Earlier this week, Jeune Afrique published an interview with the Nigerian politician and presidential candidate Seini Oumarou. The candidate for the former ruling party the National Movement for a Society of Development (MNSD), Oumarou was prime minister from 2007 to 2009 under President Mamadou Tandja (in office 1999-2010). Niger will hold the first round of its presidential elections (coupled with legislative elections) on December 27. Oumarou placed second in the 2011 elections and third in the 2016 elections.
I don’t mean to single out Oumarou, but the interview exemplifies some of what observers (Sahelian and non-Sahelian) have been saying with regard to the “political class.” That term has been used a lot in the wake of turbulent events (a summer of protests, then a coup, and now a transition) in Mali this year. The term also applies to other Sahelian countries, referring in my view to (a) the relative staleness of the personalities at the top of the political scene, (b) the relative similarity of top politicians’ resumes and backgrounds, and (c) their relative solidarity with one another as a class.
In a way, having a political class is not at all unique to the Sahel. My own country just elected someone who was in high office from 1973-2017, and who has run for president three times, beginning in 1987. Despite a great deal of concern about the “partisan divide” in the United States, one also sees a great deal of cross-party solidarity as a class, with “country club rules in Washington” coming into play in subtle but consequential ways. Meanwhile, on the one hand, one could argue quite plausibly that in the Sahel, there is more fluidity in terms of figures moving in and out of government, party lines getting blurred, party formation serving as a vehicle for senior politicians’ direct political interests, professed ideologies getting muted, etc. On the other hand, President-elect Joe Biden may appoint some Republicans to his cabinet (as Barack Obama did), so I don’t want to say the Sahel is completely unique in terms of ostensible opposition figures going in and out of government.
Still, one striking thing in the Jeune Afrique interview is that Oumarou articulates no criticisms of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou or Issoufou’s designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum. Potentially limiting Oumarou’s ability to make such criticisms, of course, is his official role as “High Representative of the State” during Issoufou’s second term (2016-present). The MNSD has also participated in several unity governments during Issoufou’s two terms, decisions that have prompted splits within the party. Oumarou says in the interview that the MNSD’s decision to join Issoufou was in response to “an exceptional situation,” in other words the mounting insecurity in the country, and that the MNSD participated in the unity initiative “without losing its independence.” I’m not cynical enough to dismiss those motives – certainly the situation was bad in 2016 and is in many ways worse now. But it does leave the MNSD in an awkward position – neither the ruling party nor, at this point, really the opposition either. Asked “how do you judge the president’s record?” Oumarou cannot really answer substantively except to essentially plead with Issoufou, indirectly, for free elections. “If he does that, I believe Nigeriens will be disposed to forget all the bad sides of his record.” Yet Oumarou doesn’t say anything specific he believes Issoufou did wrong. Asked by the interviewer about the ongoing scandal surrounding alleged corruption in security contracts, Oumarou says clearly that members of the president’s team are implicated, that soldiers on the front lines were left poorly equipped, and that justice should be done. But that’s only when pushed and, at least here, Oumarou never gives a specific reason why Nigeriens should vote for him and his party.
Later in the interview, Oumarou essentially acknowledges, at least in my reading, that the entire political and legal system in Niger is subject to negotiation among the key players. Given legal challenges to the candidacies of both Bazoum (over allegations that he was born in Libya, not Niger) and Hama Amadou, a leading opposition figure (over his conviction, despite his protestations of innocence, in a baby-trafficking case), Oumarou seems to suggest that both candidacies should be allowed to go forward in order to avoid allegations of bias against the Constitutional Court. More strikingly, Oumarou suggests that Issoufou’s side tampered with the results of the 2016 election to block Oumarou and the MNSD from advancing to the second round. If Oumarou really believes that and was nevertheless willing to join Issoufou’s government later that year, that combination of attitudes points again to the simultaneously contentious and cooperative workings of the political class in Niger.