Niger: A Quick Look at “Uraniumgate”

In Niger, a complex potential scandal involving uranium sales is unfolding. It is so serious as to have prompted a parliamentary inquiry (French), which began on March 27 and will run for forty-five days.

Here is some of the backstory: In 2011, Hassoumi Massaoudou, then-chief of staff to Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, authorized “a bank transfer…for $320 million from an account belonging to state miner Sopamin to an account controlled by an offshore company called Optima Energy.”

Currently, Massaoudou is Niger’s current finance minister. At a press conference in February, he argued that “his involvement in a series of transactions involving the uranium rights, ending in its sale by Sopamin to French state-owned nuclear company Areva, ultimately earned the state a profit.” You can listen to the press conference here (French), where Massaoudou says that at Areva’s suggestion he engaged in “trading” to make a profit for Niger “for free.” He also says that the gains were deposited in the treasury and spent on expenses, “notably vehicles for the presidential guard.”

Documents showing the transfer first appeared in February in the Nigerien newspaper Le Courrier. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the full newspaper report online; the closest I’ve come is a photograph I found of the print edition, and even that appears to show only part of the article. (If anyone has access to a photograph of the entire story and accompanying documents, please email them to me.) One document (French), signed by Sopamin’s director at the time, may contradict Massaoudou’s account by showing that the transfer was not connected to trading but to uranium sales.

So to make things a bit clearer, here are some of the key players:

  • Massaoudou
  • Issoufou
  • Sopamin (La Société du patrimoine des mines du Niger, which might be translated as “Niger Mines Assets Firm”), a state-run company with stakes in major uranium and gold mines
  • Sopamin’s former director Hamma Hamadou
  • Sopamin’s current director Hama Zada
  • Optima Energy, a Lebanese firm based in Dubai (but perhaps a branch of a Swiss firm)
  • Areva, a French state-owned firm that operates two major uranium mines in northern Niger
  • Energo Alyans, a Russian distribution company

Jeune Afrique (French), which has reviewed the documents in question, provides a chronology and gives the prices at each step:

  • Areva’s sale to Energo Alyans: $220 million
  • Energo Alyans’ sale to Optima: $302 million on 24 November 2011
  • Optima’s sale to Sopamin: $319.8 million on 25 November 2011
  • Sopamin’s sale to Areva: $320.65 million

As even this quick look shows, the situation is highly complex. The inquiry could prove explosive for Niger, France, and various firms.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Gambia

When Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh finally gave up power in January after having lost the December 2016 presidential election, one looming question for the administration of Gambia’s new President Adama Barrow concerned accountability: Should Jammeh and his team be punished for their abuses of power, and if so how? Jammeh, on his way out, appeared to have negotiated some form of immunity for himself (and perhaps for dozens or even hundreds of family members and associates) as part of a deal with West African leaders. Jammeh is now in Equatorial Guinea and likely beyond the reach of Gambian (or international) prosecutors. Meanwhile, Barrow’s team has, since December, sent mixed signals about its intentions vis-a-vis the previous regime: some of Barrow’s people indicated an intention to investigate and punish abuses, whereas Barrow himself favored a truth and reconciliation commission.

On March 24, Barrow’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou announced that the administration will create such a commission. According to Tambadou, the commission will investigate human rights abuses and financial wrongdoing. It is unclear to me whether perpetrators of abuses will face criminal penalties, but Tambadou said that victims would receive compensation. Tambadou gave a six-month timeline for the creation of the commission. As part of the preparations, Gambian authorities intend to study past commissions from other countries, including the famous commission in South Africa. Deustsche Welle has more details on the proposed process:

Initially, victims are to be invited to give the commission an account of their experiences. But  it will be two years before even preliminary findings are forthcoming. Tambadou has appealed to Gambians to be patient. Many are expecting that the rapid political transformation the country has undergone will lead to equally swift changes in all other walks of life. Reforms cannot be enacted overnight, Tambadou said. Not even in the new Gambia.

The commission has support not just of the president, but of segments of the press and civil society. One interesting argument for the commission appeared earlier this month in The Point. The author suggests that the commission’s importance has to do less with the past than with shaping the future, namely by foreclosing the possibility of Jammeh’s return.

