Recent Reports and Articles on the Sahel and the Horn

A few new reports have come out lately about the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, all of which may interest readers:

In the comments, please feel free to alert of us about any other new reports.

Thoughts on Secretary Kerry’s Trip to Nigeria

On August 23-24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria. He visited the capital, Abuja, as well as Sokoto (map), a major city in far northwestern Nigeria. Sokoto has special significance as the seat of one of the largest Muslim polities in pre-colonial Africa, an empire whose territories extended throughout much of present-day northern Nigeria and into parts of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon. Sokoto has continuing relevance in post-colonial Nigeria, where the Sultan of Sokoto (a direct descendant of the pre-colonial ruling family) is the country’s highest-ranking Muslim hereditary ruler.

Trying to shape Nigerian efforts to counter “extremism” – read, Boko Haram – was clearly the thrust of Kerry’s agenda in Nigeria. But I think the trip was executed in a way that muddled its message, in three domains:

  1. Security Trumps Human Rights: U.S. policymakers have long stressed, in public remarks, that Nigerian politicians and military leaders should work harder to ensure that the anti-Boko Haram fight is not marred by systemic human rights violations. But Washington’s actions toward the Nigerian government have only sometimes indicated that human rights are the U.S. government’s major concern. The same was true on this trip – in Sokoto, Kerry said, “To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria has a long legacy of supporting – values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights.” But that line was buried in the middle of his speech. Meanwhile, one of the big “deliverables” of his trip to Nigeria was a near-promise to increase U.S. military aid to Nigeria. Given that actions speak louder than words, I think Nigerian elites will hear the message that the military’s well-documented abuses against prisoners, militants, and civilians will not, in the long run, be a barrier to receiving more aid from the U.S. If Kerry had intended to send a serious message about human rights, he should not have promised new aid, or he should have made it explicitly conditional upon human rights reforms.
  2. A Top-Down, Risk-Averse View of Religious Engagement: In a sense, it is fitting for the top-ranking U.S. diplomat to meet with Nigeria’s top-ranking hereditary Muslim ruler. But in another sense, Kerry’s trip to Sokoto represented the most clichéd form of religious engagement that the U.S. might attempt in northern Nigeria. Since 1903, when British forces killed Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru I at the Battle of Burmi, Sultans of Sokoto have been largely deferential to Nigeria’s political authorities. The Sultan wields little influence, in my view, over the type of people who join or sympathize with Boko Haram; such people already have real doubts about the integrity of hereditary Muslim rulers. Who, then, was the intended audience for Kerry’s trip to Sokoto? If it is Muslim youth, or fence-sitters thinking about joining Boko Haram, are they meant to be impressed by Kerry praising the Sultan as a model of inter-faith tolerance? In my view, it was fine for Kerry to go to Sokoto, but he should have also met with a spectrum of Muslim leaders in Abuja, including mainstream Salafis.
  3. A Misreading of Boko Haram: Should the U.S. government decide who is a Muslim and who is not? In Sokoto, Kerry argued that Boko Haram has nothing to do with Islam – “Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance.” The idea that Boko Haram is nihilistic is empirically false, unless you are willing to dismiss virtually every statement that Boko Haram has ever made. I’m not saying that Boko Haram is “Islamic,” but I am saying that they consider themselves to be such. And if you discount that, then I don’t think you can really counter their ideology. I believe Kerry should either have avoid trying to imply that he has the authority to give a normative definition of Islam (this is the better option, I think), or he should have acknowledged and addressed some of Boko Haram’s core ideas.

The Islamic State in Libya and Sahelian Recruitment

In late May, the Islamic State’s Wilayat Tarabulus (Tripolitania Province, i.e. northwestern Libya) released a video aimed at recruiting West African Muslims. Entitled “From Humiliation to Glory,” the video’s core argument is that Muslims will face damnation if they do not journey to what the Islamic State considers the land of true Islam.

