Monday, 31 January 2011

Election Season Africa - Niger votes

Today is a huge day for Niger. In February last year, the military took control of the country after then-president Tandja changed the constitution to allow himself to stay in power. They also declared a state of emergency which allowed the UN and (I)NGO community to come in with food and other aid that kept many of the people of Niger from starving and avoided a repeat of the 2005 famine. At the end of October, the country held a referendum on a new constitution which would, among other things, guide the country back to civilian rule and indemnify those who participated in the original coup against prosecution. The constitution passed, although turn-out was lower than had originally been hoped.

Today the citizens of Niger go to the polls to choose for themselves their new civilian government. There have been some concerns that voter cards are not completely secure but the military refuses to change the election dates. Some will argue that this is an indication that fraud is likely. Given their past actions, though, it doesn't seem unreasonable to accept the junta's explanation that they are determined to leave by April and will be unable to do so unless there is time for an expected second-round in March. Observers from ECOWAS and the EU are on the ground and will hopefully give feedback in the next few days.

While world attention focuses on Egypt and a new South Sudan, this very poor nation is going about the business of choosing for itself a way forward, a way that does not include dictatorship and multi-decade presidencies, and where even the military doesn't seem to want an extended military rule. Whatever happens - and hopefully it all goes well for the people of Niger - Niger should get some credit and recognition for what they have achieved already.

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