Freedom in the World
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A state of emergency remained in effect in the north during 2008, as fighting between the government and Tuareg rebels continued. Separately, former prime minister Hama Amadou was detained in June on embezzlement charges, which some members of the ruling party claimed were politically motivated.
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Niger was governed by a series of one-party and military regimes. 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 was 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 generally free and fair elections, and the MNSD and the CDS won a majority of seats in the National Assembly.
Tandja, the MNSD’s candidate, was reelected in December 2004, and in concurrent legislative elections, four parties joined the MNSD and CDS to secure 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 in the north, the final phase of a 1995 peace accord that ended fighting between ethnic Tuareg and government forces.
In February 2007, new fighting broke out between the government and the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ), a Tuareg rebel group calling for more equitable resource distribution. Some 45 civilians were killed in the violence during the year. Tandja’s government refused to negotiate with the rebels, whom it characterized as bandits and drug traffickers. In August 2007, the government imposed state of emergency in the vast northern Agadez region that was ultimately extended through the end of the 2008. Libyan-led mediation efforts in August 2008 yielded a temporary cessation of hostilities, but clashes resumed in October. Although clashes lessened in frequency by year’s end, the state of emergency remained in effect in the north.
Also during 2008, corruption allegations against former prime minister Hama Amadou created tensions within the MNSD. Amadou had resigned in May 2007 after accusations that government ministers had misused public funds led to a vote of no confidence. In June 2008, legislators revoked Amadou’s immunity from prosecution, and he was arrested three days later on suspicion of embezzlement. He and his supporters within the MNSD argued that the case was designed to prevent him from running for president in 2009, as he was seen as Tandja’s likely successor. In October, three judges in Amadou’s trial were dismissed, forcing it to start again with new judges.
Niger remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and recurrent droughts, floods, and locust invasions increase the fragility of poor rural households. Niger has received debt relief through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, and in March 2008, the government signed a $23 million agreement with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which will fund programs to improve girls’ access to education, reduce corruption, and simplify the process of establishing businesses and accessing land. In June, the government also signed a $5 billion deal with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation to explore for oil and build a refinery and a pipeline in the south, but the agreement was criticized for a lack of transparency. Niger continues to work with the U.S. government on counterterrorism and security programs.
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 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 members of ethnic minorities and nomadic groups in positions of authority.
Corruption is a continuing problem. Although authorities have taken steps to remove or prosecute public officials accused of corruption, some of these actions appear to be politically motivated. Niger was ranked 115 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are often not respected in practice. Authorities regularly use libel laws to silence journalists who criticize the government, and conditions for the independent media deteriorated considerably in 2007 and 2008 due to the government’s attempts to control coverage of the Tuareg rebellion. In March 2008, the High Council for Communication (CSC), Niger’s media regulator, suspended retransmission of Radio France International for three months. This followed the service’s show of solidarity with Moussa Kaka, a correspondent who had been imprisoned since September 2007 for his coverage of the rebels. In April, the CSC indefinitely suspended a key private radio station in the Agadez region, Sahara FM, due to its reporting on possible abuses by Nigerien soldiers. Authorities also closed a press resource center in Niamey in July, claiming that it was under “external” influence, and suspended the private broadcaster Dounia for one month in August, possibly because of its favorable coverage of detained former prime minister Hama Amadou. Several journalists arrested in 2007—including four foreign reporters and Air Info editor Ibrahim Diallo—were released during 2008, and while Moussa Kaka was released in October after his case was dismissed, he still faced a new trial on lesser charges. In addition to government harassment, media workers have encountered physical dangers associated with the insurgency; a landmine blast in the capital killed a radio journalist in January 2008. Although the government does not restrict internet use, less than 1 percent of the population has access to the medium.
Freedom of religion is generally 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 freedoms of assembly and association are largely upheld, but authorities restricted the operations of some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) following the outbreak of fighting with rebels in 2007. In July 2008, the interior minister suspended the activities of Doctors Without Borders without providing a formal reason. In addition, due to a ban on nonmilitary personnel in the Air Mountains region, humanitarian organizations have been forced to distribute assistance through local authorities. Separately, several thousand protesters demonstrated in June 2008 against the rising cost of living and the government’s failure to end the rebel uprising.
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.
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. Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health and sanitary conditions. Amnesty International has reported that soldiers have arbitrarily detained and executed civilians in the Agadez region in retaliation for rebel attacks.
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.
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. Although sexual harassment was criminalized in 2001, domestic violence is reportedly widespread. Female genital mutilation was criminalized in 2003, and perpetrators face up to 20 years in prison. A recent government survey noted a decline in the practice between 1998 and 2006, in part due to advocacy efforts by NGOs. Abortion is prohibited under all circumstances.
Although the government criminalized slavery in 2003, with penalties of up to 30 years in prison, as many as 43,000 people still live in conditions of servitude. According to the U.S. State Department, the government has been slow to raise public awareness of slavery and eliminate the practice. In October 2008, a court associated with the Economic Community of West African States ordered Niger to pay about $19,000 in damages to a former slave, Hadijatou Mani, finding that the authorities had failed to protect him from being sold into slavery as a child. Niger is a source, transit, and destination country for children and women trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. State Department. The government has made efforts to raise public awareness of trafficking and to reduce child trafficking, but legislation proposed in 2006 to criminalize all forms of trafficking has not yet been enacted by the end of 2008.