by Nathan Kennedy
Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou must be looking at the turmoil in neighboring Mali with a sense of déjà vu. Not long ago, Niger went through a contentious political transition. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I witnessed the events up close: a constitutional referendum eliminated term limits, a military junta took power promising a return to democracy, and elections were duly held in which Issoufou defeated the former ruling party candidate in April 2011.
Now, regional developments put Niger in a strategic location. Islamic extremist group Boko Haram threatens from Nigeria in the south; Tuareg fighters and migrant workers have returned to Niger from Libya in the north; and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), advances by Tuareg rebels and a coup d’etat have destabilized Mali to the west. Niger itself suffers from a worsening cycle of food insecurity. Despite these challenges, during the first year of Niger’s renewed democracy Issoufou’s government has pursued policies that indicate a nuanced understanding of events and a commitment to democracy. Three issues show Issoufou’s promising democratic credentials.
1) Pro-poor policies
Niger’s cyclical food insecurity threatens to devastate areas that have barely begun to recover from the previous food crisis in 2010. Issoufou’s government has responded quickly, initiating the subsidized sale of food and supporting public appeals by the aid community. Independent of the crisis, the government has raised civil servants’ salaries, showing responsiveness to their longtime demand and indicating that the government appreciates their central role. In addition, the government reduced electricity prices progressively, lowering the rate only for low-kilowatt/hour consumption so that low-income Nigeriens will benefit most.
2) Anti-corruption campaign
Corruption was a major theme of Issoufou’s campaign. Upon taking office, he requested the National Assembly to revoke the immunity of eight of its members, clearing the way for the Ministry of Justice to bring them to trial for misuse of funds. Since six were associated with the former regime, critics accuse Issoufou of targeting political opponents. However, the remaining two MPs are from Issoufou’s party, and other government officials have been fired, including most recently the powerful finance minister. Reactions to these efforts have been forceful, such as when, in early 2012, arsonists destroyed corruption-related files inside the Ministry of Justice. This backlash suggests that certain officials are feeling the squeeze, and is further evidence of Isssoufou’s sincerity in tackling corruption.
3) Managing the fallout from Libya
Niger and Muammar Gaddafi, the former leader of Libya, were closely linked. Gaddafi sponsored the 2009 peace deal between Niger’s Tuareg rebels and its government, and he provided large aid packages to Niger over the past decade. However, during Libya’s civil war, Issoufou’s government took cautious steps away from supporting Gaddafi. Overall, Issoufou has shown dexterity in managing relations with the new Libyan government. Most significantly, Niger has avoided renewed conflict with returning Tuareg fighters, who fought for Gaddafi and now have restarted their armed conflict with neighboring Mali. Issoufou’s naming of a Tuareg prime minister sent a strong signal of engagement, and the government has followed this up with action that has buy-in from former rebel leaders.
The Nigerien government’s actions in these three areas suggest that Issoufou is serious about governance at home and has the potential to become a model leader in West Africa. Niger is already receiving attention from the international community, boasting a new IMF loan and increased EU security cooperation. The sense of optimism is palpable, and both development and military support will likely grow. The latter will receive heavy attention, given Niger’s potential as a buffer against extremism. A stable, secure Niger could have a stabilizing effect on the region and deny AQIM and Boko Haram fertile ground for expansion. The Nigerien military’s reputation for professionalism makes it an attractive partner for Western defense ministries.
However, a word of caution is germane as Issoufou begins his second year in office: democracy isn’t a one-man show. As Issoufou fights corruption in Niger, he may be tempted to consolidate his power and not trust lower-level officials to implement his policies. The international community, too, may be tempted to empower the president to keep extremists out of Niger. Preventing Issoufou’s presidency from becoming too corrupt or insulated requires leadership on many levels within society. When I lived in rural Niger and the capital Niamey, many Nigeriens expressed their respect for strong leaders. But leadership is not limited to the presidency, and Issoufou ought to encourage strong leadership at the community level, within the civil service, and in other political parties. If he succeeds at building an empowered public society, he may just thank himself down the road.
About the Author
Nathan Kennedy is a master's candidate at The Fletcher School studying international development, with an interest in democracy, civil society and education. He works at Conflict Dynamics International, contributing to their governance & peacebuilding efforts around the globe. Three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger has given him a lifelong interest in democracy and development in Niger and in all of Africa.