IIJD Call for Action: Niger Fragile Democracy at Stake

The International Institute for Justice and Development (IIJD), Inc. calls upon the United Nations and the international community to take a stronger stance against the undemocratic and illegal actions committed by President Tandja towards systematically dismantling Niger’s democratic institutions.

After adopting a new constitution in 1999 that established democratic institutions, President Tandja took office through generally fair and free elections – a milestone in Nigerien history. In the 2004 elections, a test of the new Nigerien democracy, voters chose President Tandja, making him the first democratically re-elected incumbent in the independent country.

The IIJD believes that the steps taken by President Tandja in recent months, however, have compromised his democratic credentials, undermined the legitimacy of his mandate, and betrayed the faith of the Nigerien people who twice elected him. President Tandja, nearing the end of his time in office, has sought to amend the constitution to abolish the limit on presidential terms, allowing him to rule indefinitely. Article 36 of the 1999 constitution specifically mandates that a president, elected for five-year terms, is eligible for only one re-election. Article 136 further specifies that “articles 36 and 141…of the present constitution cannot be subject to any revision.”

Upon being sworn in, President Tandja pledged to “respect and enforce respect for the constitution.” In 2007, the President interviewed with Le Monde and made it clear that he would “step down after his 2nd term.” As late as March 2009, the President – in speaking with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France - reaffirmed that he would respect the current constitution and step down when his time in office expired in December 2009.

President Tandja’s actions since that time have clearly been unconstitutional and illegal. The Constitutional Court on May 25th,2009 ruled that any referendum to create a new constitution would be unconstitutional. The next day, President Tandja dissolved the Parliament, becoming the de facto sole authority in Niger. On June 2nd, he signed a decree appointing a committee of only a small handful of politicians to write a new constitution. The Constitutional Court twice more reaffirmed that a referendum seeking to amend presidential term limits would be illegal. On June 29th, President Tandja dissolved the constitutional court. That same day, President Tandja invoked Article 53 and assumed emergency powers.

The IIJD is concerned by these recent actions that are reminiscent of Niger’s more authoritarian era. President Tandja’s drastic actions to stay in office have been accompanied by a blatant disregard for Nigerien civil society and far-ranging suppression of dissent. President Tandja’s administration has categorically ignored requests by the National bar association to respect the Constitutional Court rulings.  Women and independent journalists protesting the recent events were dispersed at various points leading up to the referendum. State media carried only pro-referendum and Tandja messages, while a private TV station that broadcast a message critical of the President was temporarily shut down. The Administration has ignored protests from the Democratic and Social Convention (CDS), a former coalition partner of President Tandja’s National Movement for the Development of Society (MNSD) in parliament. The CDS withdrew its eight ministers from the cabinet, calling upon the President to respect the Constitutional Court’s verdict. The international community must strongly oppose such actions and use its influence to restore democratic practices.

The democratic gains that Niger has made since being embroiled in an era of coups and re-coups have been worthy of praise and set an example for its neighbors. Recent events, which demonstrate disregard for the other branches of government and for democratic procedure, have compromised such gains and jeopardized Niger’s democratic legacy. President Tandja has severely weakened, and perhaps destroyed, the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary. In dissolving both the Parliament and Constitutional Court, he has disrupted the balance and separation of powers that the IIJD believes are integral to a stable and prosperous democracy. President Tandja's referendum seeks to create an entirely new constitution written, not by a legislature, but by a five-person panel appointed by the President. If the results of the illegal referendum were to be upheld, it would allow President Tandja unchecked executive powers for an indefinite number of terms.

Niger is only one in a series of African countries in which the executive has flouted the constitution and the established democratic institutions in order to maintain power. The IIJD strongly believes that the United Nations, along with the rest of international community, must do everything in its power to ensure that Niger’s democratic gains are protected and that a strong message is delivered: countries that blatantly disregard their democratic principles will not be condoned nor ignored. Without action, Niger is heading back towards the instability that plagued its people in past decades. President Tandja’s administration is placing Niger’s peace, stability, and opportunity for possible long-term prosperity in severe jeopardy.

With Niger’s hard-won, yet still vulnerable democracy poised for possible destruction, the IIJD urges you to take firmer action to restore the constitution and its proper procedures.

With my highest esteem and sincere considerations,

Benjamin Ngachoko

President and CEO

International Institute for Justice and Development