Niger's democratic transition starting off well, but challenges remain

Successful elections signal that Niger's democratic transition is going well, but incoming president Mahamadou Issoufou will face a number of challenges: drought, famine, and Libya fallout, to name a few.

By , Guest blogger

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    A woman casts her vote for president at a polling station in Niamey, Niger on March 12. Voters in Niger chose between two candidates in a presidential runoff, a vote many hope will usher in democracy more than a year after soldiers blasted their way into the presidential palace and kidnapped the elderly president.
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Niger’s transition back to democracy is earning high praise in the international press and is already paving the way toward a normalization of relations between Niger and outside powers like the African Union and the European Union. Niger has conducted successful elections and, with the concession of the losing candidate, is preparing to hand power from the military leadership to newly elected President Mahamadou Issoufou. Issoufou’s high margin of victory and his opponent’s graceful concession will give the new president broad legitimacy and a solid mandate to lead Niger forward.

The people and the leaders of Niger deserve to take a great deal of pride in how the transition has gone. But Issoufou will enter office with tremendous challenges in front of him and the country. His job will not be easy. Here are four areas where he, and all Nigeriens, will face difficult tasks:

1. Famine and Drought

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As desertification continues in the Sahel, countries like Niger have experienced recurring food crises. In 2005 and 2010, thousands of Nigeriens faced starvation. The new government could grapple with mass hunger in the near-term even as it attempts to craft strategies for managing food insecurity in the long term. Food insecurity in turn drives other economic, social, and political problems, displacing populations, undermining state legitimacy, and straining the capacity of relief and aid services. Issoufou is already planning to invest $12.7 billion in “agriculture, infrastructure, energy and other projects to create about 50,000 jobs annually.” Following through on this pledge could help protect Niger from the harsh vicissitudes of Sahelian farming.

2. Fallout from Libya’s Civil War

The ongoing conflict in Libya has greatly affected Niger and will continue to do so. Thousands of refugees have fled Libya into northern Niger. This influx contributes to food shortages and could spark conflicts in communities where the refugees outnumber the permanent residents (Fr). It will be some time before the refugees can resume normal lives, either in post-war Libya or in the Sahel. Additionally, while the issue of sub-Saharan African mercenaries in Libya remains a matter of dispute among analysts, it seems clear that some nationals of Niger, Mali, and Chad have joined the fighting in Libya on Qaddhafi’s side. As Joshua Keating asks, “What happens when the mercenaries return home?”

3. Entrenching Constitutionalism and Democracy

Since 1991, Niger has alternated between military and civilian rule, with the military at times playing the role of “referee” in Nigerien democracy. When former President Mamadou Tandja overstepped constitutional boundaries to extend his time in office in 2009, for example, the military soon came in to oust Tandja and initiate the transition process that is culminating now. While many Nigeriens and some international observers were happy to see the military put an end to Tandja’s power grab, long-term democracy in Niger will demand checks on civilian power that come from the democratic constitutional system itself, not just from soldiers. Issoufou’s actions can either strengthen or weaken this attempt at democracy, and will set the tone for his successors. Other politicians, of course, share in this responsibility.

4. Terrorism

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has perpetrated a number ofkidnappings and murders in the Sahel since 2007, currently holds four staff members of Areva, the mining giant that operates in northern Niger. AQIM’s activities have disrupted Sahelian economies and tourist industries and will likely continue to do so during Issoufou’s time in office. Niger, along with other countries in the region like Mali, Mauritania, and Algeria, confronts tough questions about how best to respond to AQIM and how to coordinate responses among governments. France, the US, Algeria, and others will pressure Issoufou to deal with AQIM forcefully and definitively.

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The challenges Niger faces are serious, but they are not insurmountable. A country that has proven capable of weathering a sustained political transition with dignity will also be capable of meeting these challenges. These tasks now lie with the new president, his team, and the Nigerien population as a whole.

If you think of other challenges or issues Issoufou will have to manage, please let us know in the comments.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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