It is hard to contemplate but should by no means be dismissed out of hand that wherever he is, Yahya Jammeh is nursing hopes of making some kind of triumphant return to The Gambia. He must be scheming and plotting and exploring just how he could use whatever financial muscle and local human capital he has to return to Banjul, even to State House so he can teach Gambians a lesson they would never forget. Some of us would think that this is too far-fetched to merit serious consideration. But in my humble opinion, it is not at all farfetched that Jammeh is certainly dreaming of making a return to Banjul sooner rather than later. Whether he does so or not depends on how our political situation evolves over the next three years and the extent to which the real Jammeh is brought out into the open for all to see and recognize.

[…]

Making it impossible for Jammeh to come back to The Gambia or the APRC from coming to power ever again requires practical realpolitik from Barrow’s coalition government. Appropriate and rigorous enquiries into the activities of the ousted despot, his enablers and his party must be started immediately, and findings of any and all wrong doing must be vigorously and consistently publicized and discussed on national media. Jammeh’s crimes are so horrendous that when they are exposed and laid bare for all to see, even some of his most die-hard supporters might think twice about ever associating themselves with him or his party. The much touted truth and reconciliation commission needs to be established without delay, its deliberations opened to the public and streamed live on public and social media.

The columnist’s words are not idle. Barrow recently asked neighboring Senegal, a strong backer of his administration, to send more troops to the Gambia. Barrow explained, “Twenty-two years is a long time, [Jammeh] still has influence, he has his friends in Gambia. We need the Senegalese to stabilise that security situation so that we can reform, train our military. This is very important because we cannot do this if the government doesn’t have enough security.” The announcement of the truth and reconciliation commission, then, comes at a time when even the president is worried about what Jammeh’s remaining loyalists might attempt, should the opportunity present itself.

Senegal, Niger, and West African Democracy

I’m up to Global Observatory today with a post discussing two legal battles I have blogged about separately here – the trial of Hama Amadou in Niger, and the proceedings against Khalifa Sall in Senegal. My post at GO compares the two situations and assesses the implications for democracy in West Africa.

Nigeria and the Islamic University of Medina’s Dawra: An Interesting Anecdote

Last week, while doing a quick Google search to confirm the life dates of Umar Fallata (see below, I came across this obituary for the Nigerian Muslim religious leader Isa Waziri (1925-2013). The obituary contains an interesting anecdote about the dawra (tour), a kind of educational and recruitment initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina. The dawra, as I discuss in my book, was a key mechanism for recruiting Nigerian students to Medina; worldwide, Nigeria was one of the countries where the University conducted the most tours. The dawra was a key early step in the careers of several prominent Nigerian Salafis.

But as the anecdote makes clear, the Saudi and African scholars who ran the dawra took pains to make sure that it was not just a Salafi affair:

I saw one great quality with Shaikh Isa Waziri around 1994 during the annual Dawra, which is a course for Arabic teachers organized by the Islamic University of Madina under the leadership of Shaikh Abdalla Zarban Al-Ghamidi.  A dinner was organized at Da’awah Group of Nigeria in which almost all the Islamic Scholars in Kano were present. Equally present at the dinner was late Shaikh Umar Fallata, a highly respected Islamic scholar who teaches in the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

It was an interesting event, because despite all the differences between Izala and Tariqa, many prominent Islamic scholars from Tijjaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Izala were present. But one thing you cannot miss during the dinner was that Shaikh Isa Waziri was the rallying point among these scholars, some of whom do not get along publically. On that day, I saw some wonders, because some of the scholars that members of the public thought would look away when they meet each other were so respectful of one another. You wouldn’t be completely wrong if you suggest that sometimes our scholars dribble the followership.

Not only was Waziri a prominent shaykh from the Tijaniyya Sufi order, but the dinner included figures from both the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya, the two most prominent Sufi orders in northern Nigeria. This is not to say that there are no tensions between Salafis, who are often vehemently anti-Sufi, and Sufis – it would have been quite fascinating to attend that dinner! – but it is to say that sometimes stereotypes don’t hold true. Moreover, as the author of the obituary points out, sometimes public hostility can give way to private cordiality.

The anecdote raises two other points:

  1. African scholars who took up residence in Saudi Arabia and became part of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment also, often, became key links between Saudi Arabia and Africa. One can see that in the case of this anecdote and Umar Fallata. The best English-language source on Fallata is Chanfi Ahmed’s 2015 book on West African scholars in the Hijaz. See also here (Arabic) for an official Saudi Arabian biography.
  2. I think a lot about the idea of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world (see here and here). That’s on display in this anecdote too, as the author of the obituary argues that no scholar in northern Nigeria today can play the unifying role of someone such as Waziri. No one wants to fall prey to a distorting nostalgia about the past – it’s not like there were no intra-Muslim conflicts during the twentieth century! – but it does seem like the Muslim world, and various Muslim communities, are much more internally fragmented than they were even a generation ago.

