|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|
· Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger's brilliant young Prime Minister and one of the leading lights of the country's new democracy, is particularly concerned with the drive to rebuild the nation's economy. He told The Courier of the priority schemes which he believes will help consolidate democracy and get the economy growing again, and talked about the way he sees Africa developing in the world now the cold war is over.
· Prime Minister, you painted a gloomy picture of Niger's economy in your general policy speech to the National Assembly in 1993. But before talking about that, can I ask you what you think is going well at the moment ?
- First of all, let me remind you that before the National
Conference, which ran from 29 July to 30 November 1991, our country was in the
throes of a threefold crisis, affecting institutional, social
and economic affairs. Then came a 17-month period of transition, ending with the adoption of a new constitution, followed by free, transparent elections and the setting up of the third republic. The elections were the opportunity for the people of Niger to prove the political maturity which should be an example to others today. That is my greatest satisfaction. The fight for democracy will never be won without the total involvement of the vast majority of the population and it was comforting to see the people in their masses express their enthusiasm for the new democratic, republican order in a huge turnout for the constitutional referendum of 26 December 1992 and the parliamentary and presidential elections which followed.
It is particularly pleasing because the elections took place at the time of the mutiny, when rank-and-file soldiers from our army units stationed in Zinder, Agadez and Tawi rose up over various material and political claims which would have been a threat to the new State institutions if they had been allowed to go through. The people of Niger came down clearly against any threat to the institutions or to democracy. The republican army is a national army and the political authorities have to run it. The third republic has been set up and society as a whole approved it and supports it - which is a source of satisfaction for everyone here in Niger.
· So there is total commitment to democracy...
· You maintain that the political situation is satisfactory, but the economic situation seems to give some cause for concern, doesn't it ? You said in your speech to the House that most of the social indicators are poor. So how does the Government see the future and what should be the highlights of a short- and medium-term economic policy ?
- First of all, let me tell you that, in my general policy statement to the House, I gave a detailed run-down of the economic and social situation when we took over I told them we were inheriting a country which has silted up. On the financial front, it is running a budget deficit of something like CFAF 100 billion, with estimated debts of almost CFAF 336 billion, and, on the economic front, GDP is well down, with a serious decline in all sectors of trade.
Economic and financial difficulties have their social consequences, alas, and today we are in the throes of an acute social and educational crisis which has resulted, as you know, in a decline in the standard of living of something like 2% p.a., with school attendance down from 30% in 1987 to only 27% now. Health care has deteriorated badly too, to the point where 68 % of our people have no access to any sort of treatment and 5% or 6% have no drinking water. It all makes for a worrying situation and one which the Government is tackling by laying down five top priorities in the political, economic and social areas.
First, we must restore the credibility and authority of the State and, second, we must consolidate national unity, which means settling the Tuareg rebellion in the north peaceably Third, we must rationalise public finances and get the economy off the ground. Fourth, we must straighten out the social sectors, health and education, and fifth, we must decentralise.
We are putting particular em phasis on one of the five priorities, the rationalisation of public finances and economic recovery. In the short term, rationalising public finances has to start with getting the economy going, which means boosting tax revenue and getting State spending under control.
The State collected only CFAF 42 billion of tax revenue in 1992, which is only 7% of GDP, the lowest rate in the whole of the region. The figure in Burkina Faso, Cd'Ivoire and Mali, for example, is between 17% and 20% and my Government is trying to get Niger's rate up another ten points, to 17%, too. So over the next five years, until the end of our term of office, we are planning on measures to tax the informal sector, which has expanded considerably since 1987. The informalisation of the economy spells de-taxation here in Niger and many a company goes informal to avoid paying tax, so we have devised ways of taxing the informal sector and thereby boosting State revenue. And to make it all more efficient, we are planning fraud control too.
As for getting spending under control, the 1993 finance law already included budget cutbacks to bring expenditure down to the same level as domestic resources. The drive to rationalise and control State spending is to be pursued over the coming years. One component of the 1993 campaign is a cut in the total wage bill, which is being slashed from CFAF 43 billion and stabilised at CFAF 35 billion. Wage costs are usually fixed at 20% of total State spending, but our total wage bill is still up at the unbearably high figure of almost 33% after the recent pay-trimming measures - although they will mean that we can rationalise public spending and ultimately stabilise the financial situation of the State, for a start. Going beyond that, we aim to get the economy off the ground again, which is why we are actively preparing for negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank so that we can conclude an agreement with them and mobilise the external financial resources we need to underpin investment - a sine qua non of economic recovery. The Government is finishing an outline document on economic policy to be discussed with the international community and the World Bank with a view to an agreement by the end of the year, and, once we have that agreement, we want to call a round table of Niger's funders, probably in Brussels in May 1994. The Government also intends encouraging the economy with a five-year development plan (1994-1988), which will of course reflect all the guidelines already laid down in the outline document on economic policy I mentioned just now.
