|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|
Organisation and management are the keys to success
In this interview with The Courier, the President of Niger outlines his economic, social and economic policy for steering the country through its present crisis and explains why democracy is essential to the proper management of its economy and affairs of State.
· Democracy has come to Niger rather more easily than to other countries of Africa, hasn't it, other than for rare cases such as Benin, Cape Verde and Zambia ? The National Conference achieved most of its aims, the best possible constitution under the circumstances was approved and politicians old and new respected the will of the people during the presidential and the parliamentary elections - which observers said were extremely well organised. Why do you think Niger has been so successful with its transition to democracy ?
- It is hard to say, although there are one or two things I can point to, starting with a particular trait of the people of Niger, which is their sense of realism and measure. They are also, generally speaking, tolerant, I think, and all this has helped create political parties which accept the rules of the game once they are laid down and freely agreed to by everyone. There was a great deal of uncertainty and concern before the National Conference started. People were afraid that old scores would be settled, they were worried about upheavals and thought there was even a risk of the State and the nation falling apart. A great deal of calculating went on. But in the end, despite all the obstacles, the people acted in accordance with their acute sense of responsibility. It was laborious and it took longer, but, ultimately, the National Conference was a success, and the people came out in favour of the legislation produced during the period of transition. The elections went very smoothly too, just like the period of transition itself.
· Do you think that the period of transition during which your people discussed the country's problems at such length was necessary and, if so, why ?
- Yes, I think it was, because it meant that no-one involved in national life had to rush into anything and everyone had time to think about what they were choosing. Someone once said that time undoes whatever is done in haste, you know, and I believe it. You have to give procedures and processes time to work properly, whatever you are doing. With hindsight, it may transpire that Niger started its period of transition even before the National Conference, because the Conference was preceded by a special military regime which set the ball rolling by having both civilians and soldiers involved in the running of the State. It was done within the one-party system, which was not the ideal thing for us, but I still think it was a step in the right direction compared to what we had before, when the military ran the country by itself. But once the military-cum-civilian phase got under way and there was some leeway for different opinions and ideas, a pluralist approach to political activity developed, the National Conference was eventually held and the constitution was drafted. I really believe that without this process, the various political tendencies would not have been able to espouse political and economic democracy. If we had moved faster, the results would have been different and not very satisfactory. I believe that Niger's political contours are still changing. They are not set in concrete. I believe that we shall see more gradual adjustments, a gradual move towards a system in which the people of Niger are more united and are once again at liberty to build a thriving democratic life in which everyone is free to express his opinions.
· What do you think are the main problems which - despite what you have just said - could undermine the foundations and working of democracy in this country ?
- The main problems, obviously, are the problems of any emergent system. Teething troubles, if you like. When the democratic process started, we had to cope with movements which emerged among the students and schoolchildren, for example, or in the armed forces and the unions, and which had their own view of the part they should be playing in these crucial times in the life of the nation; and the situation had to mature before all the individuals had a clearer idea of just what they should be contributing to the whole.
· Are dwindling sales of Niger's biggest export, uranium, combined with the drought and the international recession enough to explain the currently depleted state of the economy ?
- There is more to it than the uranium slump, because the recession is not confined to Niger. It affects everyone, although of course to varying degrees, but it is a deciding factor as far as we are concerned, because uranium is one of those essential products which bring in for us a great deal of our export revenue. Then there is the climate too, and the situation of the country and its principal neighbours and partners. All this has combined to worsen the economic situation in which Niger finds itself today.
'The country ran up debts which it cannot pay back'
· To be more specific, what in Niger itself is causing the present severe economic difficulties ?
