Liena El-Lahawi is a second-year BA International Relations student at KCL and IR Today’s Sub-Saharan Africa Editor. Her latest article assesses Niger’s efforts to carve out a positive, rejuvenated national identity in the form of the Sahelian state’s new anthem, contrasting this with the profound fragility of the Nigerien state on the ground.
With an upcoming wave of African nations celebrating 60 years of independence in 2020, the West African country of Niger seeks to change its national anthem, attempting to cast aside its French colonial history as part of a move towards a positive Nigerien national identity. Composed in 1961, many verses of the song have recently been denounced for their polemic discourse. But, will a change in anthem inspire a ripple of similar actions across the Sahel?
An Unpopular Appreciation?
At its core, the lyrics appear to express appreciation for their former French colonisers and gratitude for allowing the nation to finally gain its deserved self-autonomy. Indeed, particular concern lies within the lines “Let us be proud and grateful for our newfound freedom”, giving the impression of a feudal deference towards France, with which many Nigeriens naturally fail to agree. Although representing a mere portion, it cannot be denied that the lines render the anthem outdated and obsolete, unexpectedly giving rise to criticism and the rational desire for change.
“An anthem needs to galvanize the population, like a sort of war cry to touch our patriotic fibre; everyone should feel attached to the values of the nation”, asserts the Minister of Cultural Renaissance, one of the primary initiators of this movement. And rightly so. More specifically, the anthem seeks to include the principal official languages, Hausa, as well as French, embracing the diversity of Nigerien ethnicities and demonstrating cultural inclusivity. Citizens have expressed the excessive reference to colonisation simply undermines the new Niger which has developed self-sufficiently following independence and absolutely no credit is due to their former rulers. Put simply, the current tune simply does not correspond with Nigerien values and the new one strives towards representing Nigeriens in the present, and into the future.
However, with the creation of a new national anthem comes great risk, particularly in the way Nigerien authorities have approached the matter. The responsible committee, inclusive of ministers, writers and composers, has opened up suggestions to members of the public, supposedly with the intention of receiving as many as possible. Calling upon the seven regions of the country, the committee is disposed to entertaining ideas concerning changes in the melody, as well as the lyrics, allowing for an entire rebranding of Niger’s anthem and by extension, the country’s image on the international stage. However, this intense open-mindedness has potential to prove itself as counterproductive; too many ideas being generated risks going astray from the actual objective at hand, which could result in nothing being achieved at all. Despite the fact the assigned committee has the final say, one should consider whether granting such power so widely would be valuable towards achieving the final goal.
Where Should Niger’s Priorities Lie?
On a larger scale, the Sahel region remains one of critical instability, with Niger in particular being subject to jihadist militancy and criminal threats on six of its seven frontiers, with an especially eminent danger in the form of Boko Haram militants infiltrating across the border from neighbouring Nigeria. Niger’s military is a founder member of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, an amalgam of troops from Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, whose principal target is combatting jihadist brutality in the region. The incessant Boko Haram insurgency concentrated in northeast Nigeria has triggered a wave of refugees entering Niger, Chad and northern Cameroon, as well as attacks in the southern region of Diffa contributing to an increasing rate of Nigerien internally displaced persons. Arguably more concerning, however, is the Sahel’s particular vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and desertification over the coming decades, risking an acceleration in the rate of migration as well as widespread competition for resources, as dependency on agriculture for an income proves to be more challenging.
These pressing factors combined raises the question of whether altering the Nigerien anthem should truly be a national priority, when human security is at such grave risk. With a history of economic crises and political instability, it cannot be denied that such matters should take precedence in the hands of the government, aiming to ameliorate overall social welfare. Although Niger should be praised for its intention to embrace and fortify its values, perhaps, given the current climate, it would be better for this decision to be placed on hold.