Apr 18, 2005
An explosive situation has arisen in Niger, with strikes, demonstrations and rallies in several cities in early April. This poor desert region in West Africa has seen a sharp rise in the cost of living. Tens of thousands of demonstrators are challenging the dictatorship of President Mamadou Tandja and police repression. They are demanding the repeal of a new law imposing a 19% tax on such necessities as water and electricity, rice and millet, flour and cooking oil.
This new tax was voted in by the National Assembly in January, sparking an explosion in a country where the majority lives on less than a dollar a day. This provocative action pushed the anger of the poor parts of the population, taking place as it did after last year's bad harvest which had already led to a 50% rise in the price of rice and millet. A recent invasion of locusts, added to a drought contributed to the deterioration throughout the countryside. The scarcity of fodder has not been this severe since the drought of 1984, and livestock may soon die. The rural population in the east of Niger faces famine; many have headed toward Niamey, the capital, seeking food.
Merchants are allowed to raise their prices with no objection from the government. Niger's official minimum wage is about $59 per month, but many people earn less. Yet the price of millet, their basic food, now costs $42 for a 15-day supply. A sack of rice now costs 40% more than before. The prices of cooking oil, flour, coffee and tea are up sharply. A loaf of bread has gone from 29¢ to 35¢. Even government employees are affected; some saw a wage reduction already of 30%. On occasion, they have joined in the demonstrations. The great majority feel strangled by the government's new tax, reduced to destitution. No wonder anger has exploded in the streets over the last few weeks.
For some time, the government has turned a blind eye to the demands of the "Coalition against the High Cost of Living in Niger," which brings together 30 organizations and unions. Its members have demanded the repeal of the tax.
On March 15, government forces violently attacked thousands of demonstrators in the capital, throwing in prison five of the leaders of the coalition. They were accused of a "plot against state safety."
But far from silencing the discontent, governmental repression had the reverse effect and increased it. The protest moved to other cities. Despite arrests and bans, the strikes and demonstrations reached several other cities on March 22, April 5 and April 9. Zinder, one of the larger cities, was declared a "dead city" by the government in attempting to ban all demonstrations; in Agadez there were violent clashes with the police.
The dictatorship has been surprised by this unexpected and widespread popular mobilization. It freed the jailed leaders of the coalition and mouthed conciliatory words to gain some time. The pressure from the demonstrators is what forced some concessions from the government. Its repression has failed to stop the determination of the population, which continues to demand the repeal of the hated tax.
Perhaps the days of Tandja's dictatorship are numbered if such popular confrontations continue.