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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 80-87

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Francophone Africa in Flux

Niger Gets Back On Track

John Uniack Davis

Aboubacar B. Kossomi

The recent crisis in Côte d'Ivoire draws attention to the fact that the era of military meddling in African politics is not over. Nevertheless, there are cases on the continent that give reason for optimism regarding the prospects for democracy in countries where military rule was previously the norm. A particularly good case in point is the Republic of Niger.

In the face of great odds, Niger's people are well into the second year of a promising democratic transition. Although the country has few so-called prerequisites to democracy, its elites are slowly going about the business of righting their political ship and getting their economy in order. The country's democratic advances and setbacks since its National Conference in 1990 are emblematic of the fragility of democratic rule in many African states. In fact, the Nigerien case illustrates some of the most important issues currently facing students of African politics and democratic theory, and Niger's experience can thus be instructive in examining other countries in West Africa. Yet this fragile transition has received insufficient attention from either practitioners or academics.

As the second poorest country in the world, Niger poses particular problems for advocates of democracy. While purveyors of the argument of economic prerequisites to democracy have largely been refuted, there is no doubt that democracy faces an uphill battle in situations of great poverty, low education, and the like. Niger's daunting challenges include some of the world's highest rates of infant and child mortality, maternal mortality, fertility, and malnutrition. School attendance rates (particularly for girls), literacy, and per-capita income are among the lowest anywhere. 1 [End Page 80]

Niger's political fortunes are played out in a vast, sparsely populated area on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The country's arable land is limited to a strip not much more than 100 kilometers wide along its southern border with Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria. Even in that southern strip, where the majority of the population lives, much of the land has been stretched to the limit of its productive potential and the food supply is uncertain. Eighty percent of Niger's people live in rural areas and make their living primarily through agriculture and raising livestock. The precariousness of their existence is underscored by this year's severe food crisis.

This fragile ecological zone is inhabited by a population that is over 90 percent Muslim but includes a diverse array of ethnolinguistic groups. At least half of Niger's people are Hausa, and about a quarter are Songhai/Zarma. The remainder are primarily Peuls, Tuaregs, and Kanuris, and there are also very small Toubou, Arab, and Gourmantché minorities. While Niger has been spared the levels of ethnic hostility seen in many other countries, some Nigeriens resent the Zarmas for their perceived domination of both the colonial and postcolonial administrations. There has also been conflict between traditionally nomadic groups (such as the Tuaregs in the north and the Toubous in the east) and sedentary groups from the south. These simmering tensions have periodically boiled over into armed rebellions, which have generally taken the form of wars of attrition that are more damaging to national unity than to lives or property on any large scale. 2

A Turbulent Political History

In addition to its development challenges and diverse ethnic makeup, Niger has had a turbulent political history. 3 The period of French colonization was hardly a model of democratic rule, and at independence in 1960, President Hamani Diori and his Rassemblement Démocratique Africain inherited a precarious political situation. Diori's rule was thus characterized by a preoccupation with consolidating his fragile grip on power and a neglect of the social and economic challenges facing the country. Perceptions of Diori's lack of effective leadership during the devastating sahelian drought of 1973-74 led to a military coup by Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché in April 1974. Kountch&eacute...