Niger’s protests are ramping up. Here’s why

On March 11, thousands of protesters descended on Niamey, the capital of Niger. Civil society leaders organized the march to denounce a new finance law they deemed “antisocial” for imposing taxes that they feared would raise living costs for citizens, while subsidizing the country’s utilities companies. Since October, opponents and supporters of the law have taken to the streets.

The official purpose of the law was to increase the taxation rate in order to satisfy criteria for membership in the West African Economic Monetary Union.

But this was just the latest sign of unrest in Niger, where protests have spiked in frequency over the past several years, as the chart below shows.

Why are Niger’s citizens protesting?

La vie chère — the high cost of living — became a recurrent theme of demonstrations after a 19 percent tax on primary commodities was introduced in 2005. According to surveys one of us (Mueller) conducted of Niamey residents in 2011, pocketbook concerns were the most salient grievances in uprisings that precipitated a 2010 coup against President Mamadou Tandja. This finding runs counter to international media portrayals of the 2010 events as a democratic revolution.

Graph shows the number of protests and riots in Niger between 1997 and 2017. Source: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED)
Graph shows the number of protests and riots in Niger between 1997 and 2017. Source: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED)

In the past, social movements have advanced civil liberties in Niger and elsewhere in Africa. Protesting is an alternative source of political accountability in autocracies and weak democracies — where votes do not seem to matter at times.

But protests also stir anxiety and reprisal. In a March 10 declaration, Niger’s religious associations, some of them state-backed, called for a “return to serenity.” They claimed that “marching for or against the 2018 finance law goes against the national interest” and constitutes “antisocial politics.”

Nigerien authorities have grown bolder, imprisoning activists, journalists and opposition leaders for allegedly inciting rebellion. At least 10 people have died at the hands of President Mahamadou Issoufou’s security forces since Issoufou was elected in 2011.

Some protests prove more effective than others

What determines whether protests will lead the state to reform or to repress? Economic crises, for example, often are associated with higher odds that leaders will make political concessions to meet protesters’ demands. Looking to the future, climate change will have devastating effects on Niger’s farmers and pastoralists — and this suggests there will be larger economic protests and more pressure on incumbents to help alleviate these impacts.

Issoufou, however, enjoys a privileged position. In recent years, Niger has emerged as a strategic ally in counterterrorism missions and efforts to stave irregular migration to the European Union. He won a second term in 2016 through elections that U.S. and European officials declared free and fair despite numerous irregularities and an opposition boycott.

It is unlikely that Western donors will hold Issoufou’s administration accountable for violating human rights and the rule of law while he provides an operating base for foreign military personnel fighting violent extremism and human trafficking in the Sahel. Our private conversations with various Western diplomats confirm this assumption.

But continued and uncritical donor funding means Niger’s government has little incentive to engage constructively with the opponents of the finance law — those at the forefront of the current protests. Research by Emily Beaulieu on electoral protests, for instance, shows that a lack of international attention dampens the democratizing potential of protests in the developing world.

The continuing uproar surrounding Niger’s 2018 finance law sets the stage for contentious national elections in 2021. Issoufou has promised to step down when his term ends in 2021 in accordance with the country’s 2010 constitution.

Many regard Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum as Issoufou’s preferred successor. Others doubt the president’s vow to comply with term limits and worry that a constitutional crisis is on the horizon. Lately, word on the street is that Issoufou is positioning his son to succeed him. At this early stage, though, reliable predications are impossible.

Sebastian Elischer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida and the author of “Political Parties in Africa.”
Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College and the author of “Political Protest in Contemporary Africa.”

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