On February 18, 2010, gunfire broke out around the Presidential Palace in Niger. According to most recent reports, President Mamadou Tandja and his cabinet are in captivity, and a military group, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (SCRD), has seized power to “make Niger an example of democracy and good governance.”
Niger has been here before. With 85 percent of the population living on less than USD$2 per day, Niger is the lowest-ranked country on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). This landlocked Sahelian country has a long history of political instability, military rule and coup d’etats, two of which took place in the 1990s. After the coup in April 1999, the military leadership quickly moved to undertake democratic elections, bringing President Tandja to power.
This recent political unrest is not all that surprising. As reported by CGD Vice-President Todd Moss, in May 2009, Tandja proposed a referendum to change the constitution and seek a third term. When the courts ruled the referendum illegal, Tandja suspended the constitution, assumed emergency powers, dismissed all the judges and disbanded the parliament. He later went on to win a dubious 92% in a referendum to extend his term and remove term limits.
These actions did not pass unnoticed. Niger was suspended from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union blocked some aid payments. The US also suspended all non-humanitarian aid, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s three-year, $23 million threshold program focusing on corruption reduction and girls’ education (good governance is a condition of eligibility for the MCC).
There are both legal and theoretical reasons for cutting off aid after political instability. Legally, the U.S. State Department is bound to suspend aid if a coup occurs. And democracy, at least in theory, is good for economic development – especially if we look at the human rights abuses and economic meltdowns under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
But reality is quite complex. Whether democracy causes economic development or development causes democracy is a tricky question, and one that has not been definitively answered. We cannot know what Niger would have been like without President Tandja, but its social and economic indicators certainly aren’t much better than they were ten years ago. Malnutrition rates (measured by stunting, or low height-for-age) actually increased between 1999 and 2006, and GDP per capita has remained stagnant. Yet supporters of Tandja claim that he has stabilized the country and brought new investment to the region, citing the 2008 multi-billion dollar oil deal between China and the government.
At this point, though, the debate between democracy and development is an academic one. After drought and pest infestations last year, Niger is currently in the midst of a potential severe food crisis. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) estimates that 2.7 million Nigeriens (18% of the population) are vulnerable to food insecurity. This means that 18% of the population has already started reducing the number of meals per day or consuming lower-quality foods. When I was there in January, entire households had already started migrating to Libya or Nigeria due to lack of food – a key leading indicator of potential famine conditions.
But the current food crisis doesn’t have to become famine. As I explained in 2008, the combination of drought, grain market performance, trade with Nigeria and governmental and NGO responses (or lack thereof) can make the difference between a food crisis and a famine in Niger.
And this is why what donors do next is so important. Prior to recent unrest, donors and international organizations were already developing cash and food-based programs to respond to the current and future food crisis. Many of these programs were provided with and through international and local organizations, including the United Nations and NGOs (Of the nearly $50USD million administered by the US in 2009, most if not all were administered via NGOs). While the State Department is legally bound to cut off aid if a coup is “legally declared”, there is an exception for humanitarian aid. If the military does remove Tandja from power, it will take some time for them to set up elections; in 1999, elections took place six months after the April coup. But the people of Niger can’t wait six months. The U.S., the EU and ECOWAS should continue to engage the new (or old) government on its policy reforms, but they shouldn’t cut humanitarian aid to international organizations and NGOs in the short-term – and especially not before the next harvest in October. The people of Niger cannot wait.