· You know that income in the informal sector cannot be brought under control, Prime Minister, so how can you prevent too great a discrepancy between the amount of tax levied on informal earnings, which are difficult to calculate, and the tax on wages paid to employees, about which more is known ?
Thank you for that question. The society we are preparing here in Niger must be a free and democratic one; a society which is tolerant, open to progress and anxious to preserve and safeguard our values, and we have to make sure that, in this society, the tax burden on wage-earners is no greater than on the income from capital. That is one side of a fair society We know that taxation is a way of organising solidarity, but it should not give rise to social injustice. So we are going to set up mechanisms through the tax system which will encourage firms in the informal sector to modernise and keep proper accounts, so that their dealings become more transparent and can be taxed more easily. In fact we recently took a decision along these lines to force the informal sector to use organisations such as banks for its foreign transactions and WAMU, for example, will now be refusing to buy back CFAF outside the franc zone. All these measures of ours should gradually reduce the weight of the informal sector in the economy and make it easier to tax its business. We want a fairer society here in Niger, in which each contributes to the solidarity of the nation according to his needs and according to his potential. We are in favour of a society in which private enterprise is encouraged and the State also plays an economic role in strategic sectors. That, in outline, is the blueprint for society which we put to the people and which won a vote of confidence from them. It is not the blueprint of one political party either but a plan put together by the political alliance which forms the coalition Government.
· Is there no disparity between your parties ? In other words - over and above what you have just said - what binds you together ?
- Niger is what binds us, because we think that Niger's current problems are more important than our ideologies. You often hear that the alliance of the forces of change is an ill-assorted combination of political parties with divergent policies and different and even diametrically opposed ideologies. But we do not think there is a problem, for Niger's current problems are more important than ideological squabbles. We have formed the alliance of the forces of change, nine political parties, which agreed to join to lead Niger forward together, with a programme which stresses stronger democracy, republican values and the consolidation of national unity - particularly given the problem of the rebellion in northern Niger. We believe that the contribution to the consolidation of national unity which we shall start making today is the settlement of the problem of the Tuareg uprising in the north through dialogue.
· The unions are becoming more and more upset at the measures the Government is taking - particularly the move to cut State spending, which they feel is unfair - and one of the things they want you to do is set up a small cabinet with only a few ministers. What do you say to that ?
- First of all, it has to be said that the unions' call to reduce the size of the Government has very little economic fallout. That is the first point. The second we would make is that the unions are not within their rights in making such demands of the political authority in a system where there are institutions which were set up after free elections. Under the Constitution, once the Prime Minister has been appointed, only the President of the Republic can set up or alter the Government. The unions are overstepping the mark here, we think, because this is a political demand they are making.
But the unions played an important part in the country's democratisation process and it may be this recent contribution which has encouraged them to start going beyond purely economic demands and try to influence the policy of the Government. We hope that the unions will confine themselves to defending the moral and material interests of their members in the future now that credible, democratic institutions have emerged from the political crisis. And I also hope that we can tackle economic issues and manage to forge a consensus with the unions on budget savings to enable the country to emerge from the present crisis situation. We are looking at ways and means of getting back round the negotiating table with the unions, because we believe that both workers and employers have to be very much in favour before we can bring in our intended economic reforms. Those are the sort of lines along which my Government is working.
The unions agree on making a sacrifice to solve the State's economic and financial problems.
· One last question. African leaders complain that their continent is being marginalised. Are they right, do you think ? What do you think of the political demands (democracy, human rights and so on) and economic demands (sound management) which the funders, the European Community included, want to see met before they continue with and step up their development aid ?
- Africans should stop snivelling, I think. The world has altered and it is continuing to alter before our very eyes. That is something we have to understand and fight for, because Africans will only ever develop and get the continent out of its current state of marginalisation if they work. Work is their one source of wealth. So we have to stop snivelling and complaining. When the cold war ended, we know that a lot of Africans hoped that the financial resources earmarked for weapons would be released for development. But alas, they were disappointed. There is a lot of disinvestment in Africa.
As we know, investors are not rushing to place their capital here as they did in the 1970s, but there are still good grounds for hoping that the continent will emerge from what we now call marginalisation.
