Niger held concurrent presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 21. Incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou won the first round just shy of a majority, while challenger Hama Amadou — campaigning from prison under charges of baby trafficking — came in second. Issoufou’s PNDS party won 36 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.
In a runoff election on March 20, Issoufou won a landslide victory, winning 92 percent of the vote. The main reason for Amadou’s loss of support between the first and second rounds was the opposition coalition’s boycott of the polls amid alleged ballot fraud and politically motivated arrests. Amadou refused to suspend his campaign. This was not the first time that he defied his coalition: In the 2011 elections, Amadou backed out of an agreement with several opposition leaders to help his now-rival Issoufou take power.
As the dust from this dramatic campaign season begins to settle, four points are especially worth noting.
1. The major candidates were “recycled” elites. Prominent scholars of African politics Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz note that the turnover of political leadership in Africa is extremely limited. Niger is no exception to this pattern of recycled elites. Of the top four presidential candidates — Issoufou, Amadou, Seyni Oumarou and Mahamane Ousmane — two have served as president, three as prime minister, and all as president of the National Assembly. They have been arrested a combined 13 times. Issoufou’s reelection frustrates Nigeriens who were hoping for turnover, but an Amadou win would not have significantly reshuffled the political elite. The presidency is the only major position that Amadou has not held.
2. Election observers did not guarantee a clean process. The Economic Community of West African States sent a pre-election fact-finding mission and monitoring delegation to Niger in December. The International Organization of the Francophonie oversaw corrections for voters counted twice on registration lists and the removal of 300 “ghost” polling stations. Both missions increased pressure on incumbent leaders to run clean and transparent elections.
However, the opposition Coalition for Change complained about electoral irregularities, including the use of a single ballot for the presidential election but not the legislative election and the “vote by witness” order that the National Independent Electoral Commission issued at the last minute to allow 1.5 million Nigeriens without identification papers to vote as long as two witnesses could positively identify them. Voting in the first round was extended by a day because some polling stations lacked materials. Ballot-counters from the opposition estimate that only 11 percent of the country’s population voted. It is possible that the threat of terrorist attacks was one reason that citizens stayed home. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed four national security officers three days before the runoff.
3. Terrorism is a serious concern, but its threat may also act to unify Nigeriens after the election. Terrorism in Niger has largely external roots. The country suffers incursions from all sides, especially along its southern border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram is attempting to extend an Islamic caliphate. Upon reelection, Issoufou vowed to focus counterterrorism efforts in the south, leaving other frontiers more vulnerable to bombings and kidnappings by AQIM.
There are also concerns that violence could spread from remote border regions to the capital, Niamey, in light of recent attacks on the capitals of Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. Issoufou has cooperated with France and the United States in the war on terror, leading to riots last year by Nigeriens who viewed the alliance as a neo-colonial affront to Islam.
Yet, there is some evidence that external terrorist threats may unite citizens who are otherwise bitterly divided across pro-government and opposition lines. Nationalist sentiment ran high at a rally in the capital last year during which protesters denounced Boko Haram with chants of “All united against Boko Haram” and “Our army, our pride.”
4. Contested elections do not doom democracy in the long term. Democratization in Niger has not been a linear process. Ever since the National Convention of 1991 brought an end to single-party rule, there have been alternating periods of authoritarian backsliding and democratic consolidation.
Take the national elections of 2011 as one example: Former president Mamadou Tandja tried to change the constitution in 2009 to outstay his two-term limit. Soldiers forcibly removed him after mass protests, boding poorly for democracy. To the surprise of many observers, interim military leaders made good on their promise to hold free and fair elections nine months later; democracy was arguably stronger as a result of the “corrective coup.” This experience illustrates how quickly democratic politics can turn around in Niger, for better or for worse.
Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College. Lukas Matthews is a political science student at Macalester College.