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’s civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the government’s efforts to restrict media coverage of the insurgency in the north, limitations on open debate, and the general climate of instability and violence associated with the insurgency.
After more than a decade of peace, fighting between the government and ethnic Tuareg rebels broke out in 2007. Freedom of expression deteriorated considerably as the government attempted to suppress coverage of the conflict, suspending a privately owned newspaper and arresting several journalists.
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Niger was governed by one-party and military regimes dominated by leaders of the Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups. General Ali Seibou took power in 1987, but his one-party regime yielded to international pressure and prodemocracy demonstrations, and a new constitution was adopted by popular referendum in 1992. Mahamane Ousmane of the Alliance of Forces for Change (AFC) won a five-year term as the country’s first democratically elected president in 1993, but he was overthrown in January 1996 by Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who became president in a sham election six months later.
After members of the presidential guard assassinated Mainassara in April 1999, the guard commander led a transitional government that organized a constitutional referendum in July and competitive elections in November. 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 the polls, which international observers deemed free and fair. The MNSD and the CDS won a majority of seats in the National Assembly.
In Niger’s first-ever municipal elections in July 2004, the MNSD won the majority of seats, but opposition parties made significant gains. Tandja, the MNSD’s candidate, won a second term as president in December. In that month’s legislative elections, four parties joined the MNSD and CDS to win 88 of the National Assembly’s 113 seats.
Tandja was credited with returning Niger to relative economic and political stability after years of turbulence. In October 2005, the government began implementing an economic assistance program for former Tuareg rebels, the final phase of a 1995 peace accord that ended fighting between ethnic Tuareg and government forces. The agreement promised increased development assistance in the north, which is mainly Tuareg in population.
In 2007, fighting broke out between the government and the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ), a Tuareg rebel group calling for more equitable resource distribution. The authorities refused to negotiate with the rebels. Between February and September 2007, as many as 45 soldiers were killed in confrontations with MNJ forces, 2 civilians died in cross fire, and as many as 80 soldiers were abducted. A Chinese employee of a Chinese-owned mining company was abducted by rebels in July, although he was later released, as were many of the captured soldiers. Tandja in August imposed a state of emergency in Niger’s northern region, and it remained in force at year’s end.
Nigerien authorities in 2007 accused the French mining company AREVA, which owns Niger’s two main uranium-production companies, of supporting the MNJ. In July, the government negotiated an increased price for uranium, although it still received only 5.5 percent of the revenues generated by foreign companies. Niger continues to work closely with the U.S. government on counterterrorism and security programs.
In May 2007, Prime Minister Hama Amadou of the MNSD lost a legislative vote of confidence after seven years in office. The vote followed a corruption scandal involving the embezzlement of education funds by government ministers. The new prime minister, the MNSD’s Seyni Oumarou, took office in June.
Niger remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and recurrent droughts, floods, and locust invasions increase the fragility of poor rural households. In July 2007, the European Union granted Niger $111.5 million to fund a five-year rural development program, and in November, the governments of Niger and China signed an assistance agreement worth approximately $5.3 million. Over half of Niger’s 2008 budget, approved in November, was dedicated to poverty alleviation.
Niger is an electoral democracy. Observers considered the national polls held in 1999 and 2004 to be largely free and fair. The president chooses the prime minister from a list of three candidates presented by the majority party or coalition in the unicameral National Assembly. Of the legislature’s 113 members, 105 are elected by proportional representation in eight geographical districts, and 8 are elected by plurality vote in single-member constituencies. All members serve five-year terms.
There are 24 registered political parties in Niger, and 10 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, although the first appointments to an anticorruption commission established in 2003 were made in 2005. The ministers for health and education were fired in June 2006 after auditors accused them of embezzling $8 million from an education fund, provoking the May 2007 no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Amadou, which signaled the opposition’s dissatisfaction with the manner in which the prime minister had responded to the scandal. Nearly a dozen members of the ruling MNSD were arrested in November 2007 for engaging in allegedly corrupt business practices. Niger was ranked 123 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are often not respected in practice. Conditions for the independent media deteriorated considerably in 2007 due to the government’s attempts to control coverage of the conflict in the north. In June, Aïr Info, a private newspaper based in Agadez, was suspended for three months by the Supreme Council for Communications (CSC) over coverage of the MNJ’s activities. Ibrahim Manzo Diallo, the paper’s managing editor, was briefly arrested in July for operating under the name Info Aïr, and he was held again in October on charges of criminal conspiracy. Aïr Info correspondent Daouda Yacouba was arrested in October but released in early November. Separately, Moussa Kaka, director of the private Radio Saraouniya and a correspondent for Radio France International (RFI) and Reporters Without Borders, was threatened in July by an army general for coverage of the rebels. He was then arrested in September and later charged with undermining state authority. The government imposed a one-month ban on the retransmission of RFI in July, and in August, it banned the broadcast of live debates about the MNJ. In October, the CSC warned media outlets that criticism of its actions could endanger their licenses. The government does not restrict internet use, although only a small percentage of the population has access to this medium.
Freedom of religion is mostly respected, but Muslims are not uniformly tolerant of minority religions. Islam is practiced by over 90 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 (NGOs) operate openly and publish reports that are often critical of the government. NGOs faced restrictions on their operations, however, following the outbreak of conflict between government and rebel forces. Since September, MNJ forces have blocked access by humanitarian relief convoys in the north, inhibiting the delivery of supplies, and in October, Nigerian authorities forced Medecins Sans Frontieres to cease operations in the north following hijackings of the group’s vehicles by MNJ forces. However, security forces have been used to break up demonstrations, and in May 2007, some 15 students were severely injured in clashes with security forces during demonstrations against campus living conditions at Niamey University. Nonetheless, groups critical of the government have been allowed to demonstrate peacefully. An October 2007 march by hundreds of journalists protested the recent arrests of their colleagues.
The constitution and other laws guarantee workers the right to join unions and bargain for wages, although over 95 percent of the workforce is employed in subsistence agriculture and small trading. Intermittent strikes by schoolteachers calling for higher salaries began in October 2006 and continued through April 2007.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and courts have shown some autonomy. However, the system is overburdened and subject to executive and other interference. Public prosecutors are supervised by the Ministry of Justice, and the president has the power to appoint judges. Judicial corruption is fueled partly by low salaries and inadequate training. Although respect for human rights has generally improved under President Mamadou Tandja, prolonged pretrial detention is common, and police forces are underfunded and poorly trained. As many as 100 civilians in the north were arrested without charge in 2007, although most were released after the required 48-hour period. Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health and sanitary conditions.
Discrimination against ethnic minorities persists, despite constitutional protections. The Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups dominate government and business, although other major groups are represented at all levels of government. Instances of “hate speech” 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, in 2003 the National Assembly banned the keeping or trading of slaves, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, but a system of caste-based servitude is believed to continue.
A 2002 quota system requiring political parties to allocate 10 percent of their elected positions to women has increased their representation. Women continue to suffer 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 rarely allowed to leave their homes without a male escort. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread. Since the government’s 2001 penal code reform, sexual harassment and female genital mutilation have been considered criminal offenses. Abortion is prohibited under all circumstances.
Niger is a source, transit, and destination country for children and women trafficked for forced labor and sex. The legislature is currently considering legislation to criminalize all forms of human trafficking, which was still pending at year’s end. The government has made efforts to raise public awareness of trafficking, and has increased cooperation with its neighbors to limit the practice.