[This is a guest post from Ibrahim Yahya Ibrahim, a Research Associate with the Sahel Research Group and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida. – Alex]
Continuous Political Tension
On February 21st, Nigeriens voted massively – 67% of registered voters cast their vote – in a ballot that turned out to be Niger’s most controversial election in recent history. Hama Amadou, one of the major contenders, was in prison throughout the electoral process, accused of involvement in a baby trafficking scandal. Given the multiple allegations of electoral fraud, not to mention the boycott of the run-off election on March 20th and the subsequent rejection of the election results by the opposition, the 2016 election appears as a missed opportunity for Nigeriens to resolve in a peaceful and institutional manner the ever-growing political tensions that seem to herald yet another cycle of political instability.
Figure 1: Voters waiting to cast their ballot on February 21st.
It is worth mentioning that Niger is a country with a long history of political instability. The most recent episode started in August of 2013 when President Issoufou, in reaction to a deteriorating climate within the ruling coalition, and threatened with losing the majority in the National Assembly, suggested the formation of a government of national unity, which he invited the main opposition parties to join. But, drawn by the prospect of creating a new coalition that could impose a regime of cohabitation – where Issoufou would remain President while the opposition took control over the government – the opposition decided to decline the offer. A climate of disdain and mistrust emerged between the two camps, each one seeing only conspiracy and sabotage in the other’s actions. In a last-minute struggle, the government managed to divide the opposition coalition and extracted crucial support from opposition breakaways, so that it maintained its parliamentary majority and remained in power.
Following this power struggle, Issoufou’s government adopted an uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the opposition on various issues related to the organization of elections, the so-called crushing of the opposition parties, and the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. In reaction to this rigid and aggressive approach the opposition also adopted an increasingly confrontational attitude that often included the incitation to civil disobedience and fanning of ethnic resentment.
This political tension raised the stakes of the 2016 election. It appears, in fact, as if Niger’s aging political elites, viewing the end of their political careers approaching, have become more aggressive in their fight to conquer or hold on to political power. The growing animosity among the elite contributed to the radicalization of campaign discourse, and pushed the protagonists to use all means possible, including non-conventional ones, in order to secure victory. Resorting to ethno-regionalist arguments to mobilize voters as well as the organization of electoral fraud that included underage voting, vote buying, and rigging of election results, were but some of the radical strategies that politicians on both sides used in order to garner votes.
The perspective of a run-off between Issoufou Mahamadou and Hama Amadou – respectively winners of 48% and 17% of the vote in the first round – temporarily allowed for some relaxation of tension. But on March 17th the coalition of the Opposition for Change in 2016 (Copa 2016) declared that they would “withdraw” from the ongoing electoral process, and called on their supporters to boycott the run-off ballot on March 20th. They took this radical position following the Constitutional Court’s validation of what they deemed the fraudulent results of the first round of the elections. Whether this stance is interpreted as the attitude of “ sore losers,” or the only recourse available to victims of fraud, the boycott announcement certainly set the stage for contestation and a post-election struggle.
The “Coup K.O.” Controversy
One of the major issues of the 2016 election was the controversy around President Issoufou’s campaign slogan of “Coup K.O.” – “knockout” in English – meaning his expectation of an undisputed victory in the first round. Throughout the electoral campaign, Issoufou’s partisans asserted he would win the first round. They pointed out that Issoufou was able to win 36% of the vote in the first round of the 2011 presidential election, and that this came to pass despite fifteen years spent in the opposition (1995 – 2011) and at a time when he was running as the candidate of only his party, the PNDS Tarayya. Now that he was running on behalf of a coalition of 44 parties, and after governing the country for five years and successfully implementing his “Renaissance Niger” program, it was very realistic to forecast his reelection in the first round.
The Coalition of the Opposition for Change (Copa 2016), composed of 17 political parties including Hama Amadou’s Moden FA Lumana Africa, and Seyni Oumarou’s MNSD Nassara viewed the Coup K.O. slogan as “unrealistic and even provocative.” They argued that given Niger’s pluralistic and highly fragmented political party system, no presidential candidate has ever won the elections in the first round, except for Ibrahim Mainassara Baré’s fraudulent victory in 1996. From their perspective, the Coup K.O. slogan was nothing more than a pledge to another electoral fraud, which would only result in chaos for the country.
Figure 2: Coup K.O caricature portraying Issoufou Mahamdou knocking out Niger. Published by the pro-opposition newspaper, Monde d’Aujourdh’hui.
The Coup K.O. slogan thus contributed to exacerbating an already tense political climate between the opposition and the government. The electoral campaign was in fact marked by a series of arrests of members of the oppositions, clashes between the police and partisans of Hama Amadou, and an unprecedented level of verbal violence, particularly on social media. Two days before the elections, Amadou Boubacar Cisse, the spokesperson of Copa 2016, declared that his coalition would reject any result that gave Issoufou the victory in the first round.
