stability, economic growth and security, conflict in neighbouring countries has hindered development. Islamist or terrorist groups operate in six of the seven countries that surround Niger (Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mali). Benin is the exception.

Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb – which was formed after the Algerian civil war in the late 1990s – operates along the northern border of Niger with Algeria. The war in Libya also polarised parts of the country’s north-eastern border where Islamic State operates. Boko Haram, formed in Nigeria, operates along Niger’s south-eastern border between Chad and Nigeria. The group claimed responsibility for the massacre of 28 civilians in the town of Toumour in December 2020.

Since 2018, the western parts of the country have also witnessed sporadic attacks orchestrated by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. This group is an affiliate of Islamic State which was formed in Mali but operates in Burkina Faso and along the border with Niger. As the results of the presidential election were being released, terrorists attacked two villages, killing over 100 people.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reveal that insurgent activities have increased in Niger in the past few years. A total of 167 conflict related events resulting in 506 fatalities were recorded in 2018. The numbers grew to 476 conflict related events resulting in 1046 fatalities in 2020. Most events happened around the borders of the country. These data reveal the impact of insecurity on the stability of Niger.

The elections and challenges ahead

Although 30 candidates contested the presidential elections, there are believed to be two front runners. Mohamed Bazoum, the former head of Niger’s interior and foreign ministries, is one. The other is Mahamane Ousmane, Niger’s fourth president, who held office between 1993 and 1996 before being removed in a military coup. Since no candidate was able to garner 50% of the votes in the first round of elections (Bazoum got 39.33% and Ousmane got 17%), runoff elections have been scheduled for February 2021.

The three key issues which have dominated the presidential campaigns are insecurity, poverty and corruption. Despite the progress recorded by the incumbent president in the past nine years, the World Bank states that poverty remains high: 41.4% of the population lived in extreme poverty in 2019.

Since the runoff elections will be between two popular figures in the country, intense political calculations are expected.

One key issue which is likely to be prominent in the build up to the runoff election is the ability of the candidates to sustain the balance of power. This has been essential in keeping Niger relatively stable since 2011.

While the prospect of a peaceful democratic transition in Niger is welcome in the country and across the region, the eventual winner faces an uphill task to surmount the twin problems of insecurity and poverty.

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