Niger Election Marks Return to Civilian Rule Amid Kidnappings

Niger holds elections on Jan. 31 to choose a new president and parliament and re-establish civilian rule as an al-Qaeda-linked group steps up attacks in Africa’s biggest uranium producer.

The elections are being held by the military, which ousted Mamadou Tandja as president in February after he tried to change the constitution and abolish term limits to extend his 11-year rule. It was the West African country’s third army-led takeover since 1996.

“This election is not just a test for the military, it is a test for the Nigerien political class,” said Paul Melly, an Africa researcher at London-based Chatham House, in a Jan. 25 phone interview. “Once the election is over, can they make a functioning pluralist system work?”

A constitutional referendum approved by voters in October restored term limits and will force the government to publish figures for the country’s oil and mining revenue. Areva SA, the world’s largest supplier of nuclear equipment and services, mined 2,296 metric tons of uranium from Niger in 2009.

Seven people including an employee and five sub-contractors of the company were kidnapped on Sept. 16 in the northern mining city of Arlit by suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group was also responsible for kidnapping two French nationals from a restaurant in the capital, Niamey, on Jan. 7, according to the French defense ministry.

‘No-Man’s Land’

The attacks threaten to hinder investment in the nation of 16 million, which ranks third last in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index listing of 169 countries. Only the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe are ranked lower.

“It is neither conceivable nor acceptable that our country become a no-man’s land that grows crime, trafficking and terrorism,” said Hama Amadou, a 60-year-old candidate and former prime minister, during a debate broadcast by state-owned Tele Sahel on Jan. 17.

Amadou, along with Seini Oumarou, the 60-year-old candidate for Tandja’s Mouvement National pour la Societe de Developpement, and opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, a 58-year-old French-trained mining engineer and former prime minister, are among the front-runners, with a second round between the top two vote-winners likely.

Issoufou and Amadou are members of the Alliance for National Reconciliation who, along with five other opposition contenders, announced Jan. 25 that they would unite behind a single candidate should the poll go to a run-off, currently slated for March 12.

Poor and Illiterate

All three leading candidates have promised to improve education and bolster agriculture in a country where just 15 percent of women are literate and 82 percent of the population relies on farming and animal herding, according to data from the World Food Programme and the CIA’s World Fact Book.

Niger is also recovering from a drought in 2009-10 that put about 7 million at risk of starvation, the WFP said in May.

“I will vote for an honest president, a president who will protect public assets and redistribute wealth equitably,” said Santou Douramane, a 54-year-old vegetable seller in Niamey’s Petit Marche market in a Jan. 25 interview. “Our country must avoid coups and take the path of democracy.”

Mounting attacks by al-Qaeda will make it hard for the military to withdraw to the sidelines.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said on Jan. 21 the hostages kidnapped in September wouldn’t be released unless France withdrew troops from Afghanistan.

‘Fully Mobilized’

Paris-based Areva is “fully mobilized” to support search efforts for its kidnapped staff, according to a statement e-mailed by Maxime Michaut, a spokeswoman for the company. “We are confident the Nigerien political elite will continue the long-term partnership built 40 years ago,” she said.

Both of the men kidnapped in January were found dead after a failed rescue attempt by French forces. Aid agencies including the U.S. Peace Corps, which had operated in the country without interruption since 1962, have pulled out staff in the wake of the attacks.

The elections are one of the last in a series of votes organized by the junta, which is not fielding a presidential candidate.

“Elections do not a democracy make,” says William Miles, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston who researches Niger. “The role of the military will remain very, very strong in the background.”

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