A Defense Procurement Scandal in Niger

A major scandal and its consequences are unfolding in Niger, connected to a reported 76 billion FCFA misappropriation of funds at the Ministry of Defense. Back in February, the Inspector General of the Armies completed a fifty-three page report which, according to one press account (French), “reveals an organized system of overcharging” for purchases; contracts were inflated and some purchases, for example of vehicles and weapons, were never delivered. I’ve read different accounts concerning what period the audit covered; Jeune Afrique says 2011-2019, in other words the entirety of President Mahamadou Issoufou’s tenure in office. Twelve firms, including some that are allegedly “fictitious,” were involved, and some firms reportedly belong to several prominent businessmen (French) in the country. Foreign firms (Russian, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Israeli) were also reportedly involved. The audit was transmitted to Nigerien Prosecutor Chaibou Samna in early April (French).

The scandal has, obviously, ramifications for the political class and the military hierarchy. Picking back up with Jeune Afrique‘s account, the audit concerns the tenures of two ministers of defense, Mahamadou Karidjo (currently minister of transportation) et Kalla Moutari (who left the government in February). At least one high-ranking military officer has already been fired, Air Force Chief of Staff, Major Colonel Boulama Issa Zana Boukar. Rumors have circulated about others being arrested or placed under surveillance, but I couldn’t confirm.

The scandal does not seem, so far, to have directly implicated President Mahamadou Issoufou or his hand-picked successor, Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, who is the ruling PNDS TARAYYA party’s presidential candidate for the 2021 elections. The opposition, of course, hopes to leverage the scandal to weaken Bazoum politically (French). Civil society groups organized a demonstration in connection with the affair on March 15 (French), with three deaths and five arrests. With multiple senior members of PNDS potentially implicated in the scandal, and with journalists and the public keenly following the fallout, Issoufou and Bazoum will likely be reacting to the situation for months to come.

Roundup of IMF Statements on Disbursements to Sahelian Countries amid COVID-19

On April 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved six-month debt service relief for twenty-five low-income countries, including the Sahelian countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

The IMF has also given disbursements to each of those countries to help offset the impact of COVID-19.

Burkina Faso ($115.3 million, approved April 14):

The immediate challenge is to contain the spread of COVID-19, strengthen medical care, implement the social distancing and other containment measures, and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, especially on the most vulnerable.

[…]

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Burkina Faso is rapidly unfolding, with the short-term outlook worsening quickly. The pandemic comes at a time when Burkina Faso was already gripped by a heightened security crisis. The authorities responded by putting in place measures to help contain the spreading of the virus, including by closing schools and universities, banning mass gatherings, and suspending international travel. Though absolutely needed to contain the outbreak these measures, together with the global response, have significantly worsened the economic outlook in the near term, with real economic growth declining substantially, and both the fiscal and balance of payments deficits widening significantly.

Chad ($115.1 million, approved April 14):

Due to a significant deterioration of the macroeconomic outlook and weakening of fiscal situation, urgent external and fiscal financing needs have emerged. The IMF’s support will make a substantial contribution to filling immediate external needs and preserving fiscal space for essential COVID-19-related health expenditure. It is also expected to help catalyze additional donor support.

Mali ($200.4 million, approved April 30):

This assistance will help support urgent spending on health services and assistance to affected firms and households, while preserving overall social spending.

[…]

The COVID-19 shock hit the economy hard amid an already challenging social and security situation. The economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, and growth is expected to slow to below 1 percent, increasing already high unemployment and poverty.

Mauritania ($130 million, approved April 23):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic human, economic, and social impact on Mauritania. The short-term economic outlook has deteriorated rapidly and growth is expected to turn negative this year, with severe hardships for the population, and the outlook is subject to considerable uncertainty. These developments have given rise to urgent balance of payment and fiscal financing needs.

