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Niger’s success: did anybody notice?

Niger, April 11, 2011

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Protests turn violent in Egypt and Yemen. Transition seems likely after prolonged fighting in Libya and Ivory Coast. Recovery efforts trudge on in Japan’s tsunami zone. Power peacefully changes hands in Niger.

Wait. What?

It’s the tragedy of today’s bad news-obsessed media, not to mention a dearth of foreign reporting bureaus, that last week’s news from Niger was largely overlooked.

Niger’s newly elected President Mahamadou Issoufou was sworn into office last week for a five-year term. That followed a democratic election and the other candidate’s concession of defeat. Power was also handed over to Issoufou from a military junta that had been in place since February 2010, when soldiers overthrew a president who’d held onto office for 10 years and was trying to grab a third term.

What’s all of this mean for the people of Niger, who are among the poorest and hungriest on earth? It means that the rule of law and democracy could become realities, critical services like education and medical care could blossom, and there could finally be an effective crackdown on the nation’s rampant drug and human trafficking. It means that the international community is more likely to provide aid dollars, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have a responsible government partner to help spend them.

Even before elections, the international community had seen a change. Last spring, the military junta government sounded the alarm of drought and food shortages to the UN, donors and NGOs, allowing food aid to flow in and avert a famine. The previous government had refused to admit to hunger woes, which cost countless lives during a famine in 2005.

Niger is a positive African story the likes of which one rarely hears: free and fair election, concession of defeat, a junta handing over power. Most African transfers of power — or attempted transfers of power — that make it into American media culminate in violence, or at best, crippling political stalemate: Most recently Ivory Coast, but also Madagascar in 2009 and Kenya in late 2007.

Yet there’s been scarcely a news story about Niger’s successful, peaceful transition of power, which says a lot about western perceptions of Africa as well as our media priorities.

Sure Africa will be in the news tomorrow — with a famine, an epidemic or a war. But could we take just a few minutes to celebrate when things go right?