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The upcoming Niger election and the drama surrounding it, explained

- February 17, 2016
A picture taken on Feb. 2, 2016 in Niamey shows a campaign poster depicting NIger’s leading opposition candidate in next month’s presidential election Hama Amadou, jailed since November 2015 over his alleged involvement in a baby-trafficking scandal. (Boureima Hama/AFP/Getty Images)

As part of our broader series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a pre-election report for the Feb. 21 vote scheduled in Niger.

Niger will hold concurrent presidential and legislative elections Feb. 21. Although Jan. 30 marked the official start of campaigning for the presidential candidates, drama has surrounded the race for months.

A string of government arrests, including those of five journalists and nine suspected coup plotters, has tested rule of law. Presidential contender Hama Amadou was seized Nov. 14 on charges of baby trafficking. His supporters subsequently joined violent demonstrations and posted a graphic photo of a dead protester on Facebook. Some commenters warned that the photo was a fake meant to smear incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou as he runs for reelection.

Singer Hamsou Garba, who publicly supports Amadou, was just released after spending 10 days in jail. One of Garba’s recent songs critiqued Issoufou’s government and called for him to have the same fate of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who was voted out of office last year. She was accused of inciting civil disobedience.

In January, the Constitutional Court denied bail to Amadou while still confirming his eligibility to run for office. Amadou is now campaigning from prison via proxies. The interim head of his Moden-Fa Lumana party signed a pact with three other opposition leaders to support whichever candidate emerges as the most viable challenger to Issoufou. Amadou backed out of a similar agreement during the election of 2011 to help Issoufou rise to power with 58 percent of the vote in a run-off.

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In all, there are 15 men contesting the presidency. The Constitutional Court deemed four of them “morally inept” for offenses that include chasing after married women. The pretext for investigating moral aptitude was an article in the Constitution requiring the president to be of sound body, mind and morals.

The latest candidate to fall under scrutiny is Adal Ag Rhoubeid, who became a suspect in the Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, terrorist attacks of Jan. 15. Nigerien newspapers rumored that his interrogation involved racial profiling: Rhoubeid is from the Tuareg ethnic group, which has periodically rebelled against the central government in response to political and economic marginalization.

A lack of transparency in the judicial process threatens to reduce public confidence in democratic institutions. The latest Afrobarometer survey data show that while many are satisfied with democracy in Niger, a significant minority are not: A quarter of Nigeriens are unsatisfied or do not think that Niger is a democracy at all.

In a nationally representative survey conducted in October 2015 by the Afrobarometer, Nigeriens were asked, “Overall, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Niger?” (Afrobarometer)

In a nationally representative survey conducted in October 2015 by the Afrobarometer, Nigeriens were asked, “Overall, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Niger?” (Afrobarometer)

A clean Election Day could restore some public confidence, but that too is in question. Worries about electoral violence intensified following an armed attack on the ruling party’s headquarters in December.

Not all threats to a clean election are violent — some are political and logistical. Election monitors have a key role in combatting electoral irregularities, which have often threatened the legitimacy of election outcomes. For example, the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF) ordered the removal of 300 “ghost” polling stations and 25,000 voters listed twice on voter registries. At the same time, civil society leaders are scrambling to make sure that ultra-quick-drying ink is on hand by the time voting begins, so that smudges do not ruin ballots when they are folded. Nigeria, a country with its own problems with election fraud, has supplied many of the materials for Niger’s upcoming elections.

Who will uphold rule of law and ensure electoral transparency in Niger? Distinguished Africanist political scientists Nicolas van de Walle and Michael Bratton have portrayed ordinary citizens as the guardians of democracy in Africa. Others have echoed this view when democratic revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East seemed to portend an “African spring” south of the Sahara.

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But it is unclear to what extent Niger’s citizens can safeguard democracy on their own. Contemporary Nigerien protests best illustrate this point. With a few notable exceptions, the government has been able to enforce bans on public demonstrations. Even when citizens manage to demonstrate, they face state repression. For example, on Feb. 3, police fired tear gas on 10,000 Amadou supporters outside the jailed candidate’s party headquarters in Niamey.

Complicating this idea that citizens can defend democracy is the question of whether doing so is a priority for Nigeriens. In original surveys that I (Mueller) conducted in 2011, even Nigeriens who joined “pro-democracy” protests cared more about economic problems than political ones.

Protests are not unlike elections, which act as blunt tools for would-be democratic revolutionaries.

Official election monitors may be one source of support for citizens motivated to preserve democracy in Niger. Niger’s National Independent Electoral Commission enjoys a strong popular mandate to protect polling stations — especially in areas under siege by Boko Haram.

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International election monitors have also sent help. In addition to the efforts of the OIF, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has committed its resources to a pre-election fact-finding mission that began in December. History shows the involvement of Ecowas monitors is not a thoughtless rubber-stamp of approval — in 2009, Ecowas suspended Niger for electoral irregularities. Ecowas observers also have relatively recent experience in Niger, having provided some of the 2,000 observers who oversaw free and fair elections in 2011.

So far, the government of Niger has largely cooperated with election monitors. This could offer assurance to voters who doubt the health of their country’s democracy.

Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College. Lukas Matthews is a political science student at Macalester College.