[…]

The IMF’s financial assistance under the RCF will provide a sizable share of the financing needed to implement the anti-crisis measures. Additional concessional and grant financing from the international community will be critical to close the remaining financing gap and help Mauritania respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Niger ($114.5 million, approved April 14):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a pronounced negative economic impact on Niger and downside risks are significant. The economic downturn, fiscal pressures, and tightening financial conditions are giving rise to large financing gaps in Niger’s public finances and balance of payments this year.

[…]

A substantial widening of this year’s budget deficit is appropriate, reflecting unavoidable revenue shortfalls and pressing spending needs for health care, social protection, and support for hard-hit businesses.

Senegal ($442 million, approved April 13):

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Senegal hard. The sharp global economic downturn and domestic containment measures have led to a substantial reduction in economic activity, with sectors such as tourism, transport, construction, and retail particularly hard-hit, and the pandemic in Europe is also translating into lower remittances. As a result, the short-term economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, with large uncertainties surrounding the duration and spread of the pandemic.

 

Notes on COVID-19 in Niger

A few links on the situation with COVD-19 in Niger.

You can follow case counts across Africa here. UNICEF put out its first situation report on COVID in Niger last week (.pdf):

The first case in Niger was reported on March 19, 2020 in the capital city Niamey. By April 12, six regions are affected; however, the hotspot remains Niamey with about 98 percent of cases.

For a New York Review of Books collection of letters from around the world, Rahmane Idrissa wrote a short and evocative portrait of life in Niamey amid the early stages of the virus’ arrival there:

The day I returned to Niamey, Niger’s capital, there was a tense citizen demonstration against a huge war-profiteering and cover-up scandal involving the top brass of the ruling party. Three people died in the repression. The Corona Effect was immediately visible in the fact that the international media—especially Radio France Internationale, an influential outlet in French-speaking countries—barely registered the event.

When the president made a speech forbidding all gatherings of more than fifty persons, the main reaction in the public opinion was that he was battling the citizens’ anger, not a virus. And when a first case was announced, people were skeptical because someone had the idea of a viral social media prank, broadcasting on WhatsApp a message in which he claimed to be the so-called “corona-patient,” that he was healthy and that his “case” was all a government plot.

Eventually, the sense of menace sunk in, but in slow motion. Cases are coming in a trickle. No one I know has got it and I know no one who personally knows anyone who’s got it. Yet the continuous flood of startling information from abroad has persuaded general opinion that this is real, like the stench of something odious that’s on its way.

In terms of government policy, it’s worth watching France24’s interview with President Mahamadou Issoufou from earlier this month (French-language interview and English summary here). Issoufou is clearly very worried but has rejected speculation about Sahelian states collapsing.

On April 15, the World Bank approved a loan of nearly $14 million for Niger:

The Niger COVID-19 Emergency Response Project will support the government’s plan by supporting rapid procurement of critical medication and equipment needed for treatment of coronavirus infections. In addition, the project will support the government’s campaign to mitigate the spread of coronavirus by raising awareness throughout the country of how to prevent the spread of the disease. The project will focus on strengthening preparedness through early screening, detection and treatment of patients; as well as as well as improved laboratory capacity and surveillance.

There has been serious unrest in Niamey (French), including a major incident where authorities prevented an attempt at holding group prayer on Sunday, April 20; riots followed in different parts of the city. Worth bearing in mind is that, as with past riots in Niger (and elsewhere), religion is not necessarily the sole or even most important issue in protests that may initially seem mostly inspired by religious concerns.

Religious actors’ response is critical, however – although the top religious leaders and bodies do not necessarily have credibility with young protesters. In any case, unfortunately, on the eve of the pandemic’s spread to Niger, the country lost one of its most prominent shaykhs, Djabir Oumar Ismaël, the imam of the central mosque of Niamey and the president of the Islamic Association of Niger.

He passed at the age of 58 (French), ten years after taking over the position from his father Oumar Ismaël. COVID was not the cause, from what I’ve read.