Senegal: The Arrest of Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall and Its Effects

Khalifa Sall is the mayor of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He is also a key opponent of Senegal’s President Macky Sall, and a prominent member of the Socialist Party. On March 7, the Dakar High Court indicted and detained Khalifa Sall on charges of embezzlement. Today, he is supposed to appear for a new hearing (French).

The mayor’s defenders see the case as politically motivated – as a way for Macky Sall to attempt to shape the coming legislative elections in July and to neutralize a potential challenger for the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2019.

Politically, the short-term impact seems to have been to raise Khalifa Sall’s profile even further, especially among the opposition (French). He is now, Le Monde says, “the man to beat” in the legislative elections, in which he plans to run his own slate of candidates. Jeune Afrique (French) says that the situation has “galvanized the opposition.”

The case is having noticeable effects not just on the political sphere, but also on the religious plane. Interestingly, the Sy family of Tivaouane, one of the most prominent Sufi families in the country (they are leaders within the Tijaniyya order), is intervening on Khalifa Sall’s behalf. If this source (French) can be trusted, the new head (khalifa) of the family has telephoned Macky Sall to ask for Khalifa Sall’s release. The khalifa invoked the Sy family’s ties to Khalifa Sall by marriage as the reason for his intervention. A younger but quite prominent member of the Sy family, Mansour Sy, was even more outspoken in his support (French) for the Dakar mayor, pledging that he would go to prison with him if he is convicted. How much the entreaties and threats from Tivaouane matter to Macky Sall will be interesting to see.

Senegal: A New Khalifa for the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane

Within Senegal’s Sufi orders, the Sy family of Tivaouane is one of the most important (usually observers consider the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane, the Mouridiyya of Touba, and the Tijaniyya of Kaolack to be the most important Sufi communities in the country). The family recently had a change of leadership with the passing of Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Sy Al Maktoum and the succession of Abdoul Aziz Sy Al Amine. The position is known as Khalifa, but means “successor” rather than “caliph,” or at least it means something different from the connotation that “caliph” has taken on in English.

A brief biography of the new khalifa, who was born in 1928, can be found here (French). He is the sixth khalifa of the Sy family, and is the son of Serigne Babacar Sy (1885-1957), the first khalifa, and is the grandson of Al-Hajj Malik Sy (1855-1922), the founder of the family and of this branch of the Tijaniyya. The new khalifa has been a longtime counselor to past leaders of the community.

Niger: Opposition Leader Hama Amadou Sentenced in Absentia

Hama Amadou is a Nigerien politician who placed third in the first round of the 2011 presidential elections. In the second round, he supported Mahamadou Issoufou, who went on to win the election and who is Niger’s current president. After the election, Amadou became president of Niger’s National Assembly. In 2013, he and Issoufou fell out. In summer 2014, Amadou and a number of his associates were accused of involvement in trafficking babies from Nigeria. Amid the allegations, Amadou fled the country (and was replaced as National Assembly president), returning only in late 2015 to campaign for the 2016 presidential elections. He spent the campaign under arrest, and was crushed in the official final results, losing to Issoufou 7% to 92%. Amadou was evacuated to France for medical reasons in March 2016, and he remains there in exile.

All this is background to the one-year prison sentence given to Amadou, in absentia, by the Appeals Court in the capital Niamey on March 13. It seems highly unlikely that Amadou will return to Niger any time soon, and so it seems that the sentence is intended to deter him from returning or from attempting to resuscitate his political career.

With the major caveat that I haven’t seen any of the evidence presented at the trial, I must say that the charges have always appeared bogus and political to me. Why would a prominent politician traffic in stolen babies? Profound moral corruption at high levels is of course not unknown, but it stretches credibility to think that Amadou, in the midst of a huge political fight with Issoufou, would have taken a massive professional risk.

The trial took one day (French), and many defendants received five-year sentences. The lawyers for the defendants complained that proper legal procedures were not being followed, and they boycotted (French) the proceedings. You can read an interview with one of Amadou’s lawyers here (French).

If the charges are indeed bogus, that would be a sign to me of growing authoritarianism in Niger.