Niger and the Politics of Praying for Rain

The Horn of Africa is not the only region suffering from the threat of drought. Niger, where like Somalia rains fail in many years, is under close watch:

The desert nation was the epicenter of a severe food crisis last year that put more than 10 million people across the eastern Sahel at risk, including half of Niger’s population.

Irregular rainfall in 2009 led to poor harvests and shortages of water and grazing land for animals.  But Niger is also one of the poorest countries in the world and consistently reports alarming levels of child malnutrition.

This year, although the rains have come – albeit a few weeks late in certain regions – aid workers say approximately 2 million people in Niger are at risk of not having enough food, whether the harvests are good or not.

One of the solutions Niger’s leaders are pursuing might appear silly to outsiders at first glance (though Americans should pause before judging): praying for rain:

Niger’s president Mahamadou Issoufou took part in a national collective prayer Saturday asking for rain.

Several hundred Muslims joined with the president to recite the Koran and ask for rainfall in a televised ceremony at Niamey’s grand mosque led by Sheikh Djabir Ismael, president of the AIN, Niger’s largest Islamic association.

“Let Allah show clemency to our country”, said Sheikh Ismael.

Prayer sessions were held across the country, reported local media, after the government invited Nigeriens to participate.

“Our real worry is for our agriculture, I want you to intensify your prayers”, said Issoufou on Friday, as he was joined by religious leaders in the capital.

I think the prayer rally was far from silly as a political move (and, though I’m focusing on the political here, I do not discount the fact that participants likely hold strong and genuine religious convictions – in other words Issoufou is probably not a cynic). I can think of at least three political messages Issoufou’s participation sent:

  1. Praying for rain acknowledges the problem, a move that in and of itself draws a positive contrast between Issoufou, who only took office in April, and Mamadou Tandja, the country’s last civilian president who was ousted in a military coup in February 2010. At the height of a famine in 2005, Tandja denied that there was anything unusual going on. His stubbornness hurt aid delivery and undoubtedly resulted in preventable deaths. When Issoufou prayed in public on Saturday, he showed Niger and the world that he was ready to engage with the problem.
  2. Praying together with his countrymen could reinforce feelings of national solidarity. Niger faces tremendous problems – an influx of refugees from Libya, enduring poverty, lack of rain, and more – but Issoufou is demonstrating that he, the country’s religious leadership (a key segment of civil society), and ordinary people are “in it together.” He is also modeling the behavior that would be expected of a humble, pious leader.
  3. Praying for rain acknowledges the limits of what the Nigerien state can do alone. Undoubtedly Issoufou’s administration is working to devise and implement solutions to the drought, but the president and the people of Niger know that the state’s reach only extends so far. A tacit admission of these limitations could help manage domestic expectations about what the government can do, and might remind outsiders of the desperate straits Niger is in.

I do not know what Issoufou’s intentions were, of course. Nor am I praising or condemning his participation in the rally. I am simply saying that the event should not be dismissed as frivolous – it has its own religious and political logic, and even some (possibly unintended) political ramifications for Issoufou’s relationship with his people.

Advertisements

Niger, Foreign Aid, and the Dilemma of (Certain) Coups

In 2009, President Mamadou Tandja of Niger decided to change the country’s constitution in order to stay in power. Holding a popular referendum of dubious legitimacy allowed him to make his amendments. By the end of the year it appeared that Tandja would stay in power, like other rulers in Africa and elsewhere, until he was ready to go.

Then, in February 2010, the Nigerien military ousted Tandja in a bloodless coup.

The military had intervened in Niger and permitted or led transitions to democracy before. In 1999, officers overthrew Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who took power in 1996 first in his own coup and then through flawed elections later that year. The 1999 coup was followed by a transition to civilian rule – under Tandja, in fact.

This intervention confirmed the feeling in some quarters in Niger that the military was the guardian or referee of democracy. This idea underlay the 2010 coup, which involved some of the same officers as the 1999 takeover. Revealingly, the coup leaders named their governing body the Conseil suprême pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy). The Council, as many experts expected, led a relatively rapid return to democratic civilian control, with elections taking place in January and March of this year, and a new civilian government headed by President Mahamadou Issoufou entering office in April.

The 2010 coup presented a dilemma to the international community. Was the military a legitimate force in restoring democracy or not? If you answer yes, you’ve redefined democracy to include an element many people would say is inherently anti-democratic. If you answer no, then you will next have to answer what would have happened in Niger without the military coup, and whether it would have been better.

Some Western powers implicitly took sides on this question by engaging the military regime. By May 2010, the World Bank had restored aid to Niger and France was extending de facto recognition to the Supreme Council. As I wrote at the time, “This kind of recognition sends a signal to other would-be coup leaders in Africa and elsewhere: if you conduct the coup and manage the transition in a certain way, the penalties from the outside will be light.”