The titular “humiliation” refers to the idea that West African Muslims live in societies marked by unbelief – societies where Islam has been stripped of “jihad, shari’a, and the Caliphate.” The opening sequence of the video shows pictures of Muslim heads of state like Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, and denounces these rulers as puppets of “Crusaders” (i.e., the West – Jammeh, for example, is shown standing next to U.S. President Barack Obama). Western African Muslims, the video argues, should leave the land of de facto unbelief for the Islamic State’s territory in Libya, depicted as a land of both military glory and material prosperity and security.

Scripturally, this argument rests on verses such as Qur’an 9:38-39 – verses that the Islamic State reads, without applying any historical context, as speaking directly to West African Muslim today. The video repeatedly invokes the idea of punishment in Hell for allegedly lax Muslims.

The bulk of the video features five West African speakers – a Malian, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, a Senegalese, and an English-speaking “immigrant” with no identified nationality. The video makes liberal use of West African languages: Hausa from the Nigerian and Wolof from the Senegalese, and two other languages I can’t identify (readers, feel free to comment if you can identify these languages). The Nigerian and the Ghanaian also speak in English. Interestingly, the video makes little use of French.

Will the video be effective at recruitment? Perhaps, in the hands of the right recruiter and the right combination of circumstances and social networks. The video is slickly produced, and the young speakers seem charming, calm, and dedicated. Perhaps some young men (and women) could be lured by the religious argument, the overall vibe, the appeal of participating in a revolutionary lifestyle, and/or the negative characterization of leaders like Issoufou and Jammeh. Certainly there is some discontent in West Africa with such leaders, especially with an autocrat such as Jammeh, and there is also some discontent with secularism itself.

At the same time, however, the video’s argument about damnation will not be new to many listeners. There are many Muslim clerics across West Africa working hard to rebut that argument, and to insist that conducting moral reform at home is better than fighting for a dubious cause abroad. Moreover, the levels of political discontent and identity crisis also seem to be far lower in much of West Africa than in, say, Tunisia, which has supplied a strikingly high number of fighters for the Islamic State.

In a way, it was most jarring to see the Senegalese speaker. I’ve grown a bit cynical about Senegalese exceptionalism – the idea that Senegal’s history, religious landscape, and/or national character make it immune to “extremism” – but I’m not immune to the pull of that notion. Seeing a Wolof speaker promoting the Islamic State seemed bizarre. (Even though I should have been prepared for it; there have already been reports of isolated Senegalese heading to Libya.)

Will facts on the ground undermine the video’s appeal? Quite possibly. Presumably any aspiring jihadist in West Africa, especially one with access to radio or television, would conclude that now is a bad time to head to the Libyan city of Sirte, which was until recently the Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya and is now under heavy attack by forces loyal to Libya’s unity government. The speakers in the video were keen to contradict “Western media” portrayals of Libya, but June’s events are making May’s propaganda seem far-fetched.

Implications for Boko Haram?

It is telling that the video made no reference to Boko Haram. The Nigerian speaker urges West African Muslims to come to Sirte – and not to Nigeria, or to other countries around Lake Chad. How should one interpret this silence? On the one hand, the video’s message provides more evidence of the mobility and adaptability of jihadists in the region; if Boko Haram’s fortunes flag in Nigeria, jihadists can shift their attention and their rhetoric to Libya. On the other hand, the video’s silence about Boko Haram suggests a kind of competition between the Islamic State’s Libyan and West African affiliates. If, as I suspect, there is a fairly limited pool of West African Muslims ready to participate in armed jihad far from their homes, then the competition becomes almost zero-sum: fighters cannot go to both Libya and Nigeria.

Interestingly, the video appeared as a debate is playing out in the media about Boko Haram and its relationship with the Islamic State. This debate seems to reflect an analytical disagreement within the United States government: we hear some U.S. officials saying that cooperation between Boko Haram and the Islamic State (especially its Libyan affiliate) is growing,  and others saying that “there is no meaningful connection between [the Islamic State] and Boko [Haram].” The tone and message of Tripolitania Province’s video gives support to the latter view. Although Boko Haram is a formal “province” of the Islam State, the leaders in Libya appear to writing Boko Haram off – to the extent that the video features a Nigerian asking Nigerians to come to Libya.

