The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments: Elites and Institutions -- Unstable Democracy in Niger

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Edited by Leonardo A. Villalón and Peter VonDoepp; published by Indiana University Press. You can purchase a copy of this book from IU Press at: Does Western-style democracy have a future in Africa? Does democracy make sense in the various geographical, economic, and social settings of the continent? How far towards democracy have recent liberalization movements gone? In The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments, Leonardo A. Villalón, Peter VonDoepp, and an international group of contributors consider the aftermath, success, failure, and future of the wave of democracy that swept Africa in the early 1990s. In some countries, democratic movements flourished, while in others, democratic success was more circumscribed. This detailed analysis of key political events in countries at the forefront of democratic change -- Benin, Central African Republic, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, and Zambia -- provides for broadly representative continental and linguistic coverage of directions and prospects for Africa's democracies. (Chapter 2 is titled Repetitive Breakdowns and a Decade of Experimentation: Institutional Choices and Unstable Democracy in Niger) Contributors are Michael Chege, John F. Clark, Joshua B. Forrest, Abdourahmane Idrissa, Bruce A. Magnusson, Carrie Manning, Richard R. Marcus, Andreas Mehler, David J. Simon, Leonardo A. Villalón, and Peter VonDoepp. Leonardo A. Villalón is Director of the Center for African Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. He is author of Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal. Peter VonDoepp is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont. He has published numerous articles on political transition and civil society in Africa. ISBN 0-253-21764-4
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  2Repetitive Breakdowns anda Decade of Experimentation Institutional Choices andUnstable Democracy in Niger  Leonardo A. Villalónand Abdourahmane Idrissa In contrast to most other African countries, Niger never enjoyed even the brief mirage of a multiparty democracy before the 1990s. In spite of an intense party com-petition within the colonial context in the 1950s, under the regime of Hamani Diorithe consolidation of single-party rule and the personalization of power had alreadybegun—with French collusion—even before independence in 1960 (Charlick1991, 40–62). Diori’s reign itself was ended in 1974 by a coup that brought to powera military regime under Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché. Kountché attemptedto capitalize on a boom in uranium export prices to consolidate power via the elab-oration of a corporatist state apparatus, but his regime otherwise representedsignificant continuities in terms of its authoritarian nature (Robinson 1991). Although Kountché always presented his rule as a régime d’exception, whose even-tual goal was the re-establishment of “republican” (i.e., democratic) institutions, itwas only after his death in 1987 that the first tentative steps toward the liberaliza-tion of politics were undertaken by his successor, Ali Saïbou. The “constitutionalnormalization” launched by Saïbou, however, was intended as a carefully controlledprocess under the tutelage of a hierarchically institutionalized single party, neverdescribed by the regime itself in terms of “democratization” (Charlick 1991, 76). And yet despite this bleak history, and like much of Africa, Niger found itself caught up in the worldwide “wave” of pro-democracy agitation and protest in theearly 1990s. Unable to master the situation, Saïbou was obliged in 1991 to agree tothe holding of a National Conference, a turbulent affair, but one that managed toestablish “democracy” as the sole legitimating standard for subsequent regimes. Whathas particularly distinguished Niger even in Africa, however, has been the extraor- 27  dinary turbulence of the effort to actually meet that standard, and the dramatic swingsin a decade-long, political roller coaster ride. A count of the decade’s major eventsreads like a litany of chaos: four republics, and hence four constitutions with pres-idential or semipresidential regimes; three transitions of six, nine, and eighteenmonths; one National Conference and a Committee on Fundamental Texts; one Fo-rum for Democratic Renewal; one Technical Constitutional Committee; a Consul-tative Council of Elders; three constitutional referenda and eight other national elec-tions; four heads of state and one president of a High Council of the Republic; fourNational Assemblies; nine prime ministers; at least one hundred and fifty ministers;one civilian coup d’état; two military coups d’état; one electoral boycott; one strikeby the president and one strike by parliamentarians; one campaign of civil disobe-dience; and one dissolution of the National Assembly. All this has taken place againsta background of armed rebellions and communal and rural conflicts (Idrissa 2000).Niger’s unending experimentation over the decade of the 1990s has produced awealth of empirical grist for the theoretical mills of political analysts who are con-cerned with the question of democracy in Africa. 