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Niger experienced economic growth in 2012, largely due to revenues from the country’s extractive industries and higher agricultural production, along with ongoing stability. Nevertheless, the crisis in neighboring Mali led some 60,000 refugees to flee to northern Niger, and insecurity continued in the area, where six aid workers were kidnapped. Meanwhile, floods and cholera claimed 162 lives and left 125,000 homeless.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Niger was governed by a series of one-party and military regimes. Under international and domestic pressure, General Ali Seibou allowed for the adoption of a new constitution by popular referendum in 1992. Mahamane Ousmane of the Alliance of Forces for Change was elected president in 1993, but overthrown in January 1996 by Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who became president in a sham election six months later.
After members of the presidential guard assassinated Maïnassara 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) parties—won the presidency in generally free and fair balloting, and the MNSD and CDS took a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Tandja was reelected in 2004, and in concurrent legislative elections, four parties joined the MNSD and CDS to again secure a majority.
Prime Minister Hama Amadou’s government lost a vote of confidence in 2007, and Amadou was arrested in 2008 on embezzlement charges. In May 2009, Tandja dissolved the National Assembly after lawmakers refused to approve a constitutional referendum that would delay the next presidential election until 2012, expand executive powers, and eliminate executive term limits. Tandja then dissolved the Constitutional Court—after it ruled against the referendum—and announced that he would rule by decree under emergency powers. The controversial constitutional changes were adopted by referendum in August, but observers rejected the results as fraudulent. Later that month, Tandja lifted emergency rule and announced that legislative elections would be held in October. Key opposition parties boycotted the vote, allowing Tandja’s MNSD to capture a majority of seats. The international community denounced the elections.
In February 2010, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), a military junta led by Major Salou Djibo, placed Tandja under house arrest, suspended the constitution, and dissolved all government institutions. The junta appointed a transitional government, which created the National Consultative Council, a 131-member body tasked with drafting a new constitution and electoral code, and a Transition Constitutional Council to replace the Constitutional Court. Djibo remained the de facto head of state. In a referendum held in October 2010, 90 percent of participating voters approved the new constitution.
Presidential, legislative, and municipal elections were held on January 31, 2011. The junta had forbidden its members and representatives of the transitional government from running for office. The Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), led by opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, took the most seats, with 37. The MNSD—led by former prime minister Seini Oumarou—placed second with 26 seats, while Amadou’s Nigerien Democratic Movement for an African Federation took 25. In the first round of the presidential election, Issoufou and Oumarou emerged as the top two candidates; Issoufou claimed victory with 58 percent of the vote in a March runoff election. Both the presidential and legislative elections were declared free and fair by international observers. The PNDS and MNSD won the majority of positions across the country in local elections. In May, the Niamey Court of Appeals ordered that Tandja be released from prison.
Already one of the world’s poorest countries, Niger has been ravaged by extreme food shortages since a 2009 drought. In January 2012, the number of people at risk of food insecurity was estimated at 3 million, with 400,000 children requiring treatment for malnutrition. In September, however, the government announced that agricultural production was higher than had been expected and that the crisis should be alleviated in 2013. Floods and cholera claimed 162 lives in 2012 and left 125,000 people homeless. Economic growth is projected at about 12 percent for 2012, mainly due to the uranium mining and oil industries, although that estimate might be revised downward due to lower than expected oil output.
The crisis in neighboring Mali led to an influx of some 60,000 Malian refugees in 2012, as well as 3,000 returned Nigeriens, raising pressures on food provisions. The government increased the number of troops in the north to avoid a spillover of the conflict and proposed a $2.5 billion development project in the area, although it is unclear whether the government has the necessary funds for the operation. In October, the government signed a Joint Commission for Cooperation with Nigeria against the Islamist militant groups Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Niger is an electoral democracy. In 2011, the transitional government restored democratic civilian rule by holding successful legislative and presidential elections. After the 2010 military coup, former prime minister and presidential hopeful Hama Amadou returned from exile, three former legislators were released from jail, and there was a decrease in harassment of opposition politicians. The 2010 constitution, written in broad consultation with civil society, reinstated executive term limits, curbed executive power, and provided amnesty for members of the CSRD. Under the constitution, the president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms, and members of the 113-seat, unicameral National Assembly serve five-year terms. Since assuming power, President Mahamadou Issoufou has appointed former opponents and members of civil society to high positions in government to foster inclusivity.
Corruption is a serious problem in Niger, and observers have raised concerns regarding uranium-mining contracts. However, the 2010 constitution contains provisions for greater transparency in government reporting of revenues from the extractive industries, as well as the declaration of personal assets by government officials, including the president. In July 2011, the government created the High Authority to Combat Corruption, and it opened an anticorruption hotline in August. Key officials from the previous administration were indicted for fraud and corruption during 2011, and in July, Issoufou was the target of a foiled assassination attempt thought to be motivated by his crackdowns on corruption in the military. Niger was ranked 113 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In 2010, the transitional government made significant efforts to restore freedoms of speech and of the press. In June of that year, the National Assembly adopted a new press law that eliminated prison terms for journalists, and removed the threat of libel cases that journalists had faced under Tandja. In November, Issoufou became the first head of state to sign the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls on African governments to promote press freedom. In 2012, the media were largely allowed to freely publish political facts and critiques. The government does not restrict internet use, though less than one percent of the population has access.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. In the aftermath of the coup, both Muslim and Christian leaders worked with the CSRD to restore peace and democracy. Academic freedom is guaranteed but not always observed in practice.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are largely upheld. The government does not restrict the operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), although a lack of security in the north prevents NGOs from adequately assessing human rights conditions there. 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. In April 2012, workers in the mining and oil industries organized a week-long strike that was peacefully resolved.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and courts have shown some autonomy in the past, though the judicial system has at times been subject to executive interference. The Ministry of Justice supervises public prosecutors, and the president has the power to appoint judges. Judicial corruption is fueled partly by low salaries and inadequate training. Prolonged pretrial detention is common, and police forces are underfunded and poorly trained. Prisons are characterized by overcrowding and poor health conditions.
Insecurity continues to plague the northwest of the country along the Malian border, and several people have been kidnapped in the area by groups such as AQIM. In October 2012, six aid workers were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen; five of the workers were released the following month, though the sixth died from wounds inflicted during the abduction.
Constitutional protections provide for a quota of eight seats in the National Assembly for minorities and the nomadic population, who continue to have poor access to government services.
Under a 2002 quota system, political parties must allocate 10 percent of their elected positions to women. Although the 2010 constitution prohibits gender discrimination, women suffer discrimination in practice. Family law gives women inferior status in property disputes, inheritance rights, and divorce. Sexual and domestic violence are reportedly widespread. Female genital mutilation was criminalized in 2003 but continues.
While slavery was criminalized in 2003 and banned in the 2010 constitution, an estimated 115,000 adults and children still live in conditions of forced labor. Niger remains a source, transit point, and destination for human trafficking. Despite a 2010 antitrafficking law and a five-year antitrafficking plan, investigation and prosecution efforts remained weak in 2012.