No doubt the terror-ologists will insist that this is all evidence of Boko Haram’s master plan to take over Africa, and/or that Boko Haram will cleverly regroup inside Libya before re-emerging later. I think that kind of perspective ignores how logistically difficult much of this kind of movement and fighting must be. For West Africans to cross the Sahara, find their way to whatever (southern?) Libyan holdout the Islamic State is groping for now, and then to spend months or possibly years on the run, has got to be an unpleasant and dangerous undertaking. Even the jihadists who have unusual tenacity and luck at the game of strike-and-run in northwest Africa, such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are (a) rare and (b) probably more often hiding and running than actively attacking or even plotting. How many West African Muslims are really going to sign up for that life? I don’t think Boko Haram should be written off (witness the recent attacks in southeastern Niger), but neither do I think that fears of African jihadist super-groups, or some kind of trans-Saharan empire connecting Libya to Nigeria, are well-founded.

The video, for all that it is slickly produced, could even be read as evincing a kind of desperation on the Islamic State’s part – which makes sense. For now, at least, the Islamic State in Libya seems to be on the decline. Attracting a small Libyan support base, an (admittedly sizable) contingent of Tunisians, and a (much smaller) number of sub-Saharan African fighters was enough to allow the Islamic State to cause severe disruption in Libya, but it was not enough to build an enduring political and territorial unit in the face of better-armed and better-funded competitors. If the Islamic State can regroup in southern Libya or elsewhere, perhaps the recruitment of West Africans will continue apace or even increase; but such a regrouping would presumably take months, and would inevitably run into the same problems the Islamic State faced in Sirte (and before that, Derna).

So it will be interesting to see how the Islamic State’s recruitment of West Africans fares now that Sirte seems to be falling. And it will also be consequential how West African governments respond to those fighters who do go, and then return; even if I am right and the flow is just a trickle, how that trickle is handled will matter a great deal (see Afghanistan, aftermath of).

Northern Nigeria Conference at JHU SAIS (Washington, DC), April 7-8

For interested readers: Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, located in Washington, DC, will host a conference entitled “Strategies for Economic Reconstruction in the Northern States of Nigeria” on April 7-8 (tomorrow and Friday). Notable speakers include Prof. Attahiru Jega, former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, as well as numerous other Nigerian and American scholars and practitioners. The conveners ask that anyone interested in attending RSVP to saisafrica@jhu.edu. I’ve attached the conference program here.

Guest Post: The 2016 Election in Niger: A Missed Opportunity?

[This is a guest post from Ibrahim Yahya Ibrahim, a Research Associate with the Sahel  Research Group and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida. – Alex]

Continuous Political Tension

On February 21st, Nigeriens voted massively – 67% of registered voters cast their vote – in a ballot that turned out to be Niger’s most controversial election in recent history. Hama Amadou, one of the major contenders, was in prison throughout the electoral process, accused of involvement in a baby trafficking scandal.  Given the multiple allegations of electoral fraud, not to mention the boycott of the run-off election on March 20th and the subsequent rejection of the election results by the opposition, the 2016 election appears as a missed opportunity for Nigeriens to resolve in a peaceful and institutional manner the ever-growing political tensions that seem to herald yet another cycle of political instability.

Figure 1 Niger

Figure 1: Voters waiting to cast their ballot on February 21st.

It is worth mentioning that Niger is a country with a long history of political instability. The most recent episode started in August of 2013 when President Issoufou, in reaction to a deteriorating climate within the ruling coalition, and threatened with losing the majority in the National Assembly, suggested the formation of a government of national unity, which he invited the main opposition parties to join. But, drawn by the prospect of creating a new coalition that could impose a regime of cohabitation – where Issoufou would remain President while the opposition took control over the government – the opposition decided to decline the offer. A climate of disdain and mistrust emerged between the two camps, each one seeing only conspiracy and sabotage in the other’s actions. In a last-minute struggle, the government managed to divide the opposition coalition and extracted crucial support from opposition breakaways, so that it maintained its parliamentary majority and remained in power.

