Freedom in the World
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President Mamadou Tandja won a second and final term in office in the second round of presidential elections in December 2004, which were seen as credible by international and domestic observers. Acute food shortages, which affected as much as one-quarter of the population, and a weak economy posed significant challenges to Niger's government and to the wider international community.
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Niger was governed for 30 years by one-party and military regimes dominated by leaders of the Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups. After 13 years of direct military rule, Niger was transformed in 1987 into a nominally civilian, one-party state under General Ali Seibou. International pressure and prodemocracy demonstrations led by the Niger Union of Trade Union Workers forced Niger's rulers to accede to the Africa-wide trend toward 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. Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara overthrew Ousmane in January 1996 and came to power as a result of fraudulent elections six months later. Parliamentary elections in November 1996 were held in an atmosphere of intense intimidation and were boycotted by most opposition parties.
Mainassara was assassinated by members of his presidential guard in April 1999. The commander of the presidential guard, Major Daouda Mallam Wanke, was appointed head of a transitional government to oversee the drafting of a constitution and the organization of democratic elections. Voters approved a new constitution in July 1999, and presidential and legislative elections were held in November. Supported by the National Movement for a Developing Society (MNSD) and the Democratic and Social Convention (CDS), retired Lieutenant Colonel Mamadou Tandja was elected president in a second round of polling with 60 percent of the vote, defeating former president Ousmane. The MNSD and the CDS obtained a majority in the National Assembly. Both elections were deemed free and fair by international observers.
In July 2004, Niger held nationwide municipal elections as part of its decentralization process. Some 3,700 people were elected to local governments in 265 newly established communes. The ruling MNSD party won more positions than any other political party, though opposition parties made significant gains.
In December 2004, Tandja gained the support of four of his five opponents in the first round of presidential voting to defeat opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou with 65.5 percent of the vote in the second round. In the 2004 legislative elections, four parties joined the ruling MNSD, and the CDS to win 88 of the 113 seats in the National Assembly.
Tandja's victory was largely credited to widespread support for his efforts to return Niger to relative economic and political stability after years of turbulence. However, Niger remains at the bottom of the UN's 2005 Human Development Index. Niger's land mass is dominated by desert, which covers approximately 80 percent of the country. Chronic structural difficulties exposed the exceptional economic fragility of poor rural households in 2005, as revealed by an alarming increase in extreme child malnutrition cases even in parts of Niger not effected by the 2004 drought and locust invasions. The rising cost of basic goods sparked public demonstrations in March 2005, led by the Coalition Against Costly Living.
As likely food shortages loomed in late 2004, appeals made by the United Nations for assistance to Niger went unanswered. The government began distributing food aid in early 2005 at subsidized prices that were still higher than most rural residents could afford, and initially downplayed the extent of the food crisis, blaming opposition parties and others for "politicizing" the issue. Journalists were harassed for criticizing the slow and insufficient response to a crisis that ultimately affected one-quarter of Niger's population. Media images of malnourished children eventually provoked a more robust response from the international community, though the amount of aid has fallen short of meeting the needs of the affected population.
A better harvest is predicted for 2006, and the government has recommitted itself to economic reforms intended to improve agricultural production. Apart from subsistence farming, on which the majority of the population depends, Niger's economy is based mainly on herding and small-scale trading in the informal sector. Uranium is the most important export, but world demand has declined.
The government launched an economic assistance program for Tuareg ex-com-batants in October 2005, the final phase of the decade-old peace accord that ended conflict between ethnic Tuareg and government forces across the Sahel region. In an unusual partnership, the UN-sponsored program is being financed by the United States, France, Belguim, and Libya. Niger works closely with the U.S. government on programs intended to promote security and stem the growth of terrorist organizations across the vast Sahel region.
Citizens of Niger can change their government democratically. Presidential and legislative polls held in 1999 and 2004 were considered to be free and fair. Niger's president is directly elected every five years. The country has a power-sharing presidential system, with the president as head of state and the prime minister as head of government. The president chooses the prime minister from a list of three persons presented by the majority party or coalition in the National Assembly. In 2004, President Mamadou Tandja requested that Prime Minister Hama Amadou remain in the position he has held since 2000. National Assembly members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms in the unicameral, 113-seat legislature.
There are 24 registered parties in Niger, and 9 currently are represented in the National Assembly. Efforts have been made to include minorities, especially northern Tuareg, in positions of authority.
Appointments were made to the government's anticorruption commission in 2005, the first development since the commission's creation in 2003. Several high-level government officials were investigated and charged with corruption in 2005; their cases are pending. Niger was ranked 126 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional protections for free expression are guaranteed, but these rights are not always respected in practice. The government has proposed legislation that would abolish criminal penalties for libel and otherwise strengthen press freedoms. In March 2005, the editor of the weekly journal Alternative was detained after leading protests against price increases in Niamey on behalf of the Coalition Against Costly Living. The journal's radio partner, Alternance FM, was also suspended. Police in the western city of Zinder searched the offices of the privately owned broadcaster Radio Television Tenere (RTT) and confiscated a videocassette containing footage of the March 2005 street demonstrations. In September 2005, the publications director of Echos Express was convicted, fined, and sentenced to a four-month prison term by a court in Agadez for defaming the local governor, whom Echos had criticized in a report on corruption in the distribution of famine aid. The case is on appeal. Security forces arrested independent journalist Abdoulkarim Salifou in November on charges of criminal libel after Salifou published an article that accused the country's treasurer of embezzling funds. Access to the internet is unhindered, though only a small percentage of the population has the means to use it.
Freedom of religion is respected, although Muslims are not uniformly tolerant of the rights of members of minority religions to practice their faith. Islam is practiced by 80 percent of the population. Academic freedom is guaranteed but not always respected.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association are generally respected, and most human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and publish reports that are often critical of the government. Security forces detained leaders of the Coalition Against Costly Living on charges of threatening state security after allegedly using language reminiscent of earlier coup attempts during a radio broadcast on the March 2005 demonstrations. The leaders were released provisionally, and their case is pending.
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.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and courts have shown signs of independence. However, the judiciary is overburdened and subject to executive interference and other outside influence. Efforts at reform are under way, and respect for human rights has improved under Tandja's government. Nevertheless, prolonged pretrial detention is common. Police forces are underresourced and poorly trained, and there were isolated incidents of police abuse, including the reported beating of student demonstrators in the town of Konni in February.
Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health and sanitary conditions; however, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups have unrestricted access to prisons and detention centers. Discrimination against ethnic minorities persists, despite constitutional protections. The Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups dominate government and business, although major ethnic groups are represented at all levels of government.
The government has supported greater minority representation in the National Assembly by designating eight seats for representatives of "special constituencies," specifically ethnic minorities and nomadic populations. Instances of "hate speech" targeted against specific ethnic groups have been investigated and prosecuted by the government.
Nomadic peoples continue to have less access to government services. Under pressure from human rights groups, the National Assembly in 2003 banned the keeping or trading of slaves, though the practice is believed to continue under a system of caste-based servitude. The government has begun to sensitize the population on the trafficking of children and has increased cooperation with its neighbors to limit the practice. In 2005, Niger signed a multilateral cooperation agreement with other countries in the region to combat child trafficking.
A quota system designed to improve women's access to appointed and elected office has increased women's representation at all levels of government. Women continue to suffer extensive societal discrimination, however, 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 rarely allowed to leave their homes without a male escort. Domestic violence against women is reportedly widespread. Sexual harassment and female genital mutilation are criminal offenses.