Democracy is one way out, because the freedom that goes with it provides the opportunity to mobilise the energy and enterprise of individuals and nations to work for progress. It is also an opportunity for young African political leaders who believe in African integration and unity to get to power and push the economic and social development schemes which the continent has needed, but not had, ever since independence.
That is important, I believe.
The beginning of independence saw the end of Pan-Africanism, let us not forget, but we think that the present generation, our generation, will take up the challenge, pick up the torch again and, through integration, get Africa to create the terms on which it can escape from its marginalised position Obviously, taken individually, none of our countries amounts to much on the international checkerboard and the only way for Africa to count one day, to bring its whole weight to bear on the international scene, is to unite. It was Nkrumah, you will recall, who said that Africa must unite or perish and it is still true today. Africa really does have to unite - or be willing to go under. And I think that our generation will decide to fight for unity so as to put a stop to the continuing marginalisation of the continent.
Interview by L.P.
The opposition - 'The country needs to re-learn what is meant by a job well done' says Tandja Mamadou, Leader of the MNSD
Mr Tandja Mamadou, the head of the MNSD; Niger's National Movement for the Society of Development, is Niger's main opposition leader and a man of the people, who can rouse the inhabitants of the capital on issues like exclusion, as he did in early September. He did extremely well (winning 45% of the votes cast) in the presidential elections in 1992 and could have won the day had the other parties not formed the Alliance to engineer the change which they claimed the country needed.
Judging by the way the people of Niamey rallied behind certain issues like 'exclusion', as they did at the beginning of September, Mr Mamadou seems to be a popular figure. He gives his views on Niger's present political and economic situation in this interview with The Courier.
· What do you think of the new political situation here, with democracy enshrined in a new constitution and free elections ?
- As far as I am concerned, on this particular issue, we are very pleased to be in a country where democracy has just been born and is now taking its first steps. We here in Niger opted for democracy very early on. The people have been prepared for a democratic system as a way of life since 1977 or 1978 and, now we are actually in one in the fullest sense, we believe it to be the right thing for Niger. You need time, you have to try and improve what you have and I think teething troubles are only to be expected. But the people of Niger will never regret their choice. The future will bear that out.
· As the head of the former single party which used to run the country, do you regret not having brought in a pluralist democracy yourself ?
- As I was saying a moment ago, the idea when we devised the society of development was ultimately to democratise Niger. An emergency regime was set up in 1974 and it lasted until 1988-89, before the Second Republic emerged from the parliamentary and presidential elections. But the Second Republic only embarked on major moves towards democracy near the end, when the wind of democracy was starting to blow over the whole continent, and we were soon in a multi-party system, with a National Conference, and everyone got the opportunity to vote on the democratic future of the country. That was how I personally left my original military career and went into national politics. That is why I formed a party.
· But what made the transition to democracy difficult ?
- If you want to lead the nation, you have to do it honestly and not be small-minded. The nation, the State, is far too important for it to be made to take second place to personal interests and favouritism. If problems arose during the transitional period, it was because the people at the top failed to realise that the State was more important than anyone imagined. Those problems are still with us, because the transition did not make proper preparations for getting democracy firmly in place after the elections. It botched the job, in a way. The only question in people's minds was getting through the 17 months of transition and retiring, with no thought of what was to follow. That was the way the transition went and, when it thrust the baby into the arms of the Government of the Third Republic, that baby was already incubating the disease created by lack of preparation during the transition The State has failed to avoid the dangers of 'favouritism'
· Can you explain briefly what were the main things in the transitional period which might have eased the passage to democracy ?
- I talked about favouritism, and personal interest, just now, which is a trap the State fell straight into. Niger needs all its children, according to their training and their abilities and their experience of life and of the State, but instead of using the services of them all irrespective of political affiliation, instead of getting people of goodwill to serve the nation, favouritism won the day - and that is why things went wrong. The man who was Prime Minister during the transition had never run the State before. He had never been in charge of people, even at the most basic level. He was a career technician by profession who failed to grasp the fact that he had a whole nation before him - and you need at least a bit of experience before you try to run a whole country.
· Looking back now, what sort of a political, economic and social job do you think the MNSD made of running the country ?
