A drive by Niger’s new military rulers to clean up politics will be welcomed by corruption-weary citizens but could end up delaying a promised transition to civilian rule and the return of much-needed aid, diplomats warn.
The military junta that ousted President Mamadou Tandja in a coup last week said on Wednesday that while it was committed to democratic elections it was also determined to root out corruption in the uranium-exporter.
Any campaign to probe or prosecute leading politicians, civil servants and businessmen implicated in dozens of investigations into graft is likely to complicate hopes for an election over the coming months.
A protracted political transition could in turn hurt Niger’s precarious finances. Donors, who fund half of the country’s 700 billion CFA budget, imposed sanctions after moves by Tandja to extend his rule last year and diplomats say they are unlikely to rush back while the military remains in charge.
“It is one thing to bring the confidence back between the population and the authorities and it is something else to purge the political class,” said one diplomat who follows Niger.
“As soon as we start talking about renewing the political class and holding people accountable we are opening the door for people staying longer than they should,” the diplomat added.
Citing the need for all levels of Nigerien society to be involved in the process, the junta has not yet said how long the transition to civilian rule will take.
Analysts say a 6-9 month timeframe would be best, but another diplomat warned that an anti-graft campaign would take time and possibly hurt prospects for a quick vote.
“Look into everything”
Niger’s junta is seeking to balance pressure from the international community for a short transition against expectations of ordinary Nigeriens, who offered them broad support for the coup in part due to promises to root out graft.
Junta spokesman Col. Abdulkarim Goukoye has said that cases of alleged corruption during Tandja’s rule will be “dealt with.”
But he did not go into any further details and said the military knew it could not tackle everything. “We will set objectives that are seen as reasonable and can be achieved in the timeframe,” he said.
The junta has named Mahamadou Danda, a minister in the government that oversaw the swift return to civilian rule after the last coup in 1999, as its prime minister.
A probe would be widely-backed by impoverished citizens of Niger, who face the threat of serious food shortages at a time when allegations of corruption in the distribution of mining contracts and public tenders are mounting.
Frustrations were deepened by months of bickering between Tandja and those who opposed his campaign last year to extend his grip on power after his second term expired.
“People fear that if the soldiers leave, politicians will come and ignore these cases.
There is a need for social justice,” said Oumarou Keita, managing editor of weekly newspaper Le Republicain.
Before his ousting, Tandja had launched an anti-graft campaign of his own that led to a handful of high-profile cases, including the sacking of two ministers and some money being paid back by businessmen. But critics say it lost steam as Tandja’s supporters sought to entrench themselves in power and business.
Issa Ousseini, a spokesman for ROTAB, a coalition of Nigerien anti-corruption organisations, said powerful members of Tandja’s clan had used their influence to earn millions of dollars by facilitating mining contracts for companies.
French state-owned nuclear power firm Areva and China National Petroleum Corp, among other investors, are spending large amounts of money to develop resources in Niger.
Due to Niger’s precarious financial situation, analysts say these large contracts are unlikely to be touched by the military rulers.
However, an official close to the justice ministry said all was in place for whatever probe the military had in mind.
“The dossiers are there. There just needs to be some political will,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Pic: President Mamadou Tandja of Niger