As the American presidential campaign seemingly stretches earlier for each election, Niger’s official electoral campaign season appears refreshingly brief. When it opened on the night of January 29, less than a month ahead of the February 21 election, Niamey immediately transformed. I recall being out for dinner with a friend that evening, and when we were on our way home, a major intersection which had been empty when we first passed it on our way out had already been claimed by one campaign, streamers in its party colors stretched over the road from one sign post to another. (It was about 10pm, a few hours before the official opening at midnight.) The visual culture of elections here is striking: in addition to the streamers, posters and billboards promoting some fifteen candidates for president are plastered all over the city, on homes, cars, even special pagne cloth.
Incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou is widely expected to take the most votes, but if he does not take a majority (i.e., over 50%) of the votes—not an easy task with so many competitors—a runoff election will be held in March between the two frontrunners of the first round. Complicating the election is the fact that one of the most prominent opposition candidates, former Prime Minister Hama Amadou, is currently imprisoned on charges of trafficking babies. Like any good election, this mix engenders some fascinating campaign strategies. Slogans are chanted, repeated among acquaintances, and printed on posters. Issoufou’s campaign, for instance, proclaims in Hausa “Ka Yi Mun Gani Mun Gode”—roughly, “You accomplished it, we saw it, we thank you.”
There are also biting critiques, including cartoons and their digital cousins: Photoshopped images of candidates. These are shared on social media online and on cellphones, friends laughing as they show one another some of the most absurd creations. One of the more remarkable that I’ve seen was an image of a baby clutched in the talons of an eagle flying through the sky, its head replaced with that Hama Amadou. Other critiques focus on Issoufou’s close ties to foreign leaders, especially Europe; his “Je suis Charlie” proclamation of solidarity with France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last year has been quite controversial in Niger, as the satirical journal’s negative caricatures of Islam have been deeply offensive.
Besides the visual culture of the campaign, however, Niamey vibrates with a rich electoral soundscape. Caravans of decorated cars, trucks, and motorcycles rove around the city, honking horns, riders chanting slogans, stereos blasting music; I’ve seen semi-trucks with a whole ensemble of drummers in the back—anything to draw attention to the enthusiasm of supporters and intimidate their opponents. There’s a taste of campaign caravans in this news clip about the campaign of Hama Amadou’s party, Le Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien pour une Féderation Africaine (MODEN-FA Lumana):
In front of many homes hangars have been erected, under which groups of men pass the time drinking tea and visiting, sheltered under their partisan colors in the shade as the end of the cold season brings triple-digit temperatures back to the Sahel. Many of these hangars have stereo systems set up that are blasting campaign songs promoting their particular candidate. Riding around town in taxis with the windows rolled down to keep cool, you are subjected to a sort of Doppler-esque effect in which you sometimes hear a campaign hangar before you see it, and then listen to it fade behind you as you pass by.
Thumping bass and high-pitched Autotuned voices, a hallmark of dandali soyeya—music from Nigeria’s powerful Hausa film industry, which attracts a large following in Niger, where comparatively little media is produced—characterizes a lot of the campaign songs. It is thus no surprise that some of the songs sound remarkably close to one of the campaign songs of Nigeria’s Hausa president, Muhammadu Buhari. During Nigeria’s election last summer, in which he defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari ran on a platform of combatting corruption in government. Thus one of his campaign songs proclaimed “Masu Gudu Su Gudu” (let the fugitives flee).
“Ma Su Gudu Su Gudu,” 2015 campaign song for Buhari and his party by Dauda Kahutu Rarara:
One of the 2016 campaign songs for Issoufou and his party:
Another 2016 campaign song for Issoufou, featuring Naziru Sarkin Waka (Naziru, King of Song) from Nigeria, who has also participated in Issoufou’s political rallies in Niger:
I’ve heard invocations of “Masu Gudu Su Gudu” in songs similar to those shared above around Niamey this month. On the radio in Niger it’s also getting airplay, presented by musicians who perform the more localized style of groups like Tal National, what Scott Youngstedt has described as “the Niamey sound.”
I’ll share more on election-related music news in a second post. For now, I’ll leave you a few recommendations on further reading about Nigerien politics. Background on Niger’s general political history is available in a helpful briefing by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. A couple fairly comprehensive orientations to this particular election have appeared in the Washington Post (by Lisa Mueller, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Macalester College, and Macalester political science student Lukas Matthews) and the International Peace Institute’s The Global Observatory (by Alex Thurston, Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program).