1 The country’s recent turbulent history of democratic experimentation suggestsmuch, in terms of our thinking, of what the “democratic wave” has meant southof the Sahara. In many ways Niger has presented a puzzle to political analysts at-tempting to catalogue the effects of this democratic wave on the continent. In themid-1990s, the country appeared to many to be among the successful cases of dem-ocratic transitions, and in the most comprehensive effort to date to explain the vari-ations in African “democratic experiments,” Bratton and van de Walle classified itas such. 2 The extraordinary political difficulties that marked the new regime fromits inception, however, and its denouement with a coup in 1996, quickly led tothe country being invoked instead as an example of the limitations of democracyin Africa, variously signaling to some scholars that it was the end of the democraticwave, and suggesting to others the corrective proof of the premature nature of ear-lier optimistic pronouncements about the inevitability—or even the possibility—of African democracy. And yet by the end of the decade the country surprisingly found itself once againdebating and approving a democratic constitution, holding elections deemed largely“free and fair,” and inaugurating a new—this time the fifth—republic. This latest“transition,” however, is if anything even more puzzling and difficult to label. Inmany ways it appears to be simply a replay of the events of 1992–93, carried outunder virtually the same circumstances, with a barely modified set of rules and aremarkably similar cast of actors and political parties. Has the country come fullcircle, back to the point of departure? Or have we witnessed instead an evolutionto a new experiment with greater chances of success? Contemporary Niger, it seems,vividly illustrates what may be emerging as the most interesting and somewhatparadoxical reality of the democratic question on the continent: the extraordinarypersistence of a democratic ideal in the face of the manifest extreme fragility of thedemocratization project.The label of “democracy” in Niger (and by extension in much of Africa), we will THE FATE OF AFRICA’S DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENTS 28  argue below, must at best still be used with caution. Yet clearly the political gamebeing played in the past decade differs markedly from the rules that defined poli-tics in the first three decades of independence. Close consideration of the Nigerienexperience suggests that an understanding of the consequences of the period of political change on which African countries have embarked, and the attendant so-cial transformations, requires a more nuanced analysis than has been provided bymeasures of the relative success or failure of “transitions to democracy.” Politicalstruggles in the country have been dominated by questions concerning the distri-bution of power both among elites and between elites and populations, all underthe rubric of democracy. This has been played out at two levels: first, as debatesamong political elites— la classe politique —about the formal institutions of democ-racy and struggles for their control; and second, in the struggle between elites andmass social groups concerning the substance of democracy as a normative model.Many scholars of democracy have argued that, in Guillermo O’Donnell’s for-mulation, “the installation of a democratically elected government opens the wayfor a ‘second transition,’ often longer and more complex....from a democrati-cally elected  government to an institutionalized, consolidated democratic regime ”(O’Donnell 1994, 56). Alternatively, however, O’Donnell has noted that two otherscenarios are possible: a democratic government may oversee a regression to au-thoritarian government, or it may stagnate as a non-institutionalized “delegativedemocracy,” maintaining procedural democratic elements but not consolidating thesubstance of democracy. Niger’s initial transition to an elected democratic govern-ment, by contrast, did not produce any of these outcomes: neither consolidation,nor collapse, nor the persistence of a non-consolidated, “delegative” democracy.Rather, from the perspective of a decade, the country might best be characterizedas having engaged in a virtually continuous process of transition.The paradox of Niger’s instability along with its seeming extraordinary