Birth through fire or staff induction? A Canadian visits Niamey
June 5, 2012 - Niamey, Niger
A Canadian in Niamey. Sounds a bit paradoxical. My inaugural OSIWA mission was an eight-day trip to Niger. Three days in, sitting inside the High Authority for Anti-Corruption (HALCIA) during a power cut, a drinking water shortage and the weight of +45 degree heat heaving down on me, I struggled to tear my skin off the leather couch and wearily wondered, “Is this OSIWA’s induction or some kind of initiation process?”
There’s a Tuareg rebellion brewing in the northwest. Al-Qaida forces are lurking in the northeast. Boko Haram is gathering steam in the south. And arms and drug trafficking are constant threats clear across the country. All this combined with the forthcoming famine, the situation in Niger seems more than a little dire. And yet when asked if, as part of the communications team, I’d like to accompany my new colleagues on their mission to Niamey for a week, the answer was a definite, unwavering, resolute…yes! There was no doubt in my mind this was a place I’d like to walk around in, so to speak. A couple years after the coup, it was a great opportunity to see, on the ground, how a country was rebuilding itself politically and economically. It was also a very important chance for me to witness the real and practical ways OSIWA goes about promoting democracy, good governance, and active citizenship – all very abstract terms that I needed to bear witness to better understand.
And now looking back in retrospect, I don’t quite remember what I was expecting of Niger before embarking on this venture. Maybe I secretly harbored some romanticized image of this Sahelian land? Had I inadvertently pictured, like most Westerners, some kind of desert dreamland? A place of exotic faces and fabrics; a far-flung drift braved only by the camels and veil-covered figures who courageously trudged through endless miles of cinnamon-colored sand carrying leather sacks filled with mysterious treasures? At this point I don’t even remember what I had in mind. I like to think I’ve lived in the region long enough to avoid falling into these stereotypical pitfalls. But perhaps still yet, when it comes to certain countries, ones that I’ve witnessed more through Western media than my own touch and feel, I can still succumb to some fairly erroneous, if not subconscious, ideas.
The first thing to greet you when you arrive in Niamey, even at midnight, is the heat. In fact, the word “heat’ does not suffice. It simply does not convey the level of oven-door-squelch that instantaneously floods over your body as you take those initial steps down the airplane stairs at Hamani International. And rather than “greet”, which might imply a gentler form of encounter, this force quickly bombards as if to say, ‘welcome…you’re about to get toasted’. If this all sounds a bit dramatic by this point, keep in mind, I hail from a snowy Western province more accustomed to the inverse of +45 degrees where I spent winters going down white-capped ski-slopes and summers huddled by campfires. So my initial moment of panic arriving in Niamey was appeased only by the thought of a soothing air-conditioner blasting ice-cold gusts into my hotel room. Sadly, I was proven wrong. Little did I know, even air conditioners get hot.
How to adequately summarize the proceeding 6 and a half days in Niamey? It’s a question I’ve had to address several times upon my return when asked by family, friends and colleagues, “So, what was it like??” And yet in reply, the conversation invariably stalls at the temperature. Discussing climate is an international point of commonality. But obviously there is far more to the country and particularly the work it’s doing towards rebuilding democracy…
Niger is, in many ways, to be applauded. In the course of only two years, since the February 2010 coup, government officials, civil society and members of the media have helped make impressive progress on many fronts – reconstructing a new constitution, implementing anti-corruption legislation, advancing various transparency and accountability initiatives (especially in the extractive industries), and promoting freedom of expression laws. Each day we met with no less than four different state or non-state actors, civil society or members of the media who each gave us updates on their particular challenges and successes, speaking (more or less) frankly about the areas they have improved on and where is still work to be done. For myself, sitting at these meetings where I partook more as an observer than an active participant, I can honestly say I was repeatedly struck by a remarkable level of both knowledge and dedication to the ongoing project that is “democracy in Niger”. This job is obviously not for the faint of heart. You have to be in this frying pan with both feet. Niger is the kind of country where patience and determination reign. I didn’t see any kind of excess – people were restrained in speech, movement and behavior. I suppose in such climates it’s to be expected. But perhaps it is also because historically-speaking, after having tread through times of great difficulty and serious upheaval – moments that I may never be able to imagine –people are more cautious in their optimism and push towards an “open society”? I’m not sure. One can see the building blocks of a new foundation being put in place; the molds are slowly forming, but the country is still among the poorest in the world and insecurity seems to be mounting on every side. There is no doubt that Niger has still got a long, tenuous road ahead, but I think the people forging this path have a steady gait.
Returning to Dakar, I can’t lie, I was thankful to be back and appreciative for the balmy 27 degrees that awaited us. But looking back on the trip I think I gained a lot more perspective and understanding – not just of Niger, but also of the role of OSIWA and how it helps fill the various gaps that pave each country’s unique path along this pendulum of democracy, and of its people - the very ones that must continue to persevere and maintain belief that their particular road, though long and hot, is indeed achievable…with or without air conditioning.
Amanda Fortier is the Communications Assistant at OSIWA's head office in Dakar.
Watch the short video on OSIWA's Niger 2012 Mission here.