Fifty-eight years ago today, Niger, my country, achieved independence from France. It was a momentous occasion for my country and for a region that was experiencing an important inflection point. Indeed, across the African continent our brothers and sisters were breaking the chains of bondage and, in many cases, uniting to forge a brighter future.
The struggle for freedom in Niger, which began in earnest in the 1950s, did not garner much outside attention – and remains an under-told story to this day – but what our forefathers laid to bear during that period continues to inspire us today. Buoyed by our history and anchored in a commitment to democratic rule, Nigeriens have engaged in over six decades of painstaking work to build a strong nation. In July 1991, we held a genuinely consultative process, called the Sovereign National Conference, which involved our intellectual elite and civil society leaders. This process ultimately led to our first democratic elections in 1993.
Working together, we have had great successes. We have, for example, held a series of free and fair elections that reflected the will of the citizenry. This is no small feat in an expansive country short on resources and aid. But what we lacked in outside help, we, as Nigeriens, made up for with hard work and the persistence to protect our hard-fought gains. Up until recently, in fact, Niger was viewed as a paragon of democracy in an otherwise unstable region.
As I write today, however, my country is no longer looked upon as a beacon of light. The hope generated in the 1990s by our country’s democratic process is fading away. The seeming authoritarian contagion infecting the region has now pervaded our internal politics. Nearly three decades after democracy was established, my country now faces a new set of challenges that we will need to overcome to ensure our survival.
In this regard, the local, regional, legislative and presidential elections – taking place between 2020 and 2021 – will be instrumental. We will collectively face a stiff challenge. Indeed, since 2017 President Mahamadou Issoufou has hardened his opposition to perceived opponents in civil society, the press, and even his political allies when they express divergent opinions.
In 2017, the ruling coalition, for example, passed a controversial Electoral Law that rescinded the right of all competing political parties to participate in, observe and approve of the electoral process from polling places to the National Electoral Commission. The new regulation is a betrayal of the pre-existing national consensus that had maintained the balance of power and control systems in Niger, allowing free and fair elections since 1993. If the Electoral Law remains unchanged, it will ensure the dominance of only a select few— namely, the elite who are currently in power. The profound disagreement to this measure fractured our belief in the integrity of the ruling party, which led to my resignation as Minister of Foreign Affairs in April, in addition to the removal of our political party from the ruling coalition.
Today, our political leadership is failing the country on a number of fronts. This trend represents a betrayal of our founding principles — those principles that united us during the struggle for independence. A key example has been the collective turning of backs on our country’s youth, the energy of which has routinely carried us forward. Niger is the youngest country in the world, with a median age under 15 years, yet we have never had a president born after independence in 1960. In the most recent United Nations Human Development Index, my country ranked a staggering 187 out of 188 countries. According to the World Bank, our poverty rate stands at just over 44%. In 2012, UNICEF estimated that only 52% of young men aged 15-24 years old, and 23% of women in the same age group, were literate.
This situation is unacceptable. It is also untenable.
What is more, during my tenure as a Minister of Foreign Affairs, I learned firsthand the inherent link between terrorism in the Sahel region and drug trafficking. My conviction is that the core of the security issue we are facing – in Niger and in the wider region – has much to do with drug trafficking, the revenues of which have both created and intensified terrorist movements like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Ansar Dine, among others. These issues are not taken as seriously as they should by our ruling elite.
It is crucially important to note that Niger is not simply a backwater country. Events transpiring here are ignored at the world’s peril. There is indeed a global dimension involved in our affairs. In many ways, Niger is the fulcrum upon which stability rests in the Sahel region. Should the democratic backsliding and human rights abuses continue apace, this will inevitably lead to greater social and political instability. As we all have become painfully aware: domestic instability contributes to an already unmanageable migration crisis. When one peels back the layers of this crisis, we often find a common cause: lack of ethical, accountable and truly democratic leaders. This is what Niger needs today.
Despite the negative headwinds facing us, there is time to change course. We can begin by empowering a younger generation of leaders. By adding their crucial and oft-ignored voices, we lay the groundwork for a more robust republic and a more engaged citizenry. These are the fundamental bulwarks to safeguard democracy and Niger’s future. Overall, we must embolden a younger generation to take ownership of the democratic tools available to them, offering in turn a viable alternative to violence and criminal alternatives.
My sincere conviction is that we must rebuild hope for the youth and other marginalised segments of Niger, including women. By investing in the latent potential of these vital communities, we will in turn rejuvenate our institutions and a faith in democratic governance more broadly. Indeed, by taking this nuanced and much-needed approach, my country can once again grow strong and more stable, becoming in turn a more reliable security and development partner to those who have long been concerned with our country’s affairs.
Ibrahim Yacouba is the president of the National Patriotic Movement of Niger, a Nigerien opposition party. Yacouba was a candidate in the 2016 presidential election and served as Niger’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 2016 to April 2018.