Following this power struggle, Issoufou’s government adopted an uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the opposition on various issues related to the organization of elections, the so-called crushing of the opposition parties, and the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. In reaction to this rigid and aggressive approach the opposition also adopted an increasingly confrontational attitude that often included the incitation to civil disobedience and fanning of ethnic resentment.

This political tension raised the stakes of the 2016 election. It appears, in fact, as if Niger’s aging political elites, viewing the end of their political careers approaching, have become more aggressive in their fight to conquer or hold on to political power. The growing animosity among the elite contributed to the radicalization of campaign discourse, and pushed the protagonists to use all means possible, including non-conventional ones, in order to secure victory. Resorting to ethno-regionalist arguments to mobilize voters as well as the organization of electoral fraud that included underage voting, vote buying, and rigging of election results, were but some of the radical strategies that politicians on both sides used in order to garner votes.

The perspective of a run-off between Issoufou Mahamadou and Hama Amadou – respectively winners of 48% and 17% of the vote in the first round – temporarily allowed for some relaxation of tension. But on March 17th the coalition of the Opposition for Change in 2016 (Copa 2016) declared that they would “withdraw” from the ongoing electoral process, and called on their supporters to boycott the run-off ballot on March 20th. They took this radical position following the Constitutional Court’s validation of what they deemed the fraudulent results of the first round of the elections. Whether this stance is interpreted as the attitude of “ sore losers,” or the only recourse available to victims of fraud, the boycott announcement certainly set the stage for contestation and a post-election struggle.

The “Coup K.O.” Controversy

One of the major issues of the 2016 election was the controversy around President Issoufou’s campaign slogan of “Coup K.O.” – “knockout” in English – meaning his expectation of an undisputed victory in the first round. Throughout the electoral campaign, Issoufou’s partisans asserted he would win the first round. They pointed out that Issoufou was able to win 36% of the vote in the first round of the 2011 presidential election, and that this came to pass despite fifteen years spent in the opposition (1995 – 2011) and at a time when he was running as the candidate of only his party, the PNDS Tarayya. Now that he was running on behalf of a coalition of 44 parties, and after governing the country for five years and successfully implementing his “Renaissance Niger” program, it was very realistic to forecast his reelection in the first round.

The Coalition of the Opposition for Change  (Copa 2016), composed of 17 political parties including Hama Amadou’s Moden FA Lumana Africa, and Seyni Oumarou’s MNSD Nassara viewed the Coup K.O. slogan as “unrealistic and even provocative.” They argued that given Niger’s pluralistic and highly fragmented political party system, no presidential candidate has ever won the elections in the first round, except for Ibrahim Mainassara Baré’s fraudulent victory in 1996. From their perspective, the Coup K.O. slogan was nothing more than a pledge to another electoral fraud, which would only result in chaos for the country.

Figure 2 Niger

Figure 2: Coup K.O caricature portraying Issoufou Mahamdou knocking out Niger. Published by the pro-opposition newspaper, Monde d’Aujourdh’hui.

The Coup K.O. slogan thus contributed to exacerbating an already tense political climate between the opposition and the government. The electoral campaign was in fact marked by a series of arrests of members of the oppositions, clashes between the police and partisans of Hama Amadou, and an unprecedented level of verbal violence, particularly on social media. Two days before the elections, Amadou Boubacar Cisse, the spokesperson of Copa 2016, declared that his coalition would reject any result that gave Issoufou the victory in the first round.

Voter Mobilization and the Revival of Ethno-Regionalism

In Niger, political ideology has never been a relevant factor of political mobilization. Party affiliation, however, used to be strong, but is now in decline in favor of sympathy towards, and personal connections with, political candidates. In the absence of these two factors, ethno-regionalist feeling has emerged as one of the most effective means for political mobilization. Political parties’ strongholds correspond, in fact, to the region or city of origin of candidates. Thus in the 2016 elections major candidates such as Mahamane Ousmane, Issoufou Mahamadou, Ibrahim Yacouba, and Hama Amadou each won over 50% of the votes in their region of origin, respectively Zinder, Tahoua, Doutchi and Niamey. This preference is partly based on clientelistic incentives, such as voters’ expectation that their chance of gaining privileged access to state resources is greater if people from their region or ethnic group hold power.

