Freedom in the World
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Niger’s government attempted to introduce reforms in 2006 to improve the country’s social infrastructure, but efforts to raise and collect taxes drew protests from unions and other civic groups. A program aimed at expelling Chadian Arab migrants stoked tensions between Arabs and ethnic Tuareg and Toubou populations.
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, General Ali Seibou transformed Niger into a nominally civilian, one-party state in 1987. International pressure and pro-democracy demonstrations led to the formation of an all-party national conference and the adoption of a new constitution by popular 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 became president in a sham election six months later. Most opposition parties boycotted parliamentary elections in November 1996.
Mainassara was assassinated by members of his presidential guard in April 1999. Following his death, guard commander Major Daouda Mallam Wanke led a transitional government that organized presidential and legislative elections that year. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Mamadou Tandja, supported by the National Movement for a Developing Society (MNSD) and the Democratic and Social Convention (CDS), was elected president in a second round of polling, defeating former president Ousmane. The MNSD and the CDS obtained a majority in the National Assembly, and the elections were deemed credible by international observers.
In July 2004, Niger held nationwide municipal elections. Some 3,700 people were elected to local governments in 265 newly established communes. The ruling MNSD party won the most positions, though opposition parties made significant gains.
In December 2004, Tandja won a second term in office, defeating opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou with 65.5 percent of the vote. In the legislative elections that year, four parties joined the ruling MNSD and the CDS to win 88 of the 113 seats in the National Assembly.
Tandja is credited with returning Niger to relative economic and political stability after years of turbulence, though the country remains at the bottom of the UN’s 2006 Human Development Index. Desert covers about 80 percent of Niger’s land area. Recurrent drought, devastating locust invasions and other chronic difficulties increase the fragility of poor rural households. During the severe 2005 food crisis, the government distributed food aid at subsidized prices that were still higher than most rural residents could afford. Officials initially downplayed the extent of the crisis, blaming opposition parties and others for “politicizing” the issue. Journalists were harassed for criticizing the slow and insufficient response to the famine, which affected a quarter of Niger’s population.
A record harvest in late 2005 improved Niger’s economic outlook, though an estimated 1.8 million people remain vulnerable to food shortages. The government has introduced reforms intended to improve agricultural production, on which the majority of the population depends. Tax revenue is the lowest in the region, but government efforts to raise and collect taxes on basic goods and services faced obstacles from the country’s unions and civic groups, which mounted strikes and demonstrations throughout 2006.
In April, the government passed legislation to make health care free for pregnant women and children under age five and drew up guidelines on the treatment of malnutrition, which affects over 50 percent of the country’s population annually. By year’s end, however, neither the funding nor the infrastructure for these programs had been put in place, even though government expenditures on health care amount to roughly 12 percent of Niger’s gross domestic product, making the country one of the highest spenders on health care in West Africa.
The government in October 2005 began implementing an economic assistance program for Tuareg ex-combatants, the final phase of a peace accord that ended fighting between ethnic Tuareg and government forces across the Sahel region over a decade ago. Niger works closely with the U.S. government on programs intended to promote security and stem the growth of terrorist organizations in the region.
Ethnic tensions flared in October 2006, following the government’s decision to forcibly repatriate thousands of nomadic Mahamid Arabs from Chad, many of whom had fled drought and warfare to settle in eastern Niger beginning in the 1970s. Residents had accused the group of introducing illegal firearms and depleting water supplies and pasture land with their livestock. Hundreds of residents demonstrated peacefully in the regional capital of Diffa after the government suspended the operation and created a commission to review the decision.
Niger is an electoral democracy. Presidential and legislative polls held in 1999 and 2004 were considered to be free and fair. Niger’s president, who is directly elected every five years, chooses the prime minister from a list of three candidates presented by the majority party or coalition in the National Assembly. Members of the unicameral, 113-seat body are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The next presidential and legislative elections will be held in 2009.
There are 24 registered political parties in Niger, and nine are currently represented in the National Assembly. Leaders have made efforts to include minorities, especially members of the northern Tuareg ethnicity, in positions of authority.
Corruption is a continuing problem, though appointments were made to the government’s anticorruption commission in 2005—the first such development since the commission’s creation in 2003. The ministers for health and education were fired in June 2006 after auditors issued a report accusing them of embezzlement and finding that $8 million was missing from a $100 million education fund. Niger was ranked 138 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional protections for free expression were respected more in 2006 than in 2005, when journalists were harassed and detained for reporting on public protests and allegations of corruption. However, several publications were suspended during the year, and a number of journalists were arrested on charges of disseminating false information or defaming the government. In most of these cases, journalists were released with suspended sentences, dropped charges, or appeals pending. As a result, however, self-censorship in the media is common. 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 for the most part, but Muslims are not uniformly tolerant of minority religions. Islam is practiced by 80 percent of the population. Academic freedom is guaranteed in principle but not always observed in practice.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association are generally respected, and most nongovernmental organizations operate openly and publish reports that are often critical of the government. Security forces used force to break up several demonstrations during the year, but did not prevent most groups from demonstrating peacefully in 2006, a marginal improvement from 2005. Teachers and students demonstrated peacefully during the year to protest mismanagement and corruption in the educational system, for example.
Workers have the right to form unions and bargain for wages, although more than 95 percent of the workforce is employed in the nonunion subsistence-agricultural and small trading sectors.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and courts have shown some autonomy in practice. Respect for human rights has generally improved under President Tandja’s government. However, the judiciary is overburdened and subject to executive interference and other outside influence. Corruption is rife, fueled partly by low salaries and inadequate training. Prolonged pretrial detention is common. Police forces are also underresourced and poorly trained. Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health and sanitary conditions, though humanitarian groups have unrestricted access.
Discrimination against ethnic minorities persists, despite constitutional protections. The Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups dominate government and business, although other major ethnic groups are represented at all levels of government.
The government has supported greater representation in the National Assembly by designating eight seats for special constituencies of 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 poor access to government services. Under pressure from human rights groups, the National Assembly in 2003 banned the keeping or trading of slaves, though a system of caste-based servitude is believed to continue. The government has begun to sensitize the population to the trafficking of children and has increased cooperation with its neighbors to limit the practice.
A quota system designed to improve women’s access to appointed and elected office has increased their 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 disputes, 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. Abortion is prohibited.