|The Courier N° 143 - Jan - Feb 1994 Dossier: Fighting Poverty - Country Report : Niger (EC Courier, 1994, 96 p.)|
|Niger: Winning the economic battle - a very long shot|
It is early September. Inexorably, the rainy season is coming to an end, but Niamey, the capital, still looks its best. There is greenery almost everywhere and the mighty river which gave the country its name is unusually high, bringing lucrative economic activity, from market gardening to fishing and laundering, to its banks. The water of life comes into its own here. It is hot, of course. This is the Sahel and the heat, searing heat which scorches people's heads and shrivels up plant life, beats down remorselessly. But the torrid Sahel climate does not just have drawbacks, for it also breeds virtues, including pride, courage and a certain idea of cultural identity among the people of Niger - a striking contrast with the African coast.
The birth of democracy was painful here, just as it was in neighbouring Mali and in Benin, further south. But no one is challenging its paternity or legitimacy. This is a national construction. The builders have their differences, possibly over management.
The rule of law prevails
In its fundamental law, the new Republic of Niger clearly creates the conditions for the exercise of political freedom. The Construction says that 'the Republic of Niger shall be a State in which the rule of law prevails' (Article 9) and guarantees that 'parties, political groups, unions and other associations shall be free to set up and carry on their activities' (Article 10) - which is extremely important in a constitution in Africa, where there is usually a great deal of red tape to cut through before political or economic activities can take place. When it comes to putting the constructional provisions on public freedoms into practice, there are no exceptions, they say in Niamey. Indeed, no-one in Niger goes to prison for his opinions, opposition activities and demonstrations against the Government's policy get plenty of official television coverage and the trade unions say what they think and organise large-scale demonstrations in support of pay claims or political demands, sometimes using controversial methods with unpredictable results. The Government, preferring negotiation to force, listens to them nonetheless. The State, the guarantor of individual and collective freedoms, cannot be the first to flout them, they say in Niamey, in face of the mounting demands fuelled by the kind of economic problems which occur in a democracy - and this is despite a growing feeling that the Government's systematic search for a social consensus could undermine its position and exacerbate the indiscipline which some are beginning to fear will prevail, in contrast to the period of emergency rule which preceded the advent of democracy. But the Government's move could be seen as a response to the political argument that trade unions are now a proper part of Niger's system. The unions were jointly responsible for democratisation and it would be particularly unwise to alienate them at this stage, since the Government needs their support to carry out the economic reforms which are of course linked, in people's minds and in fact, to the political conquest of democracy.
The Tuareg uprising
It is the same concern with political freedom and freedom of opinion which is behind the Government's stance on the Tuareg uprising in the north. 'We undertake to solve the question of the Tuareg uprising once and for all, through dialogue,' the Prime Minister told the National Assembly. It is particularly important for the authorities to go for negotiation today, because, on the face of it, a democratic regime cannot afford a less conciliatory approach than the authoritarian governments in almost all the States of the Sahara which were the home of the extremely diversified Tuareg world. The problem could well be the same in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria and Libya. In the two last-named countries, economic, political and cultural assimilation of the Tuaregs replaced the old colonial idea of neutralising them by making them a 'political relay'. In other places, Niger especially, the policy ended, like assimilation, with the Tuaregs being marginalised when their way of life began to be disrupted by drought, compulsory school attendance and recruitment to the army - all of which led the Tuaregs to respond to calls from Libya to take refuge there. Although former President Ali Sau's trip to Libya in 1987 brought some of the exiles home, the Tuaregs were quick to manifest their disappointment at the snail's pace of the reforms they expected the government of the day to carry out. The uprising which followed cost the lives of 80 Tuaregs.
The Tuaregs also felt more marginalised because the central State authorities in Niamey made practically no investments or improvements in their region, although it was the site of uranium mining, the country's biggest resource for almost two decades. The feeling of spoliation and frustration could well last under the present Republic unless economic, cultural and regional development resources are injected, since, once again, the big gold deposits which the Government is banking on to bring in its export earnings are located in Tuareg country. Prime Minister Mahamadou Issoufou said the Tuaregs rose up because 'they, like many more of our people, are victims of the exclusion and poverty caused by an arbitrary, unjust system'.
A difficult economic situation
Democratisation is a success, freedom is fully restored and peace has resumed. It now remains to consolidate these advantages of the Third Republic, which means making political changes, of course, and far-reaching economic and social changes too.
The Prime Minister emphasised the 'difficult economic situation' and told MPs that a considerable effort would have to be made to achieve the projected improvements. Niger's economy was heavily dependent on the rural sector (80% of the working population), in which subsistence farming, primarily of millet and sorghum, predominated, accounting for 23% of GDP in 1991, as against 14% for herding. Agriculture accounted for 19% of the value of total exports in 1991 and, outside periods of severe drought, Niger was able to cover the bulk of its basic food requirements despite limited agricultural resources and grain shortfalls of about 200000 t in the 1989 and 1990 harvests (6% of the average annual cereal output).