In this election, ethno-regionalism was enhanced by a feeling of empathy vis-à-vis certain candidates who were deemed victims of harassment by the government. Candidates such as Hama Amadou, who ran his campaign from prison, and Mahamane Ousmane, who was ousted from his own CDS Rahama party, largely benefitted from voters’ empathy in their respective fiefdoms. In Zinder, Mahamane Ousmane’s supporters prominently used Hausa proverbs that evoke social obligations to lend support to a victimized relative or friend: naka naka ne komin lalacewarshi (“yours is yours no matter how bad he is; if you reject yours, then who will love/support him?”) or ranar takaici kai ya cire (Anger must be expressed regardless of the consequences), or also Ba aro ba haya, yaw aikin gidanmu muke yi (“No loan no rent, now we are working for our own.”) In their local meaning and contexts, these proverbs convey a sort of ethno-regional chauvinism that had hitherto been latent and in decline.

Ethno-regionalism, however, seems to have been more prevalent in the presidential than in the legislative elections. Regarding the latter, local relations of reciprocity such as attending neighbors’ social ceremonies, helping out people in need, generosity, and other such valued personal traits, tended to override the ethno-regionalist considerations. Thus for example in Zinder, a city that is overwhelmingly Hausa and known for its communitarian support for Mahamane Ousmane, there was nevertheless a strong enthusiasm for ethnically Zarma legislative candidates from Dosso and Tillabery.

Remarkably, religion did not play a significant role in the campaign, except for a few references to the anti-Charlie Hebdo riots that struck the country in January 2015. Religious leaders’ activism in the electoral process was limited to invocations and appeals for peaceful elections. Despite the unprecedented rise of political Islam in the region, it is quite surprising that no religious-based movement similar to the Malian Sabati 2012 or the Mauritanian Tawassoul arose in Niger. Perhaps the popular view of politics as dirty and ungodly, together with the Nigerien government’s assertive management of the religious sphere, have created an unfavorable context for religious leaders to develop political ambitions.

Electoral Frauds

Although the elections took place peacefully and on a globally satisfactory note from the point of view of international observers, there have also been reports of several types of fraud that included underage voting, rigging of election results, and vote buying.  While vote buying has remained an effective political tool in Nigerien elections, particularly in rural areas, its effectiveness was in fact declining, as voters had become increasingly aware that, given the way the electoral system operates, they can actually accept money and still vote for the candidate of their choice. But given the high stakes of this election, vote-buyers proved more persuasive, raising the offered amount to a level never reached before in order to try to ensure the voters’ full loyalty. The “cost” of a vote has thus varied significantly. While some people in Zinder apparently accepted to sell their vote in exchange for small amounts of cash – between 1,000 and 2,000 CFA (about $2 to $4) – or for small items such as soap, in Maradi, a closely-contested town, the cost of vote saw an unprecedented inflation, reaching up to 10,000 CFA (about $20) per vote, or a bag of rice.

In other instances, party brokers collected voters’ cards from owners, or managed to get the non-distributed ones from village chiefs or districts leaders, and then re-distributed these to their supporters with ready-made ID cards that allowed them to vote again. This is a preferred procedure for vote buying because the buyers are certain to get the vote. Some people voted several times with different voters and ID cards. In Niamey, another closely contested city, credible information reported people selling their voter cards for up to 20,000 CFA ($40).

Although, the accusations of fraud have been usually directed toward the government, the use of fraudulent practices by all political parties, especially vote-buying, had been in fact more a matter of degree and resources. Many legislative candidates and political brokers from both the ruling and the opposition parties resorted to these strategies in order to garner votes.