Obviously the country has many other prominent scholars, but a transition at the top of one of the country’s most important religious bodies is an extra wrinkle in the COVID-19 response.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Council of Niger (of which the Islamic Association is a part) has issued a communiqué (French) urging Muslims to “abstain from all gatherings” during Ramadan, which will begin later this week. Studio Kalangou recently held a forum of religious leaders (Muslim and Christian) in Zarma, a language I don’t speak, but the link is here.

The pandemic response is also heavily affecting the conditions migrants are facing:

Deportations from Algeria to Niger have been a continuing trend since late 2016, with figures decreasing last year only to begin growing again from February onwards. The migrants, who were arrested during police roundups in Algeria’s coastal cities and forced to travel for days in overloaded trucks, were usually offered assistance by the IOM to return to their countries of origin.

But now amid the pandemic, they are forced to quarantine in tent facilities set up in the military border post of Assamaka, where temperatures touch 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), or in the southern city of Arlit.

With borders closed all across West Africa, they risk being stuck in Niger much longer than they expected.

To say the least, Niger is facing numerous serious challenges.

Comments on WaPo Article about Deradicalization of Boko Haram Members in Niger

I’m still catching up on important reporting that came out last month and throughout the fall. One such report is the Washington Post‘s November 20 article about deradicalization efforts for former Boko Haram members in Niger. The article, which is very good, focuses especially on the State Department’s role in shaping and possibly, soon, funding the program (see some official background here).

I’m enthusiastic about such programs, not because they’re perfect but because (a) these fighters or ex-fighters are human beings, and maybe they can be redeemed, and (b) concrete non-violent solutions seem more promising to me than just straight counterinsurgency paired with vague talk of socioeconomic reconstruction. If the fighters in the bush hear that they have choices beyond continued combat or unconditional surrender, perhaps more of them will turn themselves in.

No one says this is easy, though. The following excerpt was, for me, the core of the article:

“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” [former Diffa Region Governor Dan Dano] Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”

A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.

“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said [Neal] Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”

I lean more toward Lawaly’s perspective, but you definitely don’t want hardened offenders slipping through the cracks or taking advantage of the program.

Yet as the article’s anecdotes suggest (and as Sarah Topol’s amazing reporting also suggests), much of Boko Haram’s recruiting was circumstantial and partly coerced. Such recruits came to do horrendous things, but I believe there is a road back for them, albeit one that might fade if authorities (American or Nigerien) place too much emphasis on retributive and punitive justice. That’s a grim thing to say – who wants to choose between justice and peace? This is not my choice to make when it comes to Niger, of course, but I would say that the State Department should heed the voices who prioritize peace.

The other voices who matter, though, include the communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence. This theme comes up in the article, and it came up on my trip to Nigeria last month. It is eminently understandable that survivors and victims may not forgive. In Kano, including in conversations with people from northeastern Nigeria, I heard very different perspectives on what might be done with “rehabilitated” Boko Haram fighters. Some very smart people said that it was impossible for such fighters to go home, given the level of anger and even violence they may face from victims and survivors. Other Nigerians I spoke with even doubted that rehabilitated fighters could successfully integrate in big cities, given that they might somehow stand out and raise questions even in neighborhoods in Kano or Lagos or other cities outside the epicenter of the conflict. But some folks I met did think that big cities might afford a degree of anonymity that would facilitate a new start for the genuinely repentant. In any case, I’m not sure anyone has really worked out a promising solution for the long-term dilemmas about how ex-fighters can lead successful lives – or what compensation the affected communities deserve (a lot) and what they might realistically get (probably much less than what they deserve).

Comments on the CNESS Study on Youth Radicalization in Niger

In June of this year, Niger’s Centre National d’Études Stratégiques et du Sécurité (National Center for Strategic Studies and Security, CNESS) released a study on youth radicalization. (See also this article from Sahelien).

On reading the study, one immediately confronts two things: (1) it is based on some really impressive and expansive research and (2) it is quite explicitly stamped as a product bearing the approval of the Nigerien government, European governments, and the National Democratic Institute. One can admire the report’s occasional frankness about corruption and other governance issues, but one can also question how independent the analysis was.

