Freedom in the World
In early 2011, Niger held successful legislative and presidential elections that brought longtime opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou and his Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism to power. The international community declared the elections free and fair, and Niger experienced a significant democratic transition after a military coup had overthrown former president Mamadou Tandja in February 2010.
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Niger was governed by a series of one-party and military regimes. General Ali Seibou took power in 1987, but his one-party regime yielded to international pressure and prodemocracy demonstrations, and a new constitution was adopted by popular referendum in 1992. Mahamane Ousmane of the Alliance of Forces for Change was elected president in 1993, but overthrown in January 1996 by Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who became president in a sham election six months later.
After members of the presidential guard assassinated Maïnassara in April 1999, the guard commander led a transitional government that organized a constitutional referendum in July and competitive elections in November. Retired lieutenant colonel Mamadou Tandja—supported by the National Movement for a Developing Society (MNSD) and the Democratic and Social Convention (CDS) parties—won the presidency in the generally free and fair balloting, and the MNSD and CDS took a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Tandja was reelected in 2004, and in concurrent legislative elections, four parties joined the MNSD and CDS to again secure a majority.
The next few years saw increased tension within the MNSD. Prime Minister Hama Amadou’s government lost a vote of confidence in 2007, and he was arrested in 2008 on embezzlement charges. In May 2009, Tandja dissolved the National Assembly after lawmakers refused to approve a constitutional referendum that would delay the next presidential election until 2012, expand executive powers, and eliminate executive term limits. Tandja then dissolved the Constitutional Court—after it ruled against the referendum—and announced that he would rule by decree under emergency powers. The controversial constitutional changes were adopted by referendum in August, but observers rejected the results as fraudulent. Later that month, Tandja lifted emergency rule and announced that legislative elections to replace the dissolved National Assembly would be held in October. Key opposition parties boycotted the vote, allowing Tandja’s MNSD to capture a majority. The elections were denounced by the international community, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Niger.
In February 2010, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), a military junta led by Major Salou Djibo, placed Tandja under house arrest, suspended the constitution, and dissolved all government institutions. The junta appointed a transitional government, which created the National Consultative Council, a 131-member body tasked with drafting a new constitution and electoral code, and a Transition Constitutional Council to replace the Constitutional Court. Despite these institutional advances and the designation of a civilian prime minister, Djibo remained the de facto head of state without any genuine checks on his power. In a referendum held in October 2010, 90 percent of participating voters approved the new constitution, amid a turnout of approximately 52 percent.
Presidential, legislative, and municipal elections were held on January 31, 2011. The junta had forbidden its members and representatives of the transitional government from running for office. In the 113-seat National Assembly, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), led by longtime opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, took the most seats, with 37. The MNSD—led by former prime minister Seini Oumarou—placed second with 26 seats, while Amadou’s Nigerien Democratic Movement for an African Federation (MDN) took 25.
In the first round of the presidential election, Issoufou and Oumarou emerged as the top two candidates, winning 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Amadou, who placed third with 20 percent, later declared his support for Issoufou. Issoufou claimed victory with 58 percent of the vote in a March runoff election. Both the presidential and legislative elections were declared free and fair by international observers, despite minor administrative problems. In the local elections, the PNDS and MNSD won the majority of positions across the country. In May, the Niamey Court of Appeals ordered that Tandja be released from prison.
Already one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, Niger has been ravaged by extreme food shortages since the 2009–10 drought. In January 2011, the United Nations warned of an impending food crisis in Niger, where acute malnutrition is already rampant. By the end of the year, the United Nations reported that over half of all villages in Niger were in a food crisis, while the World Food Programme urged greater international assistance for the approximately 1 million people at risk. As of 2011, the United States and other donors were supplying humanitarian and non-humanitarian assistance to Niger, the latter having been suspended since 2009.
Niger is an electoral democracy. In 2011, the transitional government fulfilled its promise to restore democratic civilian rule by holding successful legislative and presidential elections. After the 2010 military coup, former prime minister and presidential hopeful Hama Amadou returned from exile, three former legislators were released from jail, and there was a decrease in harassment of opposition politicians. The 2010 constitution, written in broad consultation with civil society, reinstated executive term limits, curbed executive power, and provided amnesty for members of the CSRD. Under the constitution, the president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms, and members of the 113-seat, unicameral National Assembly serve five-year terms. Since assuming power, President Mahamadou Issoufou has appointed former opponents and members of civil society to high positions in government to foster inclusivity.
Corruption is a serious problem in Niger, and observers have raised transparency concerns regarding uranium mining contracts. However, the 2010 constitution contains provisions for greater transparency in government reporting of revenues from the extractive industries, as well as the declaration of personal assets by government officials, including the president. The transitional government created various institutions to prosecute corruption, including the State Audit Court and the Commission on Economic, Financial, and Fiscal Crime. In July 2011, the government created the High Authority to Combat Corruption, and it opened an anticorruption hotline in August. In addition, key officials from the previous administration were indicted for fraud and corruption during the year. In July, Issoufou was the target of a foiled assassination attempt thought to be motivated by his crackdowns on corruption in the military. Niger was ranked 134 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In 2010, the transitional government made significant efforts to restore freedoms of speech and of the press. In June, the National Assembly adopted a new press law that eliminated prison terms for journalists, and removed the threat of libel cases that journalists had faced under Tandja. In 2011, the media were praised for their positive role in the elections, and both state and private media were largely allowed to freely publish both political facts and critiques. Under Issoufou, the Niger Independent Monitoring Centre for Media Ethics and Conduct, a self-regulatory body, is active. In November, Issoufou became the first head of state to sign the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls on African governments to promote press freedom. The government does not restrict internet use, though less than 1 percent of the population has access.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. In the aftermath of the coup, both Muslim and Christian leaders worked with the CSRD to restore peace and democracy. Academic freedom is guaranteed in principle but not always observed in practice.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are largely upheld. The government generally does not restrict the operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), although a lack of security in the north prevents NGOs from adequately assessing human rights conditions there. The constitution and other laws guarantee workers the right to join unions and bargain for wages, although over 95 percent of the workforce is employed in subsistence agriculture and small trading.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and courts have shown some autonomy in the past, though the overburdened judicial system has been at times been subject to executive interference. The Ministry of Justice supervises public prosecutors, and the president has the power to appoint judges. Judicial corruption is fueled partly by low salaries and inadequate training. Prolonged pretrial detention is common, and police forces are underfunded and poorly trained. Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health conditions.
Insecurity continues to plague the northwest of the country along the Malian border. In January 2011, two French nationals were abducted from Niamey and killed along the Malian border; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility.
Constitutional protections provide for a quota of eight seats in the National Assembly for the nomadic population and minorities. Nomadic peoples continue to have poor access to government services.
Under a 2002 quota system, political parties must allocate 10 percent of their elected positions to women, which has increased their representation. Although the 2010 constitution prohibits gender discrimination, women continue to suffer discrimination in practice, especially in rural areas. Family law gives women inferior status in property disputes, inheritance rights, and divorce. Sexual and domestic violence are reportedly widespread. Female genital mutilation was criminalized in 2003 but still continues.
While slavery was criminalized in 2003 and banned in the 2010 constitution, an estimated 115,000 adults and children still live in conditions of forced labor. Niger remains a source, transit point, and destination for human trafficking. In December 2010, the country adopted its first anti-trafficking law and developed a five-year anti-trafficking plan, but investigation and prosecution efforts remained weak in 2011.