A Contested Victory

On March 22nd, the electoral commission announced the results of the run-off. Issoufou Mahamadou came out victorious, winning 92% of the votes. This margin of victory was not surprising, given that the opposition had boycotted the ballot. What was surprising, however, was the 59% participation rate, which contrasts with the low turnout reported by many observers, at least in most urban areas. In a press conference organized on the same day, the Coalition of the Opposition for Change in 2016 reiterated its rejection of the electoral process, as well as of all of the institutions that will result from it. It further declared that it would consider Issoufou’s regime illegitimate starting from April 2nd, the day when Issoufou’s first term comes to an end. Beyond this outcry, the only solution that the Copa 2016 proposes is calling on the international community to help establish a transitional government that will organize new elections. It goes without saying that a transitional government is not on the government’s current agenda. Moreover, in his short victory speech, Issoufou Mahamadou focused on national unity and social cohesion as the only solution to the current crisis. He called upon Nigeriens “to come together, to not waste energy in vain quarrels, to unite in order to construct the nation.”

It is clear that at this moment, government and opposition sit on separate tables and that the gap between their respective proposed solutions is wide.  Although a promising diplomatic effort to bring the two parties to the negotiating table is ongoing, for those who hoped to see in these elections the proof of Niger’s democratic maturity, the 2016 elections were a source of great disappointment.

 

 

On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

I’ve published a paper with the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, entitled “‘The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” It deals with the Boko Haram crisis, which has caused untold damage in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions over the past six years and more. The paper’s title derives from a video where Boko Haram’s (deceased?) leader, Abubakar Shekau, responded to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s denunciation of Boko Haram as a “cancer.”

The paper is the length of a journal article, so I won’t say too much to summarize it here. I do want to emphasize that it’s an attempt to take Boko Haram’s religious discourses seriously: not to excuse those messages or the violence, of course, but to try to understand them and even to give the group’s ideology *some* analytical weight in the quest for an explanation of the violence.

That latter proposition has proven controversial for some audiences and colleagues I’ve encountered. For some, the idea that armed groups might actually believe what they say they believe is anathema. Many analysts view jihadist leaders as either psychopaths or opportunists, and their followers as either dupes or victims. Certainly there is reason to feel that way, especially when there is evidence that leaders are hypocritical, power-hungry, etc, or that followers have been coerced. But people are not simple and it is possible that even if a leader is a hypocrite or an opportunist, it’s still worth paying attention to what he says, because it might give hints as to why a group behaves the way it does. Moreover, if jihadists were all mere opportunists or psychopaths, why would they develop such systematic and detailed ideologies?

So the paper tries to get at some of those questions. I doubt that it will convince those who believe material forces are the sole determinants of the violence. But if you’re interested, I go through various official statements from Boko Haram and discuss the remarkable consistency in their messages from circa 2008 (and probably before) to the present, and show that a core combination of religious exclusivism and perceived victimhood has underlain many of their other ideas, including their rejection of Western-style education.

If you do read the paper, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms here. I will be continuing to work on this topic, and your feedback will help me refine my thinking and research.

Niger: Yet Another Coup?! [Guest Post]

[Today’s guest post is by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Florida. He has conducted extensive research in and on the Sahel, and especially on Mauritania and Niger. – Alex]

The celebration of Niger Republic’s birthday used to be a solemn occasion where Nigeriens rejoiced in communion over their “unyielding progress” toward the achievement of national unity and renaissance. This year’s celebration, however, came with sad breaking news: President Issoufou Mahamadou announced in his traditional Address to the Nation that his government had foiled a coup attempt that was supposed to happen on the anniversary day. His announcement came five days after the government conducted a series of arrests that targeted nine high-ranking military officers, including the former Chief of Army Staff, General Salou Souleymane, and the Air Force commander Colonel Dan Haoua. All this happened against the backdrop of heightened social and political tensions related to the arrest of the former President of the National Assembly, Hama Amadou, as well as the contentions surrounding the organization of the 2016 presidential, legislative and district elections, and the fight against Boko Haram.

Niger is known for its history of political instability and recurring military coups. Since the democratization process started in 1992, the country has experienced three military coups, including the last one in 2010. Recently, rumors of another coup have intensified in the country, reflecting the sour political climate that originated from the breakup of the ruling coalition in the late 2013. In brief, President Issoufou’s announcement was not totally unanticipated. But it raises numerous unanswered questions that animate passionate discussions in the fadas, and social media in Niger. One of these questions concerns the credibility of the allegations, whether there was really a coup attempt or whether this is yet another strategy by Niger’s government to divert public attention from crucial challenges that are facing the country while at the same time justifying crackdowns on the political opposition.

