Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
With global outcry focused on the threats to democracy in Honduras and Iran, a "slow-moving coup" occurring in Niger has gone under the radar for many. While President Obama addressed the Parliament of Ghana last week and said that "we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments," he failed to speak out about the erosion of democracy in nearby Niger.
In late May of this year, a constitutional court in Niger rejected President Mamadou Tandja's request to hold a referendum on extending his presidency another term after his two term limit expires at the end of this year. In the days following the ruling, President Tandja dissolved both the court as well as the Parliament of Niger and has also reportedly censored the press and arrested opposition leaders.
Despite President Tandja's steps to dismantle the democratic institutions of Niger and ignore the Constitution, Nigeriens are fighting back. Trade unions have organized general strikes and joined thousands of other civil society groups in demonstrations all across the country. As The New York Times recently reported:
Just yesterday, police in Niger fired tear gas and violently dispersed a protest by women activists. Lawyers were on a 24-hour strike this past Monday. Privately-owned newspapers in Niger have announced plans for a one week strike next week and they will be joined by radio and television stations for one day on July 26th including 60 publications, 23 radio and four television stations.
As we have mentioned on this blog before, Niger already has ongoing problems with forced labor, trafficking and the worst forms of child labor. Due to these serious abuses, ILRF filed a petition to the US Trade Representative to review the status of Niger under the Generalized System of Preferences in the US (you can read that petition online here). That petition is still under review, but one of the main arguments the Government of Niger has consistently raised in support of maintaining their trade benefits from the US has been that the government plans to enact a new law related to trafficking and forced labor. However, President Tandja's recent political maneuvers call into question the government's ability to prevent these labor rights abuses and to implement a full range of trade union and human rights.
The International Trade Union Confederation has expressed solidarity with trade unionists in Niger and sent this letter to President Tandja. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have spoken out as well.
While President Obama may be correct that good governance in Africa "is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans" it is also incumbent on the US -- and those of us who support worker and human rights -- to stand in active solidarity with those in Niger working to "make change from the bottom up."