This week, Niger’s constitutional court certified the results of last month’s parliamentary elections, which occurred in a context of domestic dissent and regional outcry that began with President Mamadou Tandja’s successful bid this summer to extend his tenure in office. Prior to the elections, which drew condemnation from other countries in the region, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Niger, prompting a diplomatic offensive Tandja’s team.
Now regional powers are taking a strong interest in resolving Niger’s political crisis. Nigeria is playing a central role. On Monday, former Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar began leading ECOWAS talks with Tandja’s representatives in Abuja, Nigeria. ECOWAS is taking a cautious approach and attempting to remain even-handed; yesterday, Abdusalami met with a delegation of high-profile members of Niger’s opposition. The EU backs ECOWAS efforts on Niger and a parallel effort on Guinea, and has suspended much of its aid to Niger.
Nigerian President Musa Yar’Adua, who is also the current ECOWAS chairman, is said to favor a “carrot-and-stick” approach to Niger. The linked author expands on this strategy and the challenges that remain:
Several times, Yar’Adua government has attempted to spearhead talks between the government of Niger and the political opposition. But, he has met with failure, principally, because Mr. Tandja has so far refused to shift his position on any of the key issues.
The understanding seems to be, this time around, that negotiations will work, if backed by sanctions. That probably explains why ECOWAS has set the ball rolling, so to speak, by suspending Niger from its ranks. Mr. Tandja can be made to climb down from the high tree he’s flown onto, if a degree of those sanctions is economic. A travel ban on members of his government, plus an asset freeze may also help to cow the president and his supporters.
But, the efforts must be concerted, if they are to bear fruit. On their own, neither ECOWAS nor the A.U. can make much happen, without wholehearted commitment from both the E.U. and the U.N. They are the ones with the real political and economic muscle.
Also, Niger’s military has to be brought into the equation, because, to a large extent, the military leadership hold the key to a solution. If every kind of military aid to Niger was cut off, the backers of the 72-year-old president in the armed forces would begin to think twice.
The opposition themselves need to close ranks by acting as one. But, most importantly, it would seed that the best option on the table should be to encourage both sides to settle for a government of national unity, ahead of elections that are fair, credible and transparent. Before that, political reform must happen.
In terms of bilateral Niger-Nigeria relations, it’s not clear how big of a stick Yar’Adua will wield against his neighbor. A recent border closure between the two countries hinted at a stiffer Nigerian policy toward Niger, but the reasons for the closure were not made explicit, so perhaps I’m reading too much into it.
The other country in the region with a potentially significant role in the crisis is Liberia. Xinhua reports that Tandja asked President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for help in finding a resolution. What that request means I’m not sure. If nothing else, I think we can say that Tandja wants good relations with other countries in the region, which opens the possibility that regional pressure will lead to a resolution. On the other hand, Tandja has fought hard to remain in power and will be unlikely to step down. Does resolving the crisis therefore mean other demands will take center stage – some kind of power-sharing agreement, perhaps, rather than a total political alternation? We’ll see where these talks in Abuja go.