Regarding the quality of the research, as Sahelien lays out, the report is based on 2,376 interviews with youth and 25 focus groups involving a total of 250 leaders and key informants. The report covers five regions of Niger (Diffa, Niamey, Tahoua, Tillabery, and Zinder) and a variety of different settings: cities, villages, universities, prisons. One critical finding from the report is that urban youth actually appear less susceptible to radicalization than rural youth – a finding that parallels a growing literature on rural jihadism in the Sahel.

But regarding the question of analytical independence, right from the forward one can see the intersection of official voices and perspectives in framing the report: CNESS is a government center, headed by a brigadier general, Ibra Boulama Issa, who thanks Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou in the forward. Issa also acknowledges funding from the governments of Norway and Denmark, routed through the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO that receives considerable U.S. government funding.

None of this is problematic per se, except that one should note how smoothly the report fits into existing narratives about youth radicalization in the Sahel or the Muslim world writ large. The categories used, the categories that shape the analysis, are drawn heavily from the kinds of liberal-technocratic frameworks that lie at the heart of most “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. To me, the basic problem with such frameworks is that they depoliticize jihadism and treat it as a kind of epidemic that just needs to be diagnosed and cured with apolitical remedies. CVE also approaches religion in terms of, as G. Willow Wilson recently and eloquently put it, “social engineering strategies.” But these strategies often target wide swaths of people who have not engaged in violence. It’s also a bit disturbing to think about how the Sahel – some of the poorest countries in the world – has become a kind of laboratory for CVE, with processes managed from Washington through the medium of local states and their technocrats.

To hear Sahelian voices speaking the language of CVE no longer surprises me; at one meeting on youth and radicalization in Nouakchott in fall 2017, for example, I was struck by how closely the conversation resembled meetings I had attended in Washington. Virtually the only differences were the nationalities of the participants and the fact that the meeting was conducted in French instead of English.

This report, too, reads like a standard-issue Washington think tank report on CVE. On p. 6, for example, a table shows four “vulnerability factors” affecting non-university youth: ignorance/misunderstanding of the laws of the republic, ignorance/misunderstanding of the Qur’an, unemployment, and illiteracy. The text then adds two more “push factors,” to use a loose translation: feelings of injustice and feelings that public resources are badly governed/managed.

Then we find hard numbers attached to these categories. 93%-96% of youth in rural areas who have studied the Qur’an, we learn, misunderstand it, while 95% misunderstand or are ignorant of the laws of the republic. But what do these numbers mean?

It’s hard to tell, in part because the report uses categories in a vague and problematic way.  The definitions given on pp. 12-13, especially for “radicalization” and “violent extremism,” rest on the idea that radicalization involves breaking with majority societal viewpoints on key questions, and that violent extremism entails using violence “to defend political, ideological, religious, ethnocentric, or racist ideas that are very far from what the majority of people judge to be correct.” This vagueness is misleading, in that the report is essentially about jihadism rather than about, say, racism.

The vagueness also represents a step back from the USAID-funded Overseas Development Institute study of radicalization in Agadez from 2017, where the authors rightly called attention (p. 6) to a few crucial points, namely:

  • authorities and civil society actors had no consensus on what radicalization or violent extremism meant, and some (if I’m reading the report right) were just as concerned about arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and money laundering as they were about jihadism, and
  • many interviewees favored the imposition of sharia (as they defined it, of course) and viewed democracy as easily corruptible, and these interviewees’ views were in line with available survey results about the overall preferences of Nigeriens regarding sharia.

To go back to the CNESS study then, and to engage in a bit of reductio ad absurdem, would a violent extremist in the context of Niger, according to their definition of radicalization as ideas that go against majority views, be someone ready to use violence in the service of secularism?