Production looked up again in 1992 and nationwide there was a surplus, but there were still regions whose poor climate and limited purchasing power cramped their possibilities of obtaining supplies via the market. However, with the Community's help, Niger is now involved in a large-scale rice scheme - 517 ha involving more than 600 growers producing 5 t per ha of paddy twice a year - to help get the country's food problem more firmly under contra. And better marketing would improve the limited extra income which the peasants earn from rice growing (see article on EU-Niger cooperation).
Uranium - the harsh light of dawn
According to the Prime Minister, the overall performance of the country's economy has been kept back by both external and internally-generated factors, especially poor management of the production structures, the absence of any proper policy for diversifying and expiating agricultural and mineral resources and inefficient use of inputs. In the second half of the 1970s' heavy demand and high world prices made the uranium industry manna from heaven for the economy: uranium exports brought in more than 70% of State revenue, which went from CFAF 19.5 billion in 1975 to CFAF 132 billion in 1989, with a GDP improvement of 8%to 15.5%, in real terms, over the period. But in exploiting the resources generated by the uranium sector, priority was given to financing nonproductive programmes of public spending and buildings for ministries and the university (which admittedly is not, strictly speaking, non-productive).
The other dramatic consequence of 'prestige' spending and one largely due to lack of foresight by the authorities of the time was the considerable increase in the external debt, running at an estimated CFAF 336 billion in 1992.
Mining Minister Gado Foumakouays that the 'drastic reduction of uranium export revenue has meant a drop of about 50% in State revenue over a period of ten years - in figures, CFAF 15450 per kg of uranium in 1993, as against CFAF 30 000 in 1983, and CFAF 3-4 billion in revenue, as against CFAF 25-30 billion' ten years previously. Niger is a 'farming and herding country' and, with its financial resource shrinking, it is finding it extremely difficult to create industries related to those activities - which are themselves crying out for the means of investment that foreign aid alone cannot currently provide. So, the Minister says, 'the Government has decided to look for more mineral deposits. Not just uranium, but other things, such as gold. There is currently an unregulated cottage industry which is producing almost a tonne of gold each year. The State does not benefit from this activity, however, because 'neither' production nor marketing is organised rationally' (see article on the mining sector).
Major structural reform
The democratic government of Niger has come to power at a difficult moment in the country's history. A dilapidated economy is pulling the social sectors down behind it. As emerges from the interviews with the President and the Prime Minister, Niger's economic, financial and social situation is extremely poor and the growth of per capita GDP has been negative for the past four years (in 1992 it was - 0.4%). The economic and social structures need a complete overhaul to halt a trend which could endanger the country's whole future. That is the opinion in Niamey.
In health and education, for example, a fast expanding population (3.4% p.a.) is creating new needs which cannot be met as things stand, with a total population of 8 million and only three national hospitals, five departmental hospitals, 32 maternity units and about 40 pharmacies. And, since the health services are scattered over a huge area twice the size of France, far from the major population centres and often without the material and human resources they need, there is no way that efficient help can be given to rural patients, particularly since 60% of the nation's doctors and 50% of its midwives work in the medical centres and mother and child welfare units in Niamey.
Niger's health and demographic indicators are among the worst in the world. Life expectancy is 49 years (the African average is 59), infant mortality is 134 (as against 102 960) and there is one doctor for every 48 000 inhabitants (the WHO recommendation is one per 10 000). These and other, equally alarming figures 'revolted' the Prime Minister, he told the House in 1993. The people of Niger were among 'the most vulnerable in the world'.
The same goes for education and teaching, where there has been no State investment for years. School attendance is down as a result (27% in 1992, as against 30% in 1989 and an average of 72% in the 51 countries of West Africa), a poor record, which puts Niger among the five worst schooled nations in the world. The figure masks serious distortions across the country too, with schools catering for only 12% of girls nationwide and 15% of rural children (although the rural population is 85% of the total).
The chronic shortage of infrastructure, manpower and financial resources combined with the run-down economy (dominated by the informal sectors and the invisible trade between Niger and some of its neighbours, especially Nigeria) prompted Prime Minister Mahamadou Issoufou to say that the Governments sets great store by the basic economic, social and even legal reforms which will give the State means of defence and protection in keeping with democratic standards and the economic freedom which should now have full rein.
The Government's projected comprehensive programme of reform should complete and extend the structural adjustment operations started with the help of the IMF, the World Bank and other international and bilateral funders in 1982, when the main idea was to cut the State's budget deficits by slimming down the civil service, controlling and rationalising public companies and organising the liberalisation of the economy.
'The country we inherited is at a standstill - it has stopped making progress in most of the vital sector,' the Prime Minister announced. When it comes to getting the economy back on the rails and 'giving hope back to the people of Niger,' the Government has all the assets of democracy on its side, but few resources, so it intends arousing interest in national and international quarters. This is particularly important, because failure in the new democratic context would be a body blow to the President of the Republic, whose five-year term of office can, the Constitution says, only be renewed once. So winning the economic battle is beginning to look like a very long shot.