com-mitment to an elusive democracy can only be understood in terms of the re-configuration of political forces in the crucial juncture of the early 1990s, 3 espe-cially by the process of the National Conference and by twin aspects of its legacy.On the one hand has been the rise to prominence of a civilian political elite, whichis fatally divided about the sharing of power and the institutions for doing so. Onthe other hand, this elite has demonstrated itself to be fundamentally united arounda shared normative conception of democracy, but one which places it at odds withstrong social forces that have themselves been created and politicized by the pe-riod of democratic experimentation. In this chapter, we focus primarily on the firstof these aspects: the nature of the elite struggles and the institutional debates thathave produced this turbulent history. The second issue, the clash of world-viewsthat has grown out of the politicization of social—notably religious—groups as re-sponse and reaction to the efforts at democratization, can be only briefly evokedbelow. This focus is merited, we would argue, in that the effort to end authoritar-ianism in Niger in the early 1990s must in fact be seen primarily as a power strug-gle among elements of an urban elite, and not as a popularly driven uprising againstthe regime. Repetitive Breakdowns and a Decade of Experimentation 29  From an Authoritarian Legacy to a Democratic Agenda  As in neighboring Benin and Mali, from which the model was borrowed andthe inspiration drawn, the National Conference in Niger represented a significantrupture with the past (Eboussi-Boulaga 1993; Robinson 1994b). It grew, however,out of a preceding period of prolonged agitation by politicized social groups, par-ticularly students and labor unions, in a context of intense economic crisis, indeedvirtual economic collapse. And this agitation, in turn, had emerged in response tothe tentative political liberalization (“ décrispation, ” as it was dubbed by the Nige-rien press) started by Ali Saïbou after Kountché’s death. While unwilling to relin-quish power, Saïbou had attempted a legitimization of his beleaguered regime byinitiating a return to a constitutional order of “democratic one-party rule” underthe Mouvement Nationale pour la Société de Développement (MNSD). The new con-stitution was approved by referendum in October 1989, inaugurating what wasdeclared to be the “Second Republic.” In accordance with its provisions, Saïbouthen had himself approved as president by a reported 99.6 percent of voters, andthe ninety-three deputies to a National Assembly presented as a single list by theMNSD were similarly “elected” by 99.52 percent.This experiment, however, was to be short-lived. Within less than two monthsthe Saïbou regime was faced with massive protests in response to its efforts to im-pose the structural adjustment reforms demanded by the International MonetaryFund (IMF) as preconditions for continued financing of the bankrupt state (Ger-vais 1995). Most vociferously, the national student association, the Union des Sco-laires Nigériens (USN), protested against proposed cuts in the budget for higher ed-ucation and limits in the recruitment of graduates into the civil service. If therewas a clear turning point in the regime’s capacity to maintain control, it came withthe violent repression of a student demonstration in Niamey on February 9, 1990,in which at least three—and perhaps many more—students were killed. 4 The daysand months that followed witnessed the most massive social protests and strikesin the country’s history, with upward of 100,000 people periodically demonstrat-ing in the streets of Niamey. By midyear, the first independent newspaper in thecountry’s history, Haské, began publishing. Its critical and independent editorialline immediately centered on a call for a National Conference and the elaborationof a multiparty democratic system.By November 1990, Saïbou was obliged to agree to holding a National Confer-ence, but there followed several months of maneuvering concerning control of theprocess. In January of 1991 the major labor union federation in the country, the Union des Syndicats des Travailleurs du Niger (USTN), once part of the state’s cor-poratist institution, dealt the regime a major blow when it renounced its officiallink to the MNSD. Continued protest and agitation, further fueled by popular angerand demonstrations against Niger’s participation in the American-led coalition inthe 1991 Gulf War, eventually tipped the balance in favor of the opposition forces,which were able to dictate the terms for convening the conference. What is par-ticularly salient about this period, however, is the nature of the social forces that THE FATE OF AFRICA’S DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENTS 30
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