Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Niger received an upward trend arrow due to the government's continued efforts at democratic reform, including making steps to improve the rights of women.
The government of President Mamadou Tandja reformed Niger's penal code in 2001, making sexual harassment and performing female genital mutilation crimes. It also pledged to make labor sector reforms. Security forces clashed with demonstrators several times during the year as university students demanded payment of scholarship arrears and improvements in their living conditions. The violence prompted authorities to close Niger's only university in February. A dozen students in April were charged with murder stemming from unrest in February that left two dozen injured and one gendarme dead. Authorities in May banned a demonstration demanding the reopening of the university. Classes later resumed. The government in March survived a no-confidence motion over its handling of the student unrest.
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Niger was governed for 30 years by one-party and military regimes dominated by leaders of Hausa or Djerma ethnicity. After 13 years of direct military rule, Niger was transformed into a nominally civilian, one-party state in 1987 under General Ali Seibou. International pressure and pro-democracy demonstrations led by the umbrella organization Niger Union of Trade Union Workers forced Niger's rulers to accede to the Africa-wide trend towards democratization in 1990. An all-party national conference drafted a new constitution that was adopted in a national referendum in 1992.
Mahamane Ousmane, of the Alliance of Forces for Change, won a five-year term as the country's first democratically elected president in 1993 in elections deemed free and fair. General Ibrahim Bare Mainassara overthrew Ousmane in 1996 and won fraudulent elections later that year. Mainassara was assassinated in April 1999 by members of the presidential guard. The head of the guard led a transitional government that held a constitutional referendum and elections that year.
Niger is struggling to implement unpopular structural reforms. The economy is based mainly on subsistence farming, small trading, herding, and informal markets. Uranium is the most important export, but world demand has declined.
The people of Niger have had two chances, in 1993 and 1999, to change their leaders democratically. The July 1996 presidential election that followed the January 1996 military coup was held under a revised constitution and was not deemed free or fair by independent observers. Polls in 1999 were considered free and fair. Mamadou Tandja won the runoff with 60 percent of the vote.
Parliamentary elections in November 1996 were held in an atmosphere of intense intimidation and were boycotted by most opposition parties. In 1999, Tandja's party, the National Movement for the Development of Society, and its partner, the Democratic and Social Convention, achieved a two-thirds majority in the national assembly by winning 55 of the 83 seats. The other coalition, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism and the Rally for Democracy and Progress, won the other 28 seats.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but it is subject to executive interference, is overburdened, and is limited by scant training and resources. Efforts at reform are underway. Family and business ties can influence lower courts. The supreme court on occasion has asserted its independence.
Respect for human rights has improved under the government of President Tandja. However, pretrial detention remains a problem, and detainees are often held for months or years without trial. Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health and sanitary conditions. The International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups have unrestricted access to prisons and detention centers. Human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and freely in the country, and publish reports that are often highly critical of the government.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association are generally respected. Political parties formed on religious, ethnic, or regional bases are barred. Constitutional protections for free expression are guaranteed, but these rights are not always guaranteed in practice. Criminal penalties are exacted for violations such as slander. A government newspaper and at least a dozen private publications circulate; some of them are loosely affiliated with political parties. There are several private radio stations, some of which broadcast in local languages. Parliament opened a radio station in April 2001 as the Voice of the National Assembly. Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres in October protested against the sentencing of the publishing director of Le Canard Enchaine, Abdoulaye Tiemogo, to six months imprisonment for slander. Mauritanian journalists in December protested the adoption of a new tax bill that they said would effectively silent many independent newspapers that could not afford higher taxes.
Freedom of religion is respected, although, at times, Muslims have not been tolerant of the rights of minority religions to practice their faith. Islam is practiced by more than 90 percent of the population. The government in 2000 banned six fundamentalist-oriented organizations following rioting by fundamentalist groups. Discrimination against ethnic minorities persists, despite constitutional protections. The Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups dominate government and business. Tandja is the country's first president who is from neither group. Nomadic people, such as the Tuaregs and many Peul, continue to have less access to government services. The Mainassara regime in 1999 forged a peace pact with the Democratic Revolutionary United Front, which is composed mostly of minority ethnic Tobou people in southeastern Niger, ending the country's last serious insurgency.
Women suffer extensive societal discrimination, especially in rural areas. Family law gives women inferior status in property, inheritance rights, and divorce. In the east, some women among the Hausa and Peul ethnic groups are cloistered and may leave their homes only if escorted by a male and usually only after dark. Domestic violence against women is reportedly widespread. Several women's rights organizations operate in the country. Amendments to the penal code in 2001 made sexual harassment and performing female genital mutilation illegal. Niger's workers have the right to form unions and bargain for wages, although more than 95 percent of the workforce is employed in the nonunionized subsistence agricultural and small trading sectors.