- Our economic situation is difficult and the weakness of our natural resources and finances has a lot to do with it. The fall in our revenue from uranium and other export products is one reason for the acute nature of the crisis. Niger has stopped exporting groundnuts. Its once substantial earnings from livestock products have dwindled, so the State coffers are depleted and the country's investment possibilities cramped as a result. And, of course, when things were going better, the country embarked on investment programmes and ran up debts which it cannot pay back, now that its financial resources are diminished. All of this has combined to prevent us covering the cost of our own sovereignty (civil service wages, the everyday running of government etc.). This has repercussions on economic operators too and they cannot pay their taxes either, so Niger's tax revenue has plummeted at a time when, as everyone knows, spending tends to go up. We hoped for even a small improvement during the period of transition, but alas the situation got worse. The State coffers were practically empty and civil service wage pay meets were four or five months behind.
· Niger's geographical situation gives you every incentive to work hard for regional cooperation. We have been hearing about regional integration in West Africa for years now, but, as you know, there has been very little in the way of tangible results, despite the creation of specialised organisations such as ECOWAS. What went wrong ? And how do you see the future of regional integration in West Africa ?
- Mistakes have certainly been made, otherwise there would have been more progress and the situation would be much better than it is. It is not easy to organise several States into an economic unit. It takes time. Look around the world and you see that big groups of this sort take years to form and often start in a very small way, not just with membership, but with the economic arrangements which are the vehicle which brings the States closer together. The example of the European Community is there for all to see. It started with the European Coal and Steel Community and only six members, but there are 12 countries in it today and there will probably be more than that tomorrow. The Community has become practically a political union.
'Far too many sub-regional organisations'
It is much the same in West Africa. The difference in results is due to the fact that we have dissipated our efforts. Far too many sub-regional organisations have been set up, some of them with only two or three countries and no real thought of integrating their motivation. In the early days, there were institutions such as UDEAC, which was supposed to overcome the problem of customs and trade barriers, and the CEAO, which followed it, also aimed at integration through trade. But as time goes by, it seems that a different sort of approach is called for. Here in West Africa, ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, really is a reflection of the will of the people, with links which go beyond strictly institutional considerations. It has broader economic foundations which have been created spontaneously by the will of the people. Go to Ghana and you find a large community of people from Niger, despite the language difference, and it is the same in Nigeria. These are English-speaking countries, whereas Niger is French-speaking; and you find the same outlook and the same state of affairs in Cd'Ivoire. So the people mix spontaneously and ECOWAS tries to reflect this desire emanating from the different populations.
I believe that this will has not been perceived as it should, but, as time goes by, people are realising how important intraregional relations are. The last summit meeting of the Heads of State helped rectify this situation by doing things to give ECOWAS a more suitable framework which is more in keeping with what the people want. The treaty was revised to make for better organisation of regional cooperation and a clearing house was set up so ECOWAS can gradually become a common monetary institution combining all the French-, English- and Portuguese-speaking countries of the region. We should have a common currency for the 16 States of West Africa by the year 2000. And we are looking at the idea of relaunching political integration in the region too. A West African parliament would also help boost democracy, which is gaining more and more ground in this part of the world.
· The European Community's attitude to relations with the African States is going to be, indeed already is, shaped to a large extent by whether they are democratic or not. Does this mean that you might have a common political core in the integrated West Africa of the future ?
- There you have to make a distinction between my personal opinion and the situation as it is at the moment. There is nothing so far to say that all members of ECOWAS have to have multi party systems or run elections along identical lines. It is not laid down officially, but the general framework of the ECOWAS treaty is perhaps already nudging people towards that sort of arrangement, because we are now seeing a critical mass of democratic countries starting to form here in this part of the world. All our countries are doing more and more to create structures and institutions which follow the rules of democracy - with variations, of course.
· You touched on the crisis of the CFAF just now and the past few months have indeed seen some important developments on this front, starting with nonconvertibility outside the franc zone. Does this seem to be the right thing to do, do you think, and is it viable in the long term ?
