NIGER: Aid doubts grow ahead of referendum

Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
Billboards for donors in Diffa, Niger. And what happens if they leave?

NIAMEY, 3 August 2009 (IRIN) – Threats and warnings continue to be traded by supporters and opponents of a constitutional referendum scheduled for 4 August, which has put hundreds of millions of aid dollars in doubt – as well as raising questions over whether President Mamadou Tandja will remain in power after his term ends in December.

Since 2 August, street fuel-sellers in Niger’s capital Niamey have been ordered to shut down until after the scheduled vote to prevent the risk that fuel could be purchased to destroy polling booths. Minister of Security Albadé Abouba issued a warning on 1 August to clamp down on “any attempt to disrupt public order”.

While international criticism of the proposed referendum intensifies, state television continues to broadcast speeches by village leaders praising Tandja’s “courage to stand up and defy the international community”, interspersed with images of local authorities installing electricity in villages in Dosso – 150km east of Niamey – where protesters burnt cars and clashed with police during demonstrations against the referendum in May.

On 17 July, after meeting representatives from the UN, African Union, International Francophone Organization and Economic Community of West African States, Tandja told journalists he “was not elected by the international community, but rather the Nigerien people who demand [that I] continue the work I have begun”.

This “bravado” will be difficult to sustain if the country loses aid from major donors, including the European Union (EU), which has helped Tandja tackle poverty, said Laoual Sayabou, coordinator of a Niger civil society umbrella association.

The EU has threatened to suspend aid if democratic order is not restored. From 2000 until 2007, it has provided Niger with US$667 million in development aid and since 2005, an additional $43 million in humanitarian emergency assistance.

The government signed six agreements with the EU in May 2009 totalling $300 million, of which $132.5 million is for 2009-2010 budget support to reduce poverty, according to Sayabou.

“More than two-thirds of this aid goes to general spending by the state,” he added.

State spending

The state already invests too little of its own money in essential services, the assistant director of nutrition in the Ministry of Health, Aboubacar Mahamadou, told IRIN. Of the health expenses detailed in the 2010-2015 Poverty Reduction Strategy Document, Mahamadou said: “Only with difficulty will you find any of these expenses covered by government funds.”

Listed health funding sources included the UN Children’s Fund, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Helen Keller International and the World Health Organization.

A scheduled radio campaign to broadcast 100 public health messages in the country’s far-east Diffa region at a cost of $2.1 million is to be paid for by the state’s donor-backed Common Fund.

Mahamadou said that while the state pays health-workers’ salaries and operational costs to keep open medical institutions, this was not enough to build capacity in the health sector, reduce donor dependence and improve health indicators.

And it may become even more difficult for the government to keep up these salary payments if donors withdraw support, union leader Issoufou Sidibé told IRIN. “Life will get even more expensive for government workers than it already is.”



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