Other powers defaulted to non-interference. In 2009, both the EU and the US cut aid programs to Niger in response to Tandja’s power grab – and continued to suspend aid during the period of military rule. On June 20 of this year, the EU resumed development aid to Niger. Yesterday the US followed suit. So neither the EU nor the US aided the military government. But I imagine that there were sighs of relief in both Brussels and Washington when policymakers became certain that the coup leaders did intend to cede power to civilians. Brussels and Washington may not have helped the military council, but the council helped Brussels and Washington.

Even this kind of reaction, though it might appear hostile to the idea of coups, sends a signal that coup planners could interpret as tacit acceptance of their actions, at least under certain circumstances. The EU and the US are not, for example, calling for prosecutions of Nigerien officers involved in the coup.

Niger may well remain a civilian democracy from this point forward. But that does not mean that the issue of whether the military can be a referee for democracy has become merely theoretical. It has come up in many cases other than Niger, including in Egypt right now, and it will come up again.

The dilemma has no easy solution, perhaps no solution other than case-by-case, ad hoc policy responses. I am not faulting the decisions of either the World Bank and France on the one hand or the EU and the US on the other. I do think, though, that the relatively tolerant response to the coup in Niger says a great deal about Western powers’ prioritization of stability over democratic ideals. For the West, Tandja was a problem because he undermined democracy, but even more so because he undermined stability. The coup, as an action, may have lain outside the normal range of democratic activity, but its contribution to stability was recognized, even appreciated, by Western powers. I am not so cynical as to think that democratic ideals mean nothing to Western powers. But sometimes leaders honor those values in the breach.

Niger: Tandja Released

Last week I argued that how Niger treats ousted President Mamadou Tandja will help set precedents concerning accountability for former heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa. At the time, Tandja was still languishing in house arrest. Yesterday a court dismissed the corruption charges against him:

Niger’s court of appeals has cleared ousted President Mamadou Tandja of corruption charges and ordered his release from jail.  The court freed the former president who has been held since being ousted by a military coup in February of last year.

In January, Tandja was transferred from house arrest to prison and charged with embezzling millions of dollars of public funds and ignoring a court order to cancel a 2009 constitutional referendum, aimed at expanding his power and extending his mandate.

The appeals court ruled Tuesday in the capital, Niamey. Tandja’s lawyers said all charges had been dropped and he would be released later that day.

He was freed soon after:

Niger’s former president, Mamadou Tandja, has been freed, 14 months after being placed under house arrest, then jailed following a military coup that toppled his government.

On Tuesday night, Tandja was seen leaving the prison in Kollo, 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Niamey, the capital, where he had been transferred after the February, 2010, coup.

The BBC and AFP have more.

What precedent do you think Tandja’s release could set?

Niger, Mamadou Tandja, and the Challenge of Accountability

One of the biggest, though sometimes overlooked, issues in the world today is accountability for former heads of state. These leaders leave the political spotlight, but their deeds continue to haunt their countries, presenting their successors – and the international community – with problems that are not easy to solve. Legal cases involving these figures often drag through courts for months or years. Those in a position to hold former leaders accountable often find themselves unsure of how to deal with these old men accused of terrible crimes, and sometimes find themselves unwilling to navigate the political complexities of staging trials – trials that threaten to open old wounds, implicate active politicians, and undermine the privileges of political authority in general.

These complications help explain why, for example, former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, who was deposed in 1990, has been under various indictments since 2000 but has not yet faced trial. Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, may face trial – and even the death penalty – but there are also reportedly significant political players (namely certain Arab governments) who may pressure the new Egyptian government not to try Mubarak. Cases like these highlight how attempts to hold leaders accountable can quickly become bogged down as different groups struggle to control the process.

With cases like these in the background, Niger now faces important decisions concerning ousted President Mamadou Tandja. Tandja, who was elected to two terms before attempting to bypass constitutional limits and gain a third, was deposed by the military and placed under detention in February 2010. He stands accused of overseeing a regime that embezzled millions. In Niger, a poor country prone to devastating droughts and famines, the theft of public money indirectly means the theft of life. Tandja’s case is serious, and how Niger handles it will have ramifications for issues of accountability in the Sahel, in Africa, and around the world.

The military government that took power from Tandja kept him under house arrest for months. In November, the regional court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ordered the junta to free Tandja, but Niger’s government refused. In December, “The State Court of Niger lifted the former president’s immunity…clearing the way for a prosecution.” In January, a few weeks before the elections that began a democratic transition, the military “moved [Tandja] from house arrest to prison and accused [him] of corruption.”