Voter Mobilization and the Revival of Ethno-Regionalism
In Niger, political ideology has never been a relevant factor of political mobilization. Party affiliation, however, used to be strong, but is now in decline in favor of sympathy towards, and personal connections with, political candidates. In the absence of these two factors, ethno-regionalist feeling has emerged as one of the most effective means for political mobilization. Political parties’ strongholds correspond, in fact, to the region or city of origin of candidates. Thus in the 2016 elections major candidates such as Mahamane Ousmane, Issoufou Mahamadou, Ibrahim Yacouba, and Hama Amadou each won over 50% of the votes in their region of origin, respectively Zinder, Tahoua, Doutchi and Niamey. This preference is partly based on clientelistic incentives, such as voters’ expectation that their chance of gaining privileged access to state resources is greater if people from their region or ethnic group hold power.
In this election, ethno-regionalism was enhanced by a feeling of empathy vis-à-vis certain candidates who were deemed victims of harassment by the government. Candidates such as Hama Amadou, who ran his campaign from prison, and Mahamane Ousmane, who was ousted from his own CDS Rahama party, largely benefitted from voters’ empathy in their respective fiefdoms. In Zinder, Mahamane Ousmane’s supporters prominently used Hausa proverbs that evoke social obligations to lend support to a victimized relative or friend: naka naka ne komin lalacewarshi (“yours is yours no matter how bad he is; if you reject yours, then who will love/support him?”) or ranar takaici kai ya cire (Anger must be expressed regardless of the consequences), or also Ba aro ba haya, yaw aikin gidanmu muke yi (“No loan no rent, now we are working for our own.”) In their local meaning and contexts, these proverbs convey a sort of ethno-regional chauvinism that had hitherto been latent and in decline.
Ethno-regionalism, however, seems to have been more prevalent in the presidential than in the legislative elections. Regarding the latter, local relations of reciprocity such as attending neighbors’ social ceremonies, helping out people in need, generosity, and other such valued personal traits, tended to override the ethno-regionalist considerations. Thus for example in Zinder, a city that is overwhelmingly Hausa and known for its communitarian support for Mahamane Ousmane, there was nevertheless a strong enthusiasm for ethnically Zarma legislative candidates from Dosso and Tillabery.
Remarkably, religion did not play a significant role in the campaign, except for a few references to the anti-Charlie Hebdo riots that struck the country in January 2015. Religious leaders’ activism in the electoral process was limited to invocations and appeals for peaceful elections. Despite the unprecedented rise of political Islam in the region, it is quite surprising that no religious-based movement similar to the Malian Sabati 2012 or the Mauritanian Tawassoul arose in Niger. Perhaps the popular view of politics as dirty and ungodly, together with the Nigerien government’s assertive management of the religious sphere, have created an unfavorable context for religious leaders to develop political ambitions.
Although the elections took place peacefully and on a globally satisfactory note from the point of view of international observers, there have also been reports of several types of fraud that included underage voting, rigging of election results, and vote buying. While vote buying has remained an effective political tool in Nigerien elections, particularly in rural areas, its effectiveness was in fact declining, as voters had become increasingly aware that, given the way the electoral system operates, they can actually accept money and still vote for the candidate of their choice. But given the high stakes of this election, vote-buyers proved more persuasive, raising the offered amount to a level never reached before in order to try to ensure the voters’ full loyalty. The “cost” of a vote has thus varied significantly. While some people in Zinder apparently accepted to sell their vote in exchange for small amounts of cash – between 1,000 and 2,000 CFA (about $2 to $4) – or for small items such as soap, in Maradi, a closely-contested town, the cost of vote saw an unprecedented inflation, reaching up to 10,000 CFA (about $20) per vote, or a bag of rice.
In other instances, party brokers collected voters’ cards from owners, or managed to get the non-distributed ones from village chiefs or districts leaders, and then re-distributed these to their supporters with ready-made ID cards that allowed them to vote again. This is a preferred procedure for vote buying because the buyers are certain to get the vote. Some people voted several times with different voters and ID cards. In Niamey, another closely contested city, credible information reported people selling their voter cards for up to 20,000 CFA ($40).
Although, the accusations of fraud have been usually directed toward the government, the use of fraudulent practices by all political parties, especially vote-buying, had been in fact more a matter of degree and resources. Many legislative candidates and political brokers from both the ruling and the opposition parties resorted to these strategies in order to garner votes.
A Contested Victory
On March 22nd, the electoral commission announced the results of the run-off. Issoufou Mahamadou came out victorious, winning 92% of the votes. This margin of victory was not surprising, given that the opposition had boycotted the ballot. What was surprising, however, was the 59% participation rate, which contrasts with the low turnout reported by many observers, at least in most urban areas. In a press conference organized on the same day, the Coalition of the Opposition for Change in 2016 reiterated its rejection of the electoral process, as well as of all of the institutions that will result from it. It further declared that it would consider Issoufou’s regime illegitimate starting from April 2nd, the day when Issoufou’s first term comes to an end. Beyond this outcry, the only solution that the Copa 2016 proposes is calling on the international community to help establish a transitional government that will organize new elections. It goes without saying that a transitional government is not on the government’s current agenda. Moreover, in his short victory speech, Issoufou Mahamadou focused on national unity and social cohesion as the only solution to the current crisis. He called upon Nigeriens “to come together, to not waste energy in vain quarrels, to unite in order to construct the nation.”
It is clear that at this moment, government and opposition sit on separate tables and that the gap between their respective proposed solutions is wide. Although a promising diplomatic effort to bring the two parties to the negotiating table is ongoing, for those who hoped to see in these elections the proof of Niger’s democratic maturity, the 2016 elections were a source of great disappointment.