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The storm before the calm

A week ago I was awoken at 4 am by rumbling, deafening crashes and flashes of light. What was it rudely disturbing my dream? Nightmarish thoughts flashed through my mind – it’s the referendum today….are people rioting, are those gunshots?  A few moments later the rain began to thrash at the window. Relief, but then I couldn’t get back to sleep. How would the referendum turn out?

President Tandja was due to step down this coming December after 10 years – and according to the constitution – maximum two terms in office. But he claims the Nigerien people want him to continue for another 3 years. What’s a power hungry president to do? Dissolve parliament, dissolve the constitutional court, set up a referendum and put up huge hoardings everywhere asking your people to vote ‘yes’ to changing the constitution.

The only problem? The opposition is asking everyone to boycott the referendum and the international community is threatening sanctions to freeze aid if he goes ahead with what they see as un-democratic and illegal.

I decide to stay at the guesthouse – as advised – and simply wait. On the way to the office the next day, all the hoardings have changed miraculously overnight from ‘Vote yes’ to ‘Thank you’. A remarkably confident media announcement.

But by all accounts, once the stormy dust had settled, the streets of Niamey were clear of voters and any trouble. The referendum (and specially created national holiday) had created a ghost town, with few souls to be seen at the polling stations. It seemed everyone else had stayed at home too.

Whether this was active boycotting or apathy is impossible to tell. A Nigerien I spoke to said he voted ‘No’ because he wants the opportunity to use his voice and his vote. Others tell me they voted yes because they believe Tandja is doing a good job. Everyone I speak to is open about their choice.

My big concern is the impact the sanctions could have on children and their families already struggling in Niger. Landlocked, and highly dependent on aid, imported food and even electricity, it’s frightening to think of the impact on a nation who cannot produce enough food to feed itself and where 1 in 2 children are already malnourished.

Yes Tandja’s government has put in place policies on free healthcare for children under 5 and pregnant women. But the reality is, health centres we visited have not been reimbursed for the medicines and free care they have provided, some of them not for 16 months. Their bank accounts, pharmacies and sinks are dry, (one health centre delivers up to 20 babies a month and has no running water). They are reliant on Save the Children to help them fulfil the promise of free healthcare.

If the government can mobilise overnight to change hoardings all over the country, surely they can get cheap but lifesaving medicines to health centres in less than 16 months? With sanctions being imposed on governmental aid, there will only be more demand for humanitarian aid, and more demand for Save the Children to provide vaccines, training and even essential things like cotton wool and disinfectant which can save children’s lives.

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