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Clipping Niger's wingsBy Gamal Nkrumah
A classical African palace coup this week has thrown the continent's media into confusion. The slain president this time round was General Ibrahim Bare Mainassara of Niger -- a leader far more popular abroad than in his native land. Cuba declared a three-day period of national mourning, and so did Taiwan, one of Niger's most important aid donors and sources of foreign direct investment. Mainassara's other main friends, beyond his business connections, were his co-religionists in the Gulf, Sudan and Libya. He was a controversial character, but for those who closely followed political and socio-economic events in the country, the coup came as no surprise. The writing was on the wall.
To some people, talk of a president who turned into a turtle-dove might seem like a paradox. But the story does not merely reflect the concerns of a poor people seeking diversion from their humdrum lives in Africa's Sahelian wastes. According to Hausa legend, changing someone into a turtle-dove is a gentle way of getting rid of a person one doesn't want to have around. The people of Niger had had enough of their ruler, so they made sure that he was forever flying off to faraway and fabled lands. They took comfort in the parable drawn from an ancient tradition, in the absence of any more rational explanation for all this presidential flying about.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Mainassara dutifully performed the pilgrimage to Mecca amid angry accusations that his diplomats in Jeddah were involved in drug smuggling, passport fraud and slave trading. He had earlier hurried to Bahrain with a big begging bowl in his hands, though the ostensible reason for the visit was to offer his condolences to the royal family following the death of the Emir, Sheikh Eissa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa. From Bahrain, Mainassara flew on to the Emirates to discuss "Arab-African" relations with Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and urge more Emirates investment in impoverished Niger. Plans were also afoot to dispatch Gulf royalty on desert safaris in the country's pristine and boundless wildlands, which are still teeming with exotic game long hunted to extinction in Arabia.
In the space of a month, Mainassara visited France, Monaco, Cuba and several Gulf states. At the time of his assassination, he was scheduled to go on another extended tour that would have taken in Tunisia and South Africa. In the eyes of his nine million people, 90 per cent of whom are illiterate, the president had indeed metamorphosed into a turtle-dove, just as the timeless legend decreed.
Of course, there was another logic behind these constant missions. Mainassara was forever fund-raising. Perhaps it is the cross one has to bear for being the president of one of the world's poorest and least developed countries. His trips abroad were thus justified: following his last visit to France, Niger's former colonial master made a grant of $3 million to prop up the country's disintegrating educational facilities and reinforce the place of French culture in the face of the inroads made by the US. American peace corps volunteers and the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) have played an ever bigger role in Niger's development scene over the past two years. Meanwhile, anglophone institutions of international standing, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have been leading the way in the struggle to propagate democracy and the respect for human rights.
They had work to do. Recently, Ali Sekou Maina, editor of the independent weekly La Voix du Citoyen, was savagely beaten by four unidentified men. The attack appeared to be in retaliation for an editorial Maina wrote criticising the government and championing the cause of the country's democratic forces.
Mainassara's Minister of the Interior Souley Abdoulaye could not resist literally taking justice into his own hands. He personally horsewhipped a journalist, Bory Senyni of Le Democrate, who had dared to question his integrity. The public beating of journalists is increasingly becoming de rigueur in Niger.
This overwhelmingly Muslim West African nation has a strategic location in the continent, straddling the mineral-rich but desolate Sahara Desert and the arid Sahel region. It is a natural transition point and link between the Maghreb countries and Africa south of the Sahara. Bordered by Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad and Cameroon to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, Niger is a sprawling but sparsely populated country peopled by many different ethnic groups. The most important of these are the Hausa people, who comprise over 50 per cent of the population, followed by the closely-related Songai and Zerma, who together account for another 25 per cent, and were traditionally favoured by the former French colonial administrators. Today, they still control the civil service and army, and are generally better educated that their Hausa compatriots. The capital, Niamey, is located in Zerma country, in the southwestern corner of the vast nation on the banks of the River Niger. Other groups include the Tuareg of the Sahara Desert who number some 250,000.
Part of the ethnic problem in Niger is that the different groups have divided loyalties. Many of them feel more closely affiliated to their kith and kin in neighbouring countries: the Hausa look to the Hausa people of northern Nigeria, the Tuareg to the Tuareg of Algeria and Mali, the Songai to the Songai of Mali, and the Toubou to their kin in Chad. Between 1997 and 1998, Mainassara quelled a Toubou revolt led by the Front Démocratique du Renouveau (FDR) in the far east of the country. The recently unearthed mass graves of 150 Toubou men on Boultoungoure Island in Lake Chad caused an uproar, and the FDR leader Lamine fled to neighbouring Nigeria with many of his people. In spite of the fact that the international media ignored the massacre, human rights organisations vigorously protested the incident. Refugees International's European representative Yvette Pierpaoli recently visited the Toubou refugees and warned of overwhelming discontent which might erupt at any moment into open hostilities. Pierpaoli described the Toubou people as living "in the poorest and most underdeveloped region of one of the poorest countries on earth."
It can be instructive sometimes for Third World leaders to leave the plush surroundings of their ivory towers to see how the lower end of the ladder is faring. But Mainassara, in the tradition of the tribal leaders of an age bygone, was only interested in using heavy-handed measures to quell rebellions. He lived by the sword and died by the sword.
Absolute power side-by-side with abject poverty prompts public officials to abuse that power. Niger is no exception to that rule. Poverty -- or rather the great disparities in income and lifestyles between haves and have-nots -- breeds crime, sometimes violent and grotesque, political instability, civil strife and social disquiet.
In Niger, poverty is endemic and the struggle against it is heartbreakingly hard. The arid country periodically suffers from famine, as the sands of the Sahara spread southwards at an alarming rate. The desertification resulting from overgrazing must be stopped. Food shortages and food insecurity is endemic. One million Nigerians suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and that is in the good years. The country faces a vicious circle of food insecurity and political instability. In such a context, classic economic activity stands no chance.
A joint mission of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) wound up a visit of several weeks to Niger on 22 March. They reported that the impoverished West African country has made satisfactory progress in the third year of its Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) -- the belt-tightening plan imposed by the two institutions. Together, they praised the "resolution" of the Mainassara regime to carry out ESAF. According to Ide Niandou, Mainassara's finance minister, the "success" of ESAF should permit Niger to negotiate a new three-year plan and thus become eligible for the World Bank's programme of debt relief or annulment.
As part of ESAF, the Mainassara regime drastically cut students' scholarships, privatised state-owned enterprises, forced the retirement of 2,000 public sector workers and slashed the salaries of those who were not sacked. It was these ruthless measures which led to the widespread civil unrest, strikes and work stoppages, which formed the background to this week's coup. Whether the international institutions are aware of their part in the demise of their protégé remains a moot question. Meanwhile, the debt still stands, and Mainassara, the turtle-dove who hoped to return one day bearing the golden egg, has made his last flight.