- Growing divisions within the military and the governing Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) have created an increasingly volatile security environment in Niger as the country approaches presidential and legislative elections on 21 February.
- The elections are likely to spark widespread protests in central Niamey, particularly if irregularities around the voter register remain unresolved or the election goes to a second round.
- In the likely event President Mahamadou Issoufou is re-elected, his next term will witness frequent demonstrations against pervasive corruption and poor living standards, while long-running tensions with the armed forces mean there will remain a risk of a military takeover in the longer term.
The presidential and legislative elections are likely to be closely fought amid a divided ruling party and increasing support for opposition groups. President Mahamadou Issoufou’s Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) expects him to win the election outright in the first round, as the opposition support is spread thinly among 14 candidates, while one of the opposition front-runners, Hama Amadou is in jail on baby-trafficking offences. However, the ruling coalition faces internal divisions that could undermine its ability to mobilise supporters, particularly after former Transport Minister and minor coalition partner Amadou Boubacar Cisse accused Issoufou of seeking to impose himself as the sole ruling coalition election candidate and left the coalition with his UDR-Tabbat party in September 2015. Cisse’s departure, which was followed by an announcement that he would stand in the forthcoming election, drew an angry response from the president’s allies, while also raising the possibility of a split in support among those who had favoured the ruling coalition. PNDS will also face strong opposition from both Seyni Oumarou’s National Movement for Society and Development (MNSD-Nassara) and jailed opposition leader Hama Amadou, who leads the popular Moden-Fa Lumana opposition party.
Persistent military tensions
A more serious threat to stability stems from persistent divisions within the military that have amplified as the volatile election period draws closer. In mid-December 2015, the government claimed to have foiled a coup in Niamey and arrested four senior military officers, including former chief of staff General Salou Souleymane and the commander of the air base in Niamey, Colonel Dan Haoua. The incident was indicative of growing discontent within the military and follows an earlier coup attempt in 2011 that failed to dislodge Issoufou, and another in 2010 that resulted in the ouster of his predecessor Mamadou Tandja. According to the government, the dissidents arrested in Niamey in December were attempting to use the country’s aerial firepower to seize control of the country, while they had also raided the PNDS headquarters in the capital on 14 December, killing one police officer guarding the building.
Despite the unrest, the president retains the support of several key military figures that could mitigate the risk of a coup in the immediate term. Colonel Boulama, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, showed no sign of disloyalty during the latest unrest, while the police and security personnel behind a month-long surveillance programme that led to the arrests, highlighted wider support for the president among the security services. The government has since used the attempted coup as an opportunity to crackdown on disloyal elements within the military, including multiple arrests of soldiers, officers and civilians with links to the opposition. Those figures will likely be replaced by loyalists to the president, reducing the risk of a military coup in 2016. In the longer term however, Issoufou will have to adopt a more conciliatory approach to the military to address grievances with poor conditions in counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel and low pay for the rank and file. Many senior military figures are also frustrated with Issoufou’s authoritarian leadership and feel left out of decision-making amid a perception that they are being marginalised by French military advisors. A failure to respond to these concerns means that the conditions for a military takeover will persist into Issoufou’s next term.
High risk of civil unrest during voting period
Amid this volatile political and security context there is a strong risk of civil unrest during and after the election. Opposition claims that the compilation of the voter register has not been conducted in a transparent manner have proven particularly controversial and, in November 2015, attracted thousands of people to protests in Niamey. The government agreed to an audit of the register in December 2015, but the opposition has since withdrawn from the panel selecting a firm to carry out the review, saying no satisfactory candidate had been found. Questions remain over 300 “ghost” polling stations and 25,000 voters who have been counted twice on the list, and further protests are likely in the aftermath of the vote if the issue is left unresolved.
A second round of voting, triggered in the event that no candidate has secured more than 50 percent in the first round, is provisionally scheduled to take place on 20 March and would elevate tensions between the ruling and opposition parties, substantially increasing the risk of unrest. This could result in huge protests in central Niamey as have been seen on several occasions during Issoufou’s rule, when Amadou in particular, has demonstrated his capacity to amass thousands of supporters in the capital. Previous demonstrations have seen Molotov cocktails thrown at the PNDS headquarters, while disruption around the Gadafawa traffic circle and the Place de la Concertation and Tillabery Road have been common. Unrest in these areas, as well as the use of tear gas and rubber bullets should be anticipated for the duration of the polls.
Civil unrest will continue to be a key characteristic of Issoufou’s next term in office, in the likely event he is re-elected. The PNDS has come under increasing public criticism for corruption, which is believed to be pervasive at the highest levels of government. A lack of rural development and worsening food security have added to grievances over the lack of formal employment opportunities or basic public services. Despite a programme of cash payments to the poorest households, which has been criticised for poor implementation, pressure on farmland is worsening as the birth-rate increases. The extent of discontent was witnessed in late 2015 and early 2016, when a number of anti-government protests and strikes took place, including a transportation strike on 7 January over alleged high petrol prices. Niger’s GDP growth fell to 4.4 percent in 2015, down from 6.9 percent in 2014, a decline largely attributed to the fall in global commodity prices. With living standards expected to continue to fall in 2016 amid this poor economic outlook, protests will likely remain a consistent feature of Issoufou’s next term.