Niger: Opposition Boycotts, Tuareg Settlement Goes Forward

In Niger, two different political processes are unfolding in two different contexts, both of them potentially expanding the power of President Mamadou Tandja. The political opposition parties are renewing their calls for a boycott of the October 20 parliamentary elections and their calls for international intervention, but do not seem able to halt the regime’s political momentum. Meanwhile, Tuareg rebels have assented to a peace agreement with Mali and Niger. The first case challenges but does not threaten President Mamadou Tandja’s authority, while the second may extend it.

The contrast raises questions about where the real contest over power is carried out. Niamey, the capital, has been the site of the most widely-reported opposition protests (see also here) and, in some senses, the greatest conflict between Tandja and the opposition parties. Many of the arrests carried out against opposition leaders have taken place in Niamey. But does what happens in Niamey reflect the political situation of the country as a whole? Certainly, the opposition parties have support elsewhere, and protests have occurred in other locations. But it seems Tandja does not fear the opposition parties either in electoral terms or in the broader contest over the legitimacy of his regime. That points to the hypothesis that the opposition’s mobilization in urban areas does not really threaten Tandja’s power. Events going forward will of course test that hypothesis.

The Tuareg zones in the northern part of the country are another matter. As Reuters reminds us, the most recent round of Tuareg rebellion against Sahelian governments that began in 2007 has highlighted the lack of government control over the Sahara. The rebellions have also raised fears of terrorist infiltration and widening resource conflict. That’s why this settlement could help Tandja to reassert power in these areas. However, as Reuters also points out, previous peace agreements have fallen through, and as AFP says, dissident rebel groups that did not attend the Qaddhafi-brokered meeting have already promised further attacks. In an illustration of the potential for more violence, just yesterday four workers from the French uranium-mining company Areva were “briefly detained” by unknown gunmen in northern Niger.

Tandja has repeatedly affirmed that he wants to remain in power in order to complete his projects, some of which involve uranium. The (likely) defeat and/or marginalization of the opposition after the elections later this month, along with the (potential) peace with Tuareg rebels, could well open the door to more power and more projects for the president.