Only a few details have so far emerged regarding this alleged coup attempt, but in light of the recent developments, each of these hypotheses can be plausible. On the one hand, there are reasons to believe that a coup might be attempted given the high level of social and political tensions in a country where military coups have often been the ultimate solution to political crises. Yet on the other hand, recent developments in the region might discourage would-be coup makers. If anything, the lesson learned from Sanogo and Diendere’s misfortunes in Mali and Burkina Faso, respectively, is that the period of military coups in the region is becoming outdated. Many Nigeriens are asking how such credible military officers as those arrested in this coup plot might have failed to learn this lesson. Could such officers really have thought they could get away with a coup in such unfavorable circumstances? Many Nigeriens simply do not believe the coup narrative.

Background

The current political tensions started in August 2013, when in response to the deteriorating relationship within the ruling coalition, Issoufou’s government started broad consultations with the opposition parties in order to create a government of national unity. After several months of negotiations, the initiative failed at the last minute. As a result, and in order to prevent losing the majority in the National Assembly, which would result in a tumultuous Cohabitation, Issoufou’s government resorted to extracting allies from within the opposition parties, in complete disregard for the hostility of the parties’ leadership. This strategy produced profound divisions within the opposition parties leading to the breakup of the major ones, including MNSD Nassara, Moden FA Lumana Africa, and CDS Rahama – into pro and anti government factions. Since then, the so-called “crushing of opposition parties” (le concassage des partie de l’opposition in French) resulted in a growing animosity between the government and the opposition.

Hama Amadou – leader of Moden FA Lumana Africa – initially member of the ruling coalition and President of the National Assembly, decided to leave the coalition in favor of the opposition. But soon after he shifted sides, his name appeared in the heavily mediatized baby trafficking “scandal,” where he was accused of illegally claiming the parenthood of two babies that were allegedly “bought” in neighboring Nigeria. He fled the country to avoid arrest and sought asylum in France, where he positioned himself as a radical opponent to President Issoufou and potentially the major challenger of the incumbent President in the upcoming elections. Hama returned to Niger on November 5th 2015, after spending more than a year in exile, and following his nomination as presidential candidate on behalf of his party, the Moden FA Lumana. His party, which enjoys strong support in the capital city Niamey, mobilized thousands of supporters to welcome him at the airport. But the crowd was violently dispersed by the police, and Hama was arrested at the airport and immediately transferred to prison in Filingue, a small town located at around 180km northeast of Niamey.

The arrest of Hama heightened the already tense political climate, and quite importantly, it also generated an unprecedented level of ethnic tension in Niamey. Hama and his followers have often used ethnic arguments in their struggle with Issoufou’s government. Many of their statements suggest that Hama, who is Zarma (the second largest ethnic group in Niger representing 22% of the population) is victim of an ethnic adversity orchestrated by Issoufou’s government allegedly dominated by Hausa (the largest ethnic group, representing 52% of the population). Hama’s supporters in the diaspora have contributed to the heightening of the ethnic tensions in Niamey. One of his strong supporters based in New York published videos on youtube and Facebook in which he call Hama’s supporters to engage in violence to protect their leader. The videos created an outcry particularly after the violence that occurred upon Hama’s return from exile. Ethnicity has been less of an issue in Nigerien politics when compared to other African countries. All the major political parties have rallied significant support across ethnic groups. The ethnic discourse becomes salient when elections approach. During their campaign, for instance, political leaders sometimes use ethnic argument to mobilize support.

