Niger will hold general elections on February 21st, with President Mahamadou Issoufou up for re-election to a second term. The outcome will have repercussions for the interplay of security and democracy across the Sahel region. A win by the incumbent will not necessarily mean that democracy is in retreat, but it will indicate that Issoufou’s increasingly tough approach to domestic dissent in Niger does not have immediate electoral consequences.
Issoufou took office in 2011, after a brief interlude of military rule. Since 1993, Niger’s democratic aspirations have followed a zig-zagging trajectory, with three transfers of power from military rulers to civilians (1993, 1999, 2011), three military coups (1996, 1999, and 2010), and the anti-democratic actions of one civilian president, Mamadou Tandja, who overstayed his welcome in 2009 through a flawed constitutional referendum that extended his tenure in office. Tandja’s decision provoked the coup that ultimately brought Issoufou to power: six months after the referendum, military officers bloodlessly removed Tandja’s government and organized new elections. Issoufou, a long-time opposition leader who belonged to the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism won the 2011 elections.
Niger, like many other Francophone African countries—and some other non-Francophone ones, for that matter—operates a two-round electoral system. If no candidate captures a majority in the first round of voting, the presidential election will go to a second round where only the top two vote-earners compete. Such systems encourage a proliferation of candidates and parties, especially in open elections where there is no incumbent. Elections in Francophone West Africa often follow one of three scenarios: If there is no incumbent, the election typically goes to a second round. If there is a popular incumbent or an incumbent facing his first re-election, the incumbent typically wins on the first round. If the incumbent is unpopular or is attempting to overstay his welcome, the election often goes to a second round, and the opposition often successfully unites to defeat the incumbent.
One unintended consequence of the two-round system is that it incentivizes incumbents to prevent their re-election contests from going to a second round. Often, such incumbents know better than anyone how a unified opposition can unseat a sitting president. Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal is one recent example of a candidate who came to power as a long-time opposition leader and triumphed in a second-round upset (2000), and later lost the presidency when he contested as an unpopular incumbent (2012).
In 2011, Niger had an open election, and Issoufou emerged as the leading candidate in the first round, though his score of 36% meant that the contest went to a second round. Issoufou defeated Seyni Oumarou of the National Movement for the Society of Democracy, the party of the ousted Tandja. Issoufou won a convincing victory, 58% to 42%, and took office enjoying a considerable amount of domestic and international goodwill.
Growing Securitization of Niger
Issoufou has won acclaim—some deserved and some exaggerated—for keeping Niger a relative island of stability amid the crises gripping several of its neighbors: Mali, Libya, and Nigeria. Niger has not been completely immune to insecurity under Issoufou: fragments of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb perpetrated major suicide bombings in the northern towns of Arlit and Agadez in May 2013, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has repeatedly attacked Niger’s southeastern Diffa region. Nonetheless, many observers have credited Issoufou with preventing a larger deterioration of stability in the country. When rebels from northern Mali’s Tuareg ethnic group rose up against their government in 2011-2012, Niger’s Tuareg stayed quiet. Some observers credited the difference to Issoufou’s calculated political outreach to Tuareg in northern Niger—outreach that included appointing a Tuareg prime minister.
Issoufou’s presidency has seen an uptick in Western powers’ interest in security cooperation with Niger, and in using Niger as a site from which to attempt to manage insecurity in the Sahel region. Even before Issoufou took office, Niger was part of various counterterrorism initiatives in the Sahel, such as the United States’ Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. Under Issoufou, Niger has become the site of at least two US drone bases. It was Chad, Niger’s relatively stable eastern neighbor, that became the leading provider of combat troops to ground operations against jihadists in Mali (an effort to which Niger also contributed), but Niger joined forces in early 2015 to enter Nigerian territory and dislodge Boko Haram from towns that the sect then controlled. Niger is increasingly seen as an important counterterrorism actor in the Sahel and in Nigeria. International Crisis Group has warned, however, that “an excessive focus on external threats can overshadow important internal dynamics, such as communal tensions, a democratic deficit and the growing marginalisation of poor, rural societies.”
Back home, the rising securitization of the Sahel, and of Niger, has led to a narrowing of Niger’s political and civil society arenas. In May 2015, authorities detained two prominent civil society activists—Moussa Tchangari and Nouhou Arzik—for criticizing the government’s handling of the fight against Boko Haram. In the Diffa Region, the government has repeatedly declared a state of emergency, and concerns have grown about security forces’ treatment of civilians, especially displaced persons. Meanwhile, some Nigeriens have criticized Issoufou for drawing so close to the West; such criticism was a factor in provoking violent protests in January 2015 after Issoufou marched with other world leaders in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
The narrowing of political space is arguably visible in the elections as well. In June 2014, Nigerien authorities arrested Hama Amadou, President of Niger’s National Assembly, on charges of trafficking in babies. Two months later, Amadou fled the country, claiming that the charges against him were politically motivated. When he returned to Niger in November 2015, he was arrested at the airport, his protesting supporters were dispersed by the police, and four journalists covering the crisis were detained. From prison, Amadou has campaigned for the presidency. He has been allowed to register as a candidate for the Democratic Movement of Niger but has been denied bail. If Amadou is innocent of the charges, as many observers presume him to be, then his continued detention appears to be a move by Issoufou to hamstring a major challenger. Other notable politicians are also campaigning for the presidency—Seyni Oumarou, 2011’s runner-up, and former President Mahamane Ousmane—but the advantages of incumbency, and the support Issoufou’s administration still retains among many parts of Niger, may prove decisive.