- That was the time when Niger took its first steps forward in development with work well done. The period of the emergency regime was when 15001600 km of roads were surfaced, from the shores of Lake Chad to the banks of the Niger. Every development achievement in the country today was made during those 13 years and Niger has a past which can be admired in the achievements of the development of those special times. We have all the managers we need now, for they were trained during that period. So I have no regrets about what we did. But of course groups are not just made up of men of integrity and men who are keen to serve the nation. They never have been, anywhere, and they are still not now, but the emergency rme did help the development of Niger, which was deemed to be one of the best-achieving countries in Africa at the time. 'There is no point in trying to become democratic overnight'
· How far were public freedoms respected under the emergency regime 7
- When an emergency regime is decreed and military power installed, the constitution is suspended and, when the constitution goes, the democratic system goes with it. Political freedom may well have been flouted sometimes and if that was the case, individuals were also to blame. Some people are more democratic than others. You don't learn to be democratic at school. It's a state of mind. You are democratic by nature or you are not and there is no point in trying to become democratic overnight. What I am trying to say is that, even during the emergency regime, there were people who behaved democratically. As I said, in 1976, we opted for a society of development which could only be achieved by democratic means. When development has to be carried out at the grassroots and the philosophy behind it is one of consultation, cooperation and participation, then it contains the key features of democracy - which is to say that not everyone during the emergency rme was in the ranks of those now being accused of interfering with the freedom of individuals and the community. Development at the grass roots would not have been possible if there had been no freedom. So, if Niger was in an acceptable economic situation with an acceptable level of development at that time, to a very large extent, its individual and collective freedoms must have been respected too.
· What complaints do you have about the present ruling team now it has been in power for a few months ?
- What I object to is the Government of the Third Republic's continual violation of the constitution and our laws and regulations. I also object to people being excluded from jobs because they do not belong to parties in the governing Alliance. These are serious matters. Those who violate the constitution and the law and exclude people for party-political reasons will inevitably bring failure on their programme of economic and social recovery. That is the charge we bring against the Government. We have to accept different opinions, that is an obligation, and we will be heading for a special regime without democracy again if we do not. And what about unemployment ? It is getting worse and no one is doing anything. Taking power and sitting down and chatting about it seems to be what it amounts to here at the moment. The leaders of this country must get the people of Niger back to work, and they should stars by respecting their rights.
· One of the things which Mahamadou Issoufou, your Prime Minster, insisted on in his general policy statement to the House was what he called the rationalisation and moralisation of public life in Niger. What do you think about that ?
- What is actually happening is the very opposite of everything the Prime Minister said. It was easy to say, but it is a different story now it comes to putting it into practice. Theories - we have been hearing them and having them inflicted on us for years, but nothing has actually been done yet The people of Niger have to be got back to work and the conditions for economic recovery created The emergency regime's share of responsibility for the successes or failures
· You governed the country at a time when there were plenty of national and International resources available for development. Do you think that there were any errors of management or wrong economic choices then, whose consequences may still be affecting Government action today ?
- Good question. The emergency regime worked with exactly the same people as are at the head of the Third Republic today. They were the brains and the technicians of the regime, the design managers, each in his own post of responsibility, who helped with the work of developing the country. If the regime was a success, they were part of it. If it failed, they were also part of it. When it came to the economy and to national-developmeet, they were as responsible as I was. And if there are mistakes, those technicians of Government action ought to be able to correct them immediately. They are familiar with the errors and successes of the emergency regime through having been involved in it, so they ought to be well-placed to make the success of the current programme of economic and financial recovery easier to achieve. They are not new arrivals. They are old hands who were in power just as I was.
· What would your economic programme be if you returned to power ?
- I have a well-known action programme, based on the society of development, which I worked on during the election campaign. What has Niger always had ? It has always had three resources. Human resources, natural resources and mineral resources - three potential assets for the future. And what is left ? A Sahel country whose natural resources are disappearing. Minerals, mostly uranium so far and no longer a big earner, as we know. Which leaves us with human resources, and those are what we have to count on now. We need to get the people back to work, back to mass production, by employing trained, competent, experienced managers. That is the only way the economy can be rebuilt.
Relying on human resources means counting on self-reliance and work well done to give the economy a new lease of life. No one gives or lends money readily to Niger any more. The way forward for all the countries of Africa is to count on themselves first and foremost, and I believe that the only way for Niger to emerge from its crisis is to make better use of the country's human resources. If it does not, there will be no development.
· That means practical schemes and specific incentives. Can you suggest any ?
- I said that the society of development which we devised advocated production at the grass roots, particularly in rural development, for farming is what will get the country back on the rails. Nothing else will get Niger out of its present difficulties. As I said before, no one gives or lends to Niger any longer, so we have to get organised and make a better job of working, producing, processing, exporting and ensuring the economic and social development of our country.
· That means external partners. What would you do about Niger's international and African cooperation policy if you were running the Government ?
- For the time being, African and international cooperation will obviously not develop until it is clear what we can do ourselves, so our countries have to get down to it. They have to show what they can do and what they can produce before anyone gives them aid.
Interview by L.P