Outgoing President of Niger Warns Against Constitution “Fiddling”

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Niamey (AFP)

Niger is grappling with two jihadist insurgencies and a population explosion and, according to a key UN benchmark, is the poorest country in the world.

But its outgoing president says he is deeply proud that the country is innovating as a democracy, despite its misfortunes.

President Mahamadou Issoufou must hand over the baton after two constitutional terms – a peaceful electoral transition which is a first for Niger and a rarity in Africa.

“This is the first time in 60 years that there will be a transition from a democratically elected president (in Niger) to another democratically elected,” Issoufou told AFP in an interview.

“We are building a democratic tradition. ”

In the past year, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have been rocked by violence after presidents oversaw constitutional changes allowing them to ask for more time in power.

Elections are also coming in Uganda and the Republic of Congo, where constitutional adjustments have helped veteran rulers stay in power.

But Issoufou said he was firmly opposed to such initiatives.

“We cannot create strong institutions by playing with constitutions, by changing the rules of the game as it is being played,” he said.

“The adventure of a third term… would have weakened the institutions we are building. ”

Issoufou has earned high marks abroad, especially from the former colonial power, France, for overseeing a peaceful transfer to a country with a post-independence history littered with coups.

The preferred candidate to win the second round of the presidential ballot on February 21 is Mohamed Bazoum, 60, Issoufou’s right-hand man and anointed successor.

He benefited from the state apparatus during his campaign, while others complained that under Issoufou, activists were repeatedly arrested and demonstrations banned.

But Issoufou brushed aside these complaints.

“Democracy is freedom and order,” he said. “There is no democracy without order, just as there is no democracy without freedom. ”

– Sahelian jihadism –

Niger is grappling with two jihadist campaigns – a five-year offensive in the west on the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, and a ten-year-old insurgency in the southeast on the border with Nigeria.

Hundreds of lives have been lost, nearly half a million people have fled their homes and devastating damage has been inflicted. Last weekend 105 civilians were massacred in two villages in the west.

Issoufou said jihadism in the Sahel poses a much broader threat and called for an “international coalition” to fight it.

“The whole of the Sahel is infested” by armed Islamists, warned Issoufou.

“Security is a global public good. What is happening in the Sahel concerns the rest of the world. If terrorism succeeds in taking hold in Africa, it will take hold in Europe. ”

For now, France and the United States have bases in Niger, which has also joined four other troubled Sahel countries in an anti-jihad coalition.

During his last months in power, Issoufou laid out plans to double the size of the armed forces over the next five years – a major economic demand for a country ranked among the world’s poorest in the Human Development Index of the United Nations (189 countries).

Issoufou trusts the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), founded in 2018 and symbolically launched on January 1 after the delays caused by the Covid pandemic.

The free trade area “will create the world’s largest market with 1.2 billion consumers,” he said. “This will put an end to the balkanized (regional) markets that Africa has known, which has been the cause of the failure of many industrial policies because the markets are too small. ”

“Afro-pessimism is behind us,” he said, calling for “ambitious policies (and) the deepening of certain values, notably democracy and human rights”.

– ‘There is life after power’ –

The president also expressed his optimism about his efforts to stem the demographic crisis in Niger.

But he warned the work was taking time to bear fruit, as it required girls’ education as well as outreach programs, enlisting help from religious and traditional leaders.

Niger’s population is growing at 3.9 percent a year, the highest in the world, and each Nigerien woman has 7.6 children on average.

At independence in 1960, Niger had three million inhabitants, which has grown to 23 million today and on current trends could reach 70 million in 2050.

“Population growth has eaten away at a good part of our economic growth,” Issoufou said. “We need to keep young girls in school until the age of 16 to avoid early marriage and pregnancy. ”

Asked to assess his record, Issoufou smiled. “I am proud overall. I kept the promises I made to the Nigerien people. I will continue to be at the helm until April 2, but there is no vacuum ahead – there is life after power. ”

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