- Yes, I think it has come at the right time for our economies. The implications are by no means a threat to the CFAF's capacity for solving the international payments problem, so no harm is done to the currency as such, or to the States which use it as a means of payment. The new measure helps our countries cope with various internal payment problems, whereas the previously free convertibility and the central banks' automatic buying back of bank notes led to a large-scale capital drain and many transfers were to the detriment of the economies of various States. But now the normal banking networks look after all the currency in circulation and all the financial transfer transactions between the different countries.
We sent a team to investigate the implications of a move of this kind, in particular in our immediate neighbours, who use different currencies - Nigeria has the naira, for example. What happened in that case, we now realise, is that, at the very beginning, the economic operators reacted very rapidly and the rate of convertibility of the naira fluctuated before it started to pick up.
· What about cooperation with the European Community ? The Lomonvention has come in for a lot of criticism recently, although for years it was hailed es a model of good cooperation between Europe and the ACP States, with equality of the partners very much to the fore and a contractual approach to ensure that the relations were stable. What future is there for cooperation between the European Community and Africa, do you believe ? Should we be thinking about a convention that is completely different from Lom
- Lomas proved itself. It is a basis, I believe, and a framework. It is there, it has been useful to the various States involved and I do not see any point in dropping it and looking for something else, although what we could do is try to identify the imperfections and do something about them. We understand that the new provisions are to include a number of conditions - considerations of democracy and human rights such as you mentioned just now and proper economic management - and that those who make the best job of meeting them will find it easier to qualify for the various schemes. That is good, we think. It is an important contribution from Europe to Africa, since it is also a way of encouraging peoples who have shown they believe in freedom and democracy to make further commitments. And it is a way for us to show the Europeans that they are not the only ones to believe in freedom and democracy and to encourage others to go a little further along the path of democratisation. The present framework of relations with Europe is not perfect and there is certainly room for improvement.
Niger has 'to produce results'
· Manuel Marin said that the ACPs should start running projects themselves and that the Community cannot go on being both funder and organiser every time. In other words, Africans have to start putting forward and carrying out schemes themselves - which echoes a fairly strong tendency at the World Bank. Is this a good thing ?
- Yes, I think it is. To my mind, the various development programmes run over the past decade or two have not lived up to expectations - and the reason for this relative failure lies in the concern which we find expressed in the new approach just beginning.
These projects and programmes were not designed or prepared by managers in the countries in which they were run. They were not designed with the help of the people they were intended to benefit. If the beneficiaries are involved, they are better motivated when it comes to making a success of the project, which is why I believe that what we should do now is get the countries themselves to devise and design their own projects and then put them to the various partners. Home-designed projects would give a better reflection of the people's aspirations and concerns. They would even make life easier for the external partners, who would then only have to check various stages of project implementation and - most important - make sure that the country knew that it had to produce results
· You have just given us the keynote of the present discussions - the obligation to produce results. It means that there will be competition between the developing countries and the best of them will get the most aid. It means that States will have to move fast and move well. Is Niger getting its managers ready for a good start to this next stage of cooperation ?
- Absolutely. It is getting organised. As you yourself said just now, Niger's experience has aroused a lot of interest in a lot of observers. People are wondering how this Sahel country of so few resources, this landlocked country of deserts and so many problems, has managed to make such an efficient and successful job of organising its elections. But Niger knows all about organisation and we are making our way, slowly but surely, towards a fairly consistent and functional set-up whereby the whole country has the system and the people to meet the general needs of the population. We have already made a great political step forward and things are under way on the economic front too. We are putting together programmes to stabilise the financial situation and create the right conditions for fresh economic growth and set up a new framework in which to discuss solutions for the development issues facing the country with our various partners and friends. We are convinced that organisation is the key to success. Plenty of countries with plenty of resources of all kinds - natural resources, mining resources, both mineral wealth and agricultural and other resources - are still in economic situations which are as difficult as ours, if not more so. And there are others, in Europe and Africa alike, which are not so well off for natural resources, but manage very well nonetheless. So the secret of success is not the amount of resources available, but sound organisation and management.
