Freedom in the World
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Niger received a downward trend arrow for a crackdown on the opposition, the press, and human rights workers that followed a mutiny in July.
The government of President Mamadou Tandja cracked down on the press and others following an army mutiny in August 2002. The mutineers took civilians and members of the military hostage in a siege that lasted for more than a week. The soldiers demanded improved living conditions, payment of overdue allowances, and the dismissal of the army chief of staff. Authorities detained more than 260 soldiers in connection with the uprising. A handful of journalists and a human rights advocate were also detained. They were accused of violating a presidential decree, issued in connection with the mutiny, that banned the dissemination of information the government considered a threat to national defense.
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 Niger Union of Trade Union Workers, an umbrella organization, 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 reportedly 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 Nigerian Party for Democracy and Socialism and the Rally for Democracy and Progress, won the other 28 seats.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and courts have shown signs of independence. However, the judiciary is occasionally subject to executive interference and other outside influence, is overburdened, and is limited by scant training and resources. Efforts at reform are under way.
Respect for human rights has improved under the government of President Tandja. However, prolonged pretrial detention remains a problem. 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 Niger and publish reports that are often highly critical of the government. However, authorities in September 2002 arrested Bagnou Bonkoukou of the Niger Human Rights League for saying in a radio broadcast that the death toll from the August mutiny was higher than government figures stated. Authorities said Bonkoukou violated a presidential decree that banned dissemination of information regarding the mutiny. A court sentenced him to one year in jail.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association are generally respected. 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. There are several private radio stations, some of which broadcast in local languages. Parliament opened a radio station in 2001 as the Voice of the National Assembly.
The government cracked down on members of the press following the August mutiny. Authorities detained Moussa Kaka, director of the private radio station Saraounia, for 10 hours and Boulama Ligari of the independent Radio Anfani for three days for their coverage of the mutiny. Both were held without charge. Tandja's decree had banned "the propagation of information or allegations likely to be detrimental to the implementation of national defense operations." Media outlets were threatened with suspension or closure if they violated the ban. The decree also stipulated that individuals who disseminated "false information" would be punished. Other journalists were detained earlier in the year for allegedly insulting government officials. The publisher and editor in chief of the satirical weekly Le Canard Dechaine was detained in June and sentenced to eight months in prison on libel charges.
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 80 percent of the population. The government in 2000 banned six fundamentalist-oriented organizations after rioting by Islamic 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 peoples, such as the Tuaregs and many Peul, continue to have less access to governmental services. The country's last serious insurgency, led mainly by minority ethnic Tobou, ended with a peace pact in 1999.
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. Sexual harassment and female genital mutilation were made illegal in 2001.
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.