The Obama administration has followed the EU’s lead on Niger, expressing concern over the country’s constitutional crisis and imposing penalties on President Mamadou Tandja, who has remained in office despite the term limits that were in place earlier this year. Washington recently suspended $20 million in aid to Niger, and for the first time that I know of President Obama himself has weighed in on the situation:
“America looks forward to the day when Niger can celebrate both the proclamation of the republic and its firm transition to democracy,” Obama said in a message to Tandja ahead of Friday’s 51st anniversary of the founding of the Niger republic.
The administration’s tougher stance toward Niger has won praise from Nigerien civil society groups, but the political atmosphere inside the country remains contentious. Recently, both opposition groups calling for Tandja’s resignation and groups supporting Tandja have staged demonstrations in the capital, Niamey. The president’s supporters also “denounced sanctions imposed on Niger by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)” and “criticised the European Union.” Clashes between opponents and supporters of Tandja have reportedly occurred in other towns. Do these events indicate that Tandja and his people are actively feeding nationalist fervor and violent tendencies among grassroots supporters?
Tandja has been stubborn at many points since the crisis kicked off, but Nigerien opposition leaders say they see signs of political progress. Last week, “a key Niger opposition leader cautiously welcomed Thursday the government’s pledge to drop a legal prosecution against him, calling it a ‘small step’ towards resolving a political crisis.” The administration’s change of heart seems to have come about because of EU and ECOWAS pressure.
Speaking of regional involvement, Liberia’s Inquirer reports that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has completed her report on Niger, where she has helped to lead mediation efforts. What will ECOWAS’s next move be? And will the combined efforts of the EU, ECOWAS, and now the US to pressure Niger bring about a change in Tandja’s behavior? Or will Tandja offer a few concessions (like dropping charges against the opposition leaders) in order to be allowed back into the regional and international fold, but not make any move to give up power? We’ll see – and the answer will say something about the capacity of all three bodies to influence leaders’ political calculations in the region.