That’s how matters stood when Niger’s new civilian government took power last month, and now the ball is in their court. Yesterday, AFP reports, Niger’s court of appeals ruled that Tandja should be provisionally released until he faces trial on May 10. But Tandja will stay in prison for the time being. The government, apparently, is unwilling to release him. BBC Hausa gives a slightly different account, writing that the court “exonerated [Tandja] of the crimes he was accused of” but that “the government judge said [releasing Tandja] will not be possible until the court holds another sitting to look into the new case that has been entered regarding Tandja” (my translation, so please offer corrections in the comments if I’ve made mistakes). Whichever account we take, the legal and political complexities are already coming to the fore. How, in other words, will the perceived political needs of the regime (which might include promoting harmony or, alternatively, demonstrating toughness) interact with the intricacies of legal procedure?

Given that Niger had a political transition to complete, and compared with Habré’s legal saga, Tandja’s case is proceeding at a steady pace. But as it comes time to begin a trial or even to pass and carry out a sentence, Niger will confront all the problems involved with accountability. Thus far Niger’s military, and the new civilian government, have won broad acclaim for their handling of the political transition in post-Tandja Niger. How the regime of newly elected President Mahamadou Issoufou handles the matter of Tandja himself will help determine the ultimate meaning, and success, of the transition.

Africa News Roundup: Uganda Elections, Djibouti Protests and Drought, AQIM Hostage Speaks, and More

Uganda: Yesterday President Yoweri Museveni stood for re-election in a contest marked by a “bitter” campaign (video) and “low turnout.” One Ugandan source, as of yesterday afternoon, already projected Museveni as the clear winner.

The New York Times has a photo essay of campaign posters in Kampala.

Djibouti: Protests hit Djibouti yesterday, as “thousands of demonstrators [rallied]…to demand that president Ismail Omar Guelleh resign.”

Guelleh ran without opposition in 2005. One potential challenger this year, Abdourahman Boreh, is supporting the anti-Guelleh demonstrations but currently lives in the UK.

Boreh, 51, said that if he returned to Djibouti he would be put in prison and could be tortured.

“In the wake of events like Tunisia and Egypt the president’s instinct will almost certainly lead him to violence to counter the rising confidence of the demonstrators,” Boreh told the Associated Press news agency.

“What we really want is a peaceful demonstration where the people can express their feelings for freedom, theirfeelings for a democratic transition of the government, because this government has been in power for the last 34 years. The people want change.”

Djibouti is also suffering from drought, part of a larger dry spell affecting East Africa.

Niger: Africa Review reports that former Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja may face trial “for alleged financial crimes.”

Algeria: An Italian woman kidnapped by AQIM releases a statement.

Senegal: Separatists in the Casamance region called this week for a referendum on secession. President Abdoulaye Wade has responded with the idea of “emergency plan” for the region’s economy.

What are you reading today?

Niger Auditor: Ex-President Tandja Stole $128 Million

Reuters:

At least 64 billion CFA francs were stolen from Niger’s state coffers under the government of former President Mamadou Tandja, a spokesman for the state auditor’s office said.

Niger’s junta launched an investigation into potential graft during Tandja’s decade of rule after he was toppled and detained in a military coup in February.

The corruption probe has uncovered hundreds of cases of fraud through bloated government contracts and fake orders with more than 2,000 people implicated, including Tandja, spokesman Gabriel Martin said late on Monday on state radio.

What do you think should happen to Tandja? Should he be tried for corruption? Should he be freed, as some other West African leaders have demanded? Should he remain under house arrest until new civilian leaders take over in Niger?

Niger, Ecowas Wrangle over Mamadou Tandja

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has attempted to exert authority over Niger ever since the country’s constitutional and leadership crisis of summer 2009. Struggles between ECOWAS and Nigerien leaders subsided with the military’s ouster of President Mamadou Tandja this February. Now ECOWAS and Niger are again at odds, this time over the fate of Tandja himself.

Since the coup, the military junta has kept Tandja under house arrest. On Monday, an ECOWAS court ordered Tandja’s release, ruling that his detention violated his rights. ECOWAS officials “called on Niger’s military junta to respect [the] decision.”

AFP reports that Niger’s leaders have different ideas:

Niger rejected a ruling by a West African regional court that it release ousted president Mamadou Tandja from captivity, and will seek a judicial review of the case, a government source said Tuesday.

“Niger’s government will demand a review of the trial, the only possibility it has before the court,” said the source on condition of anonymity.

From this it sounds as though Niamey respects the court’s authority enough to grant it some legitimacy and operate, at least to a limited extent, on the court’s terms. But if Nigerien leaders cannot obtain the legal outcome they want, will they adhere to the court’s original decision?

AFP notes that “the ECOWAS court, based in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, has no power to enforce its rulings.” Undoubtedly the military junta in Niger recognizes this fact as well. If push comes to shove, as it well might, I expect they might hold Tandja until after the transition to civilian rule is complete (April).

ECOWAS has succeeded in constructing regional governance and legal frameworks, but not in translating these institutions’ existence into broad authority in places like Niger. The fact that both civilian autocrats (Tandja) and the current crop of military leaders have defied ECOWAS shows how far the organization has to go before it will have full power over its member states.