Since I started this blog, I’ve been mostly silent on the one issue that you’d think I would discuss most: democracy. After all, it’s in the title, and it’s the focus of my internship. I knew my observations of everyday life would hold your attention, and after spending all day reading and writing about democracy at work, I took a personal approach to balance things out. Besides, better to throw stones when you’re on your way out the door. So with the referendum now behind us and my departure two days away, here are a few not-so-flattering observations about Democracy in Niger.
Niger is what political scientists call a semi-authoritarian regime, with a strongman president who cloaks himself in an aura of democracy and fills his proclamations with democratic buzzwords. Elections are largely fraudulent and, in the best case, ask the opinions of a population spread out among tiny villages, largely illiterate and uninformed, and overwhelmingly apathetic towards the national government. With yesterday’s referendum, President Tandja claims to have won a fresh mandate to throw out the constitution, with its fast-approaching term limits.
While foreign governments have recently put time and energy into trying to reinstate Honduras’ deposed president and have Iran’s questionable poll results reconsidered, Niger has hardly registered a blip on the international scene. Weak statements of condemnation and a few vague threats of withheld development aid, that’s about it. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one major reason is that there are only a few big countries really interested in Nigerien affairs.
The big ones, France and China, are interested because of their investments in uranium mining, a hydroelectric dam project, oil exploration, and so on. Such financial motives instill an affinity for continuity and peace, to which the people’s democratic rights become, sadly, an afterthought. Even more devastatingly, Niger’s neighbors have failed to take any action whatsoever, likely because they too are semi-authoritarians and might try similar schemes in the near future.
The ruling party monopolized the campaign in the run-up to the referendum, filling Niamey at least with signs and banners along the lines of “Population Niamey: OUI Massif!” Not one opposition sign or demonstration allowed. Twelve hours after the polls closed, all of the billboards had been replaced with a presidential message, “For your renewed confidence, thank you all!” It is a nice victory message, delivered well before any election results were available. It’s easy to be confident when you make up the results.
Debate now centers on the participation rate. Having justified the referendum on the claim that the Nigerien people were overwhelmingly calling for him to stay on, Tandja needs a high turnout. A low figure would suggest the success of the opposition boycott. The government claims they need more time to determine participation numbers slowed, they say, by Niger’s rainy season. I assure you it’s blazing hot and not a puddle to be seen. But somehow, they already have enough ballots counted to declare a massive YES vote in the “general range” of 95-96%. As several Nigeriens have observed, the stalling gives them more time to falsify an acceptable participation rate.
In any case, we’ll have the official results within a couple of days, bringing the political crisis to an end. The military has apparently sided with Tandja, a former colonel who originally came to power in a coup, rather than staging a coup d’état of their own. Nor is the not-so-democratic opposition likely to overturn this fait accompli.
What keeps this whole debacle from being a major defeat for democracy is that Niger wasn’t really a democracy to begin with. When democracy does arrive, it will come through education, economic development, decentralization, and improved local governance. The current political élites, of whom even the opposition are mostly former and future supporters of those now power, are unlikely to push for genuine reform.
On the positive side, most informed, impartial Nigeriens consider the referendum illegitimate. Tandja will continue to hold power, but he has lost whatever democratic credibility he once held. Perhaps his barefaced autocracy will be an easier target for reform-minded democrats. And most importantly, there has been no violence, Alhamdulillah.