Update on Niger

Stephen DeAngelis

February 24, 2010

I first discussed the country of Niger last April in a post entitled Commodity Economics: Feast or Famine. The post discussed the importance of diversifying national economies. I pointed to Niger as an example of a country that relies too much on a single commodity to keep the country afloat. In that post, I wrote:

“Last year’s [2008] rising oil and natural gas prices created renewed interest in nuclear power, which, in turn, increased interest in uranium. Niger sits on top of one of the world’s richest uranium deposits and the citizens of Niger have begun fighting over who should control it and profit from it. … Profits from the extraction of uranium could work miracles in Niger. However, conflict and corruption, the twin curses of so many resource rich African states, threaten to crush any dreams of a better future. … The battle for control of resources in northern Niger is as much cultural as economic. The nomads who have occupied the land that sits atop the uranium deposits have historically been considered outcasts by those living in the richer agricultural region to the south. Now, however, the lands to the north account for 70 percent of the country’s export earnings; yet, the nomads living there have seen little benefit from profits being made. As the fifth largest producer of uranium in the world, the conflict in Niger over how extraction profits should be used will probably linger for decades (which means profits will probably be consumed by war rather than benefitting the country’s economy).”

A few month’s later (in July) I once again brought up Niger as a negative example of how to run a country. In a post about The Temptation of Power, I wrote:

“Another leader that is making a grab for additional power is Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja [“Niger Senses a Threat to Its Scrap of Democracy,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 13 July 2009]. Nossiter reports:

“Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest President Mamadou Tandja’s slow-moving coup d’état, as his critics call it: his plan to stay beyond the legal limit of two terms in his colonial-era palace, a gleaming oasis of whitewashed order amid dilapidated government buildings and mud-brick houses. In his push for a new constitution that would abolish term limits and give him more power after 10 years as president, Mr. Tandja dissolved a high court that ruled against his bid to remain in office; dismissed a fractious Parliament; took steps to muzzle the press, including shutting down a radio and television station; and arrested opposition leaders.”

The temptation for leaders to stay in power is almost irresistible. Only when institutional safeguards are stronger than the political power of a country’s ruler is democracy safe.”

Ironically, I opened that post by discussing the military overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. It’s ironic because Mamadou Tandja has now also been overthrown in a military coup [“Soldiers Oust President in Coup in Uranium-Rich Niger,” by Cassandra Vinograd and David Gauthier-Villars, Wall Street Journal, 19 February 2010]. Vinograd and Gauthier-Villars report:

“Soldiers staged a coup in the uranium-rich West African nation of Niger, … announcing they had suspended the constitution after seizing President Mamadou Tandja amid a barrage of gunfire. Dressed in military uniform, a spokesman for a group calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy appeared on Niger’s Tele Sahel, … surrounded by fellow members of the armed forces. Without mentioning President Tandja, the spokesman, Col. Abdul Karim Goukoye Karimou, read from a statement saying the constitution and all institutions were suspended in the group’s move to take responsibility and ease political tension in the country. We want Niger ‘to be an example of democracy and governance,’ the colonel said, calling for an end to ‘lies’ and ‘corruption.’ The coup leaders said they had ordered the country’s borders closed and had imposed a curfew.”

It sounds oxymoronic for a military spokesman to declare that force was used in an effort to restore democracy. In this case, however, they may be sincere in their intent. Although the international community remains opposed to military coups, this one was not really much of a surprise. Vinograd and Gauthier-Villars continue:

“‘This didn’t come as a surprise,” Dr. [Adrienne Diop, spokeswoman for the Economic Community of West African States,] said. ‘There has been a crisis for the past six or seven months. We were hoping that there would be a peaceful settlement to dialogue between the opposition and the government, but the community couldn’t bring the parties together through mediation.’ … Mr. Tandja had been in power since 1999, when his election ended a period of coups and rebellions. He was re-elected in 2004 to a second five-year term that was to end in December. But protests arose last year as he moved to extend his grip on power, invoking extraordinary powers to rule by decree after dissolving parliament and the constitutional court, which opposed his plan for a referendum removing term limits. International efforts to stabilize the situation, with the European Union suspending nonhumanitarian aid, failed to halt the deterioration.”

Vinograd and Gauthier-Villars report that “through French state-controlled nuclear-energy company Areva SA, France has a de facto monopoly on Niger’s uranium output. In recent years, however, Niger has tried to open up its uranium-mining industry to other foreign partners, granting mining concessions to companies from China, for example.” The coup appeared to have been relatively blood-free and to have had broad support among Niger’s citizens. President Tandja is reportedly under arrest in a villa next to the presidential palace. In the days following the coup, Niger’s military has continued to insist that they are going to restore democracy to the country [“Niger Junta Gives Assurances on Democracy Plans,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 21 February 2010]. Nossiter reports:

“The military junta that deposed Niger’s longtime leader … sought to assure visiting diplomatic delegations … that it would soon restore democracy, as more signs emerged that the violent overthrow had been widely welcomed in this impoverished West African desert nation. Junta leaders met with representatives from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, telling them that the new government would ‘work with Nigériens of all political leanings,’ said Mohamed Ibn Chambas of the economic community. ‘We received very clear assurances,’ he told reporters. … Crowds of demonstrators … greeted Niger’s new military rulers with outpourings of support in the streets.”

A return to democracy in Niger will be welcomed. Unlike Honduras, however, where the international community unsuccessfully argued that President Zelaya should be returned to power, no one seems to be pressuring the junta in Niger to return President Tandja to power. The reason, of course, is that Tandja was widely perceived as a corrupt and incompetent leader. Niger desperately needs good governance and leaders who place the needs of the country ahead of personal ambitions. With the future of the nuclear power industry looking brighter than it has in decades, Nigérien leaders need to invest uranium profits wisely so that the country’s economy can diversify and its people find hope. Nigérien leaders will also have to heal the rift between the residents in the south and the nomads in the north so that conflict doesn’t derail development plans. It’s way too soon to determine whether the coup will lead to a brighter future. For now, Nossiter reports that life appears “to be returning to normal, with shops reopening and traffic flowing again.” He concludes:

“Niger has endured a succession of coups that did not bring democracy. ‘They are saying they want democracy, but for that one has to see the composition of the junta,’ said Mahaman Tidjani Alou, a political science professor at the University of Niamey. He noted that the most visible members of the junta so far were not among the country’s top military leaders. ‘One has the impression that this is a fringe element,’ he said. ‘The question we are asking is, “What do they want to do with power?”‘ Mr. Alou said. ‘What do the putschists want, who are they? These are the questions that remain absolutely open,’ he said. ‘We are waiting to see what’s going to happen.’ Yet Mr. Tandja’s government remains so negatively marked in the minds of many here that this latest upheaval, despite all the questions attached, appears to be generally seen as a release.”

Nigériens, as well as the rest of the world, will wait with bated breath to see what happens. Hopefully, the country will come together to restore democracy, heal internecine wounds, and start down the road to development.