Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.

Quoted in Al Jazeera on France and Niger

Al Jazeera’s Mucahid Durmaz has a new piece out called “Analysis: Can Niger become the main Western ally in the Sahel?”

I’m quoted briefly. An excerpt:

“[Former Nigerien President Mahamadou] Issoufou knew that he only had to clear a minimum bar to appear like a democrat,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati.

[…]

“The West looked the other way as authorities leveraged the law to constrain the ambitions of Hama Amadou [Issoufou’s rival has been imprisoned and barred from running as an opposition candidate in the last election],” Thurston told Al Jazeera. “Western governments also did not scrutinize the 2016 and 2020/2021 elections, both of which had irregularities.”

Roundup on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Trip to Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is wrapping up an April 30-May 5 “Ramadan solidarity visit” to Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria, timed to coincide with the days around Eid al-Fitr. This was Guterres’ first visit (!) to Africa since the start of the pandemic.

Here is the official agenda:

On Saturday, the Secretary-General will begin a Ramadan solidarity visit to Senegal, Niger and Nigeria, during which he will also highlight the impact of the Ukraine war on the African continent.      

The Secretary-General will meet and share an Iftar dinner with President Macky Sall of Senegal, who assumed the Presidency of the African Union earlier this year. He will also take part in Eid celebrations with President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger and he is scheduled to meet President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria.     

In the three countries, the Secretary-General will have meetings with senior government officials as well as civil society representatives, including women, youth groups and religious leaders. He will meet families deeply affected by violence and instability in the Sahel, including people internally displaced and refugees. Mr. Guterres will also see first-hand the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and will assess progress and challenges to the COVID-19 recovery.

Guterres lamented what he called a “triple food, energy and financial crisis” in Africa, now made worse by the fallout from the war in/on Ukraine. In Senegal, he called for “vaccine equity” as well as debt relief for debt relief for African countries, appealing in particular to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In Niger, he lavished praise on the country’s democracy and military, conforming to a longstanding Western trope that treats Niger as the model Sahelian country. One announcement in Niger was a new role for Niger’s immediate past president, Mahamadou Issoufou, a chair of an Independent High-level Panel on Security & Development in the Sahel. In Nigeria, finally, Guterres is visiting both Borno State and the capital Abuja.

A few tweets:

Two Important Pieces on Dialogue with Sahelian Jihadists

The issue of whether and how to dialogue with jihadists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is a central issue in the region’s politics now. Here are two important pieces on the subject:

At The New Humanitarian, Sam Mednick interviews Burkina Faso’s Minister for Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation, Yéro Boly. A key portion:

The New Humanitarian: How is the current dialogue in Djibo progressing?

Boly: If [you] go to Djibo this morning, [you] will see that the situation is beginning to change…The chief of Djibo was in Ouagadougou [and] the jihadists asked to see him. He left with a 22-person delegation. The chief of Djibo was the head of the delegation of those who went… and Jafar [Dicko] was the chief of the jihadists. So, it was at a high level. It went well, with a good atmosphere. But [both sides] told a lot of truths. It was tense.

[Community leaders] asked us to help them get to Djibo, for those who were in Ouagadougou. The army dropped them in Djibo by helicopter. It’s the first time that the people from Djibo asked us for help. Since Djibo is inaccessible and there are leaders who were in Ouagadougou who had fled, [they wanted] help. 

One thing to note is the multiple and shifting meanings that the word “dialogue” takes on, even in the mouth of a single speaker, such as Boly. The interview really gets at that – is dialogue about rehabilitating individual fighters? community-level agreements? high-level deals? All of the above? Five years into the conversation about dialogue in the Sahel (counting from Mali’s Conference of National Understanding in 2017, which made a dialogue a formal recommendation), the parameters of what dialogue does mean and could mean are still very much up for grabs.

A second important piece is Luciano Pollichieni‘s “Rétablir le cycle : précédents historiques et avenir potentiel des négociations de paix au Mali,” a contribution to the Bulletin FrancoPaix. Pollichieni places the question of dialogue into the wider historical “cyclical tradition of uprisings and negotiations” in northern Mali, with a clear-eyed look at the shortcomings of past negotiations. To me, the most interesting portion of the article had to do with arguments for negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); even pro-dialogue commentators usually assume (including me) that when we’re talking about dialogue, we’re talking about the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM; French acronym GSIM), which is under al-Qaida’s banner. Pollichieni makes a strong case for negotiating with ISGS (p. 5):

Enfin, il est important de noter que la branche locale de l’État islamique, l’État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), est également présente au Mali, et, considérant ses capacités militaires et le fait que ses combattants sont des membres des communautés maliennes participant à l’insurrection, elle devrait être incluse dans les négociations. L’EIGS est particulièrement actif dans la région des trois frontières, particulièrement au Niger. Par conséquent, l’influence politique dont jouissent les autorités maliennes à l’égard de ses dirigeants