President Mamadou Tandja’s luck did not last long in 2010. Having steamrollered his way through a referendum to extend his rule, locking up critics and dismissing donors and regional bodies along the way, he was toppled in a popular coup in February. The country has also been grappling with its worst food crisis in five years and is increasingly plagued by the activities of groups linked to Al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
But for the government, 2011 will first be about holding the elections Tandja so wanted to delay. Junta chief Salou Djibo appeared keen to put matters to the popular vote, but in October arrested two of his most senior officers on suspicion that they were planning to unseat him. Preparations for elections were hit by delays when registration officers went on strike and were subsequently sacked.
Djibo now says the polls are on track, having secured $41m in donor support. The population approved a referendum on the new constitution held on 31 October, paving the way for presidential polls on 31 January. The new legislation seeks to limit presidential powers and ensure greater revenue transparency.
Civilians in the transitional government and soldiers who launched the coup cannot stand for election. The new constitution also reinstates the position of prime minister and limits presidents to two five-year terms. Heading the list of those likely to join the race for the top job is former Prime Minister Hama Amadou.
Amadou fell out with Tandja in 2007 over accusations of corruption. Amadou says that the government fabricated the charges to silence dissent and has returned from exile in France. The Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien named Amadou as its party leader in late 2010.
Other heavyweights will include opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou and former president of the National Assembly, Mahamane Ousmane. Rather than power-hungry soldiers, the biggest obstacle to Niger’s return to democracy has so far been a food crisis in which half the population went hungry during the 2010 lean season. Rains ended the prolonged drought, but the situation turned into a double disaster in August when severe flooding destroyed crops and left nearly 100,000 people homeless.
The 2011 harvest was thought to look promising, but farmers across the country are now seeking to restock cereals and repay debts. Having slashed aid in protest against Tandja’s bid to stay in power, donors – led by the EU, which has some €470m in assistance in the pipeline – have re-engaged with interim Prime Minister Mahamadou Danda. Successful polls would further boost this co-operation.
Despite being one of the world’s poorest nations, Niger is inching closer to tapping its vast mineral and oil wealth. A junta pledge to clean up business and politics, which soldiers said would include natural-resource contracts, was highly popular on the street. However, the campaign is unlikely to affect the interests of the government’s French and Chinese partners. France’s Areva still dominates the uranium sector, despite moves under Tandja to diversify the investor base.
Niger’s hopes of becoming the world’s number- two uranium producer have been dented by delays to Areva’s massive Imouraren project. The mine had been due to start production in 2012 and churn out 5,000tn of uranium per year for 35 years. The launch has now been delayed for several years. But the 16 September kidnapping of seven foreigners, including five French citizens who worked in the mines around Arlit, is likely to overshadow most other developments.