· But people say that experienced candidates are being kept out of the running of State affairs in Niger at the moment How do you explain this apparent contradiction ?
- What is happening in Niger could happen anywhere else in the world. Once there is an institutional and political change, a change in the people, there is bound to be some sort of a reshuffle. However, what counts for us is experience, first of all, and ability. In some cases, the able may indeed not have been given responsibility, but there may be political reasons for that, you see. The people made a choice and that choice meant new faces. The Assembly may well contain people who are not as competent as the people who stood against them, but they got the people's vote nonetheless. It comes down to a choice between the head and the heart. Should it be the technically ablest person who gets the parliamentary seat or should it be the people's choice?
· The opposition has its doubts about the impartiality of the administration and its leaders claim that the Government is cutting out employees of the State who are not actively involved in the parties in power. What do you think ?
I think that is what the opposition says and it only concerns the opposition. As far as I know, there are people who have political opinions identical to those of the opposition but are still very highly placed in the present administration. So when you talk to me about cutting people out, I find it difficult to understand. It is the opinion of the opposition and the opposition alone is concerned, because the facts prove it wrong.
· Opposition complaints were aired at a demonstration shown on Niger TV...
- I entirely agree with you. A democratic government should not cut anybody out. Democracy is, par excellence, the opposite of an authoritarian system and it must not exclude people. We are in complete agreement here. But the people are sovereign and they have taken their decision and made their choices. They chose a new way and new faces and excluded some people from State office in doing so. But people with the same political ideas as the opposition are in high office in the present Government and I do not believe that there is any exclusion Perhaps we could have done better, as teachers say to their pupils. I don't know. But the facts are there for all to see.
· Mrs Baillard was fairly categorical about the Government having no real commitment to giving responsibility to women or getting them involved in development. She said that only one Minister and three Secretaries of State were women and only Ministers took decisions - in other words, women are under-represented in decision-making.
- First of all, let me say that this is the first time that there have been so many women in the Government, helping define and carry out the policy of the State. Never has any Government in this country contained so many women as the First Government of the Third Republic. Secondly, there is practically no difference between a Minister and a Secretary of State in Niger. They both take part in the Council of Ministers, they have the same advantages and there are absolutely no major differences between them. The only thing, perhaps, is the way responsibilities are shared and jobs distributed. Ministers indeed do come before Secretaries of State and Secretaries of State also have clearly defined spheres of competence as well as helping their Ministers carry out their duties. Look at the results we got before and the results we get now and you see that we have certainly not slipped backwards. Quite the contrary.
The deputy chairman of the House is also a women. That has never happened here before either.
· Perhaps this is all part of getting democracy going.
- Quite. And that is why we believe it to be a good thing, which can only give women more motivation to take an active and constructive part in our democratic activity. A very odd thing happened in the run-up to the elections. Women were reluctant to join the fight and stand for elected posts and tried to go for appointments instead, although the whole idea of democracy is to let universal suffrage decide. Members of parliament are not appointed. They have to compete in the constituencies and then in the towns and the districts and the departments, right up to national level. We are well aware that social and cultural obstacles make it difficult for women to go into politics, but those who have tried have made it and we encourage them to get organised and get involved in political action.
· How do the nine parties in the Government Alliance see the State and progress in general ?
- What unites these parties and what ideas brought them together ? I shall be very brief. The parties found themselves together in a framework which creates an alliance of the forces of change and defines the terms on which we are going to work together. Secondly, they are together in what we call our minimum action programme, a framework which reflects the various political, economic, social and cultural considerations we have agreed upon. Thirdly, the parties have also combined on an emergency political, economic and socio-cultural programme, which was the basis for the Prime Minister's general policy statement to the House and is the foundation of Government action. Those are just some of the things which enable the different parties in the Alliance to work together. It is not, as some people try to insinuate, an association of ill-assorted structures devoid of policy or foundation or, indeed, of programme. The reality is quite different.
Interview by L.P.