Previously, I touched on some of the connections of Nigeria’s Hausa media industry and Niger’s election songs. While the sounds and texts of Nigerian dandali soyeya may emerge in Niger, Nigerian political developments themselves have contributed to political imaginations here. This was most clear when two weeks ago, one of Niger’s most famous singers, Habsou Garba, was arrested in relation to a song she had recently released in support of opposition candidate Hama Amadou and his campaign.
Garba has long been an active singer in Nigerien politics, an interesting development for her background because she does not come from a family of griots. (This trajectory is not so unusual in postcolonial Africa; another example of someone defying caste expectations is Mali’s Salif Keïta.) In fact, as discussed in Ousseina Alidou’s Engaging Modernity: Muslim Women and the Politics of Agency in Postcolonial Niger (2005), Garba switched from a French school to a French-Arabic school as child because she wanted to learn how to sing. She didn’t realize at the time that what she’d heard at the school were recitations from the Qur’an. Her life and her songs exemplify what is known as brassage—the mixing of ethnic and cultural affiliations, common in Niger as in much of the Sahel, that in many cases render simplified accounts of singular ethnic identities rather meaningless. Thus, given her own background with Zarma and Hausa parents, many of Garba’s songs incorporate these and other Nigerien languages as well as musical instruments drawn from the traditions of the diverse members of her group, Annashuwa.
At any rate, Garba has been a vocal supporter for the MODEN-FA Lumana political party (as seen in the video above), which broke off from the older MNSD party for which she had been a singer at the time of Alidou’s book. For this election, while private radio stations air an array of songs promoting various candidates and political parties without problem, Habsou Garba was accused of inciting civil disobedience through a song focused on negative criticism of the current president and the accomplishments (or lack thereof, so it is claimed) of his party. Shared through radio, cellphones, and online, the song also invokes Nigeria’s recent election, in which Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan. In essence, Garba’s song urged Nigeriens to defeat Niger’s ruling party “like the way they toppled Goodluck.” Another one of her songs roughly translates as “Hama, my Mandela,” though I have yet to have a chance to translate the full text. Garba was imprisoned for ten days leading up to the election, yet her songs remain on the airwaves.
Now, it’s moments before 5 PM on the Friday after last Sunday’s presidential and legislative election. The final votes are still trickling in from rural parts of Niger, where incumbent president Mahamadou Issoufou is believed to have strong support. The current vote count positions him just shy of the 50% needed for him to achieve a “coup KO”—a straight up win in the first round of elections, without facing a runoff election against the top opposition candidate Hama Amadou (who remains in prison). It was previously announced that the final counts would be revealed by about this time, but it appears we may still be waiting a while longer. Opposition candidates, forming a coalition to challenge Issoufou, have contested the running of the election, claiming a host of problems with voter registration and insufficient ballots, among other issues. There is a sense that if there is no runoff election, opposition parties may call on their supporters to take to the streets in protest.
As I sit here, checking in on the latest voter returns from Niger’s electoral commission, the state-run TV channel Télé Sahel is broadcasting a music video on repeat that was created by Niger’s Superior Council of Communication with support from the UN Development Program and other international aid organizations to promote peace during the election. It’s been on TV, on the radio, on YouTube, everywhere for the past couple weeks.
Cultural work to promote peace has been around in Niger for a long time, especially after the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s. There are governmental and non-governmental organizations founded to further this cause, such as Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, which has financed national tours for musicians. And while it takes more than songs alone to maintain peace and a national community, the fact that Niger has not succumbed to the same internal violence as neighboring countries in recent years—despite a lot of challenges in the region—suggests that these efforts may not be in vain. Although many (though not all) Tuareg in Mali continue to advocate for an independent state of Azawad, many of the Tuareg with whom I’ve spoken here, while often sympathetic to that cause, do not see this as a necessary path in Niger. Indeed, Niger’s most prominent Tuareg musician, Bombino, has contributed to the appeals for peace in Niger with his song “Alher” (“Peace;” English translation below).
Translation (by the Program of Community Cohesion in Niger):
To all my young brothers: come!
Let us be united and in solidarity
Let us bring together our strengths
Let us cultivate peace in our communities
Let us advance hand in hand
We have to come together to consolidate peace between us
I call on all my friends from the desert
From Oubari to Addar
Let us cultivate peace
From Air to Kawar
Let us cultivate peace
From Azawad, from Fezzan to Hoggar
Let us cultivate peace
My brothers from north to south
Let us cultivate peace
My brothers from east to west
To make peace and to love one another
Our ancestors handed to desert down to us with all its virtues
Peace, freedom, sanctity, the spirit of welcome and generosity
Today our mountains and our dunes are constantly crying over the loss
Of their children involved a war between brothers that has lasted for too long
Let us love one another, brothers. Let us cultivate peace like we inherited from our parents
Let us bring back the joy of living, the freedom, and the tranquility of the desert
Where are the young people?
Those from the east, the west, the south and the north
Come all, we’ll come together
Let us not look behind us
Let us aim far
The culture of peace is priceless
Listen carefully to this message
It has now been announced that nobody earned a majority in the first round of voting, and that there will, in fact, be a runoff vote for the presidency on March 20. Perhaps further observations on Niger’s electoral soundscape will be forthcoming.