My real concern is not with the definitions, but rather with the way that these definitions and the overall language of the report – and many other similar products – seem to frame large numbers of people’s views as inherently dangerous and problematic regardless of whether people have engaged in, or are likely to engage in, violence. There is an analytical problem here in that jihadist violence, from everything I have read and observed, seems to grow out of specific and combustible situations rather than out of generic and widespread vulnerabilities and push factors.

And if there is an analytical problem, then there is also a policy problem, in that the consumers of the report risk casting too wide a net when attempting to deradicalize people. More specifically, they risk demonizing and harassing people who have not and likely will not commit violence. These concerns are not just mine – they also seem to have been shared by some of the communities the research team approached, especially in rural areas, where the researchers note that they encountered significant reluctance among those they hoped to interview (pp. 19-20).

What, then, are the real policy implications of such reports – and of worldviews that see wide swaths of Sahelian populations (or, let’s be honest, Muslim populations generally) as needing reform? The report’s recommendations (starting on p. 96) have mix of policies that I think are good ideas (most of which boil down to public sector employment programs for youth, especially rural youth) and policies that I think are questionable. On the latter side are some of the recommendations on p. 98, which envision enlisting religious leaders (“marabouts”) to teach youth about how to interpret the Qur’an and conceive of citizenship, tolerance, etc. This is perhaps innocuous, but I am concerned about the conceptual logics underpinning this proposal – the idea that youth come to jihadism through certain Qur’anic verses, rather than through, again, specific circumstances. In short, promoting public sector employment is good, but social engineering (especially at this crude level of generalization) is problematic. Moreover, I find this type of thinking (“let’s get the marabouts to teach the youth how to understand the Qur’an!”) reflects larger, and equally problematic assumptions about how conflict-torn societies work – namely, the assumption that there are untapped religious leaders, “customary authorities,” and “tribal leaders” waiting in the wings to solve all of the problems, if only someone would listen to them.

 

 

 

 

Comment on the NYT Article on Post-Tongo Tongo Reprimands

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a report on the American military’s internal investigation and accountability efforts following the ambush of American soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger in October 2017. Commentators, and the NYT itself, have rightly called attention to the ways the punishments reflect hierarchy and protect senior officers:

To me, though, there is another criticism to make. The reprimands handed down all related to technical issues: training, approvals, oversight, etc. The implication becomes that had these technical issues been handled better, such disasters would not occur.

Maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that the problem is not just technical but political and conceptual. Why should villagers near the Niger-Mali border, under regular pressure from nearby jihadists and other militias and connected through social ties to some of the jihadists themselves, welcome intermittent government and foreign patrols with open arms and share vital intelligence with them? Why should American soldiers assume that conceptual frameworks focused on transnational jihadism will help them understand hyper-local complexities? Do – and here I am guessing a bit, although I would call it an educated guess – hackneyed and simplistic trainings about “local culture” truly prepare soldiers to win over local populations and move safely through their territory? Has the military really prioritized language training – what was the level of French proficiency of the American soldiers on this patrol, let alone their proficiency in Fulfulde or other languages that would have been crucial to their understanding of the environment they were in? How blunt are American military strategies with themselves and with the government of Niger about the fact that these two governments’ interests do not completely align, no matter how much good will there may be between them? How well do American soldiers understand villagers’ feelings toward the Nigerien state? To me, as an outside observer, it seems that the military has not grappled fully with these questions, preferring to use models transplanted from Afghanistan and Iraq (or, one might say, a semi-imagined Afghanistan and a semi-imagined Iraq) to the Sahel and other parts of Africa. All the intelligence, training, and oversight in the world might help prevent bad decisions and thus might have prevented this Tongo Tongo debacle, but technical fixes do not remove political problems. American soldiers operating in environments they do not seriously understand, on missions that blur the line between peace and war to the point where intentions become ambiguous to all involved, are at inherent risk of fatal miscalculation.

 

 

A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge. [Update: On Twitter, Nicolas Desgrais points out that there is an  intelligence and counter-criminality framework, ratified in April of this year, that groups together these four countries and Cote d’Ivoire.]

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.