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Anti-Tax Strike Shuts Down Niger Capital


A stay-at-home strike against a new tax on essential goods has shut down Niger's capital, Niamey, amid a growing movement against the unpopular measure. Analysts say the government may have to back down, despite pressure from international donors to take tough economic measures.

A group of shop owners stand around Niamey's empty central market, complaining about the new tax. None opened for business Tuesday, in compliance with a call by consumer advocates for a stay-at-home strike to protest the new value added tax.

"We closed because we have to follow the movement," one shop owner says. He says, this tax hike makes no sense and the government must take pity on the poor.

Across the city, shops and offices were also shut down. No taxis were on the streets. This is what Niger's Coalition Against Costly Living, the group organizing the strike, calls in French "la ville morte," the dead city.

They are protesting against the new tax, passed into law in January, that adds an extra 19 percent on essential goods like water, cooking oil and electricity. Niger's government has said it is simply trying to keep in line with the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and regional banks in an attempt to stimulate aid and investment.

But civil society representative Ali Sekou says the tax simply isn't fair.

Mr. Sekou says, since the tax is added onto the price of goods needed by everyone, it is disproportionately hard on the poor. And in a country where salaries have not gone up in the last 10 years, it is creating a situation that, in his words, is catastrophic.

Adding to hardships, locust infestations in the last two years have crippled the agriculture sector in the mainly desert country. Roughly 85 percent of Niger's 11 million citizens live on less than $2 a day.

West Africa economic and political analyst, Olly Owen says, faced with such public hostility, Niger's government may be forced to rethink the tax.

"I would think that, probably, the government will have to back down a little in the short term, in terms of maybe the range of things,” said Mr. Owen. “But it will be keen to not be seen to do that under pressure, which is why you see these widespread arrests and detentions going on. But, I think, they will face serious problems, if they really tried to drive the reform through completely undiluted."

Dozens of people were arrested last week following a street demonstration against the tax in Niamey. The government quickly banned future protests, but coalition organizers vowed to press ahead with stay-at-home strikes.

A similar protest was also being observed in Niger's second largest city, Zinder, Tuesday. Journalists in Zinder say several young protesters were arrested after loudly taking to the streets.

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