Why Niger's Presidential Election Matters

On February 21, Niger will vote in the first round of a presidential election. This has barely been a blip in the western media -- the the New York Times published its last article on Niger in August 2015 and while the Washington Post ran a blog post this week, it has no reporters on the ground. Yet, whether the election is fair or not matters to Nigeriens and it should matter to the rest of the world, because if democracy fails in Niger, the country could become the next breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorism.

Mahamadou Issoufou, the current president, is running for a second term but is widely considered an ineffective and corrupt leader. In November, he arrested and jailed his strongest opponent, Hama Amadou, one of the leaders of the opposition and the the most direct threat to Issoufou's re-election. The constitutional court is allowing Amadou to stand as a candidate in the presidential election with his charges pending, though he must rely on supporters to campaign on his behalf.

One thing that's certain is that Issoufou feels threatened: he also arrested nine people in the military and several civilians in December, because he suspected they were planning a coup to overthrow his government. Amidst widespread skepticism, leaders of the political opposition are still waiting to see evidence of the alleged coup.

Issoufou is unfortunately part of a long history of political corruption, in part because of Niger's history of colonialism and corporate exploitation. France discovered uranium in Niger in 1957 and has dominated the industry ever since. New archival evidence opened recently shows how France deliberately manipulated the government that was emerging in Niger in the years immediately following independence in 1960. By promoting leaders who would do business on French terms, the former European colonial power was able to widen the profit margin to its advantage, an unfair split that persists.

Today, Niger supplies roughly one third of the raw materials that power some 58 French nuclear-energy reactors, which produce 75% of France's electricity. Yet Niger collects a fraction of the profits. During his first term, Issoufou had an opportunity to re-negotiate Niger's contract with the French-owned uranium company Areva but set the rate at which Niger taxes Areva's revenues at just 12%, well below what Nigeriens were calling for and lower than what is standard in other countries, such as Botswana.

Nigerians want and need a government that effectively represents the majority's interests, but many citizens are understandably disaffected and impoverished. Niger currently ranks last in the United Nations Human Development Report, with a human development growth rate of 1.8 % in a country of 14 million, where the average adult has 5.4 years of schooling. The nomadic Tuaregs, who live on the land where the uranium is extracted, can dust the sand off their tunics without any hope of ever owning a cellphone or watching satellite television. Meanwhile Areva and other multinational corporations are making billions in profits. According to UN estimates, just 2 % of all Nigeriens use the Internet and more than half do not have a cell phone.

While Niger is a precarious democracy rife with corruption, the best hope for progress is a free and fair election. Yet Americans are ignoring this profoundly unjust and potentially volatile situation in what is a very dangerous neighborhood. Niger shares a porous border with Mali, a current terrorist threat as well as a cautionary tale. From 1990 to 2012, Mali was an example of democracy in the region. But since a coup in 2013 when radical Islamists invaded northern Mali, it has been a failed state. Hassoumi Massaoudo, Niger's minister of the interior, says that his country faces a "constant threat" of terrorist attack from the al-Qaeda faction in Mali. In addition to Mali, Niger also shares a border with Libya another failed state where terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIS are also wreaking havoc.

While Nigeria just celebrated the most free and fair election in a generation, much work remains to be done to stop Boko Haram along the border with Niger, where the Nigerien town Diffa has been under "a state of emergency" for months.

The U. S. hasn't entirely ignored Niger--over the past two decades we have increased our military presence in the region, including surveillance by drones and counterterrorism forces. But these activities are conducted with virtually no public scrutiny. AFRICOM, the U. S. military headquarters for Africa, has an annual budget of nearly $300 million with questionable results. After the coup in Mali, the Washington Post reported that the military officer who led the coup in 2013 was U. S. trained, which is just one of the many unintended consequences that come with covert counterterrorist operations.

It is time for the U.S. to examine the rationale, effectiveness, and cost of an exclusively military response to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism in Africa. As Niger prepares to vote in the coming days, it is also time to consider whether supporting the democracies that do exist and reporting on the disaffection that threatens to undermine them might actually be the best defense against the spread of terrorism on the continent.