Current and Upcoming Developments

2016 is an election year in Niger. The first round of the presidential and legislation elections are scheduled to happen on February 21st. The opposition has expressed grievances regarding the organization of the elections, demanding particularly an international audit of the electoral list, the removal of the President of the Constitutional Court, whom they accuse of partiality given her personal acquaintance with President Issoufou, and finally the rescheduling of the district elections. The main opposition parties have threatened to boycott the elections if these demands are not satisfied. But the absence of direct dialog between the two parties has made it difficult to reach to a negotiated settlement of the issues. The National Council for Political Dialog (Conseil National de Dialogue Politique in French), the traditional venue through which government and opposition discuss and settle political matters has been dysfunctional, constantly boycotted by the opposition.

These tensions are exacerbated by the further deteriorating security situation in the region of Diffa where the military is trying more or less successfully to defend the border from Boko Haram’s recurrent assaults. The government has often used this tense security context as a pretext to justify restrictions on civil liberties. Until recently, in fact, the local authorities have systematically rejected all requests for protests authorization, and have violently dispersed all demonstrations organized by the opposition and the civil society under the pretext of preventing further destabilization of the country. Prominent civil society actors were arrested and accused of complicity with Boko Haram after they denounced violence allegedly committed by the army on local population in the conflict zones in Diffa.

Given all these tensions, and particularly following the recent altercation between Hama Amadou and Issoufou’s government, rumors of an imminent military coups became a major topic of discussion in Niamey. Hama is suspected to have acquaintances with certain influential officers in the army, and every time that he seems in trouble with the government, rumors of an imminent military coup come to surface. This was notably the case in 2008-9 when he was jailed by Tandja’s regime, and in 2014-15 during and upon his return from exile. In the same way that the crisis during Tandja’s regime led to the 2010 military coup, many would suspect that history might repeat itself once again.

Yet, despite these tensions, the current circumstances are far more unfavorable to a military coup in comparison to the 2010 context. First, although there is an increasing social and political tension in Niamey as the result of the arrest of Hama Amadou, the “crushing” of the opposition parties, and the restrictions on civil liberties, the tension has not yet reached the point where it can credibly and legitimately justify a coup, let alone to earn it the broad popular support that it needs in order to succeed. Historically, military coups happen in Niger under the conditions of a complete paralysis of the government or a serious threat to the survival of democracy, as it was the case during Tandja’s Tazarce. None of these seem to be the case in the current situation in Niger. Thus, if this alleged coup is real, then it would be the first of its nature, where the military attempts to overthrow a regime that despite major shortages remains democratic and legitimate.

Second, recent developments in the region, particularly the failed coup attempts in Mali and Burkina Faso, are not very encouraging to potential putschists. Both local populations and the international community appear less and less willing to tolerate the reckless military eruptions in politics. This might be even more so in the current situation in Niger where the likely scenario – would the coup attempt succeed – looks like a déjà vu: a country that is two months away from general elections, more or less successful in keeping the jihadist assault on its periphery, and all of the sudden a military coup occurred in the capital city, the state collapse opening widely the doors to the jihadist to conquer and occupy large portions of the territory… The last time this scenario happened was in Mali in 2012, and the consequences were so terrifying that neither the Nigerien population nor the international community would dare to accept such a risk.

Third, President Issoufou enjoys strong international support due to the focal role that he plays in the struggle against the spread of jihadism in the Sahelo-Saharan region. Niger is viewed as a crucial fortress that prevents the reunion of Saharan jihadist groups operating in Libya, Mali, and Algeria with the sub-Sahara African jihadists, notably Boko Haram operating in the Lake Chad area. Reinforcing this strategic position was certainly part of the reason why France and the US have deployed drone and military bases in Niger. One could bet that neither France nor the US would allow the destabilization of their major ally in the region, even if that would necessitate the intervention of their military forces stationed in Niamey. Moreover, foreign military intervention to save an allied regime in difficulty is not a new practice as suggested by the French military support to Idris Deby’s regime in the 2006 foiled coup attempt in Chad.

For all these reason a military coup is unlikely to succeed in Niger in the current context. One would assume that no one knows this reality better than the military officers who are arrested in this alleged coup plot. Did these officers really conspire to overthrow Issoufou’s regime? Currently the information beforehand is inconclusive, as only the government side of the story is known. The following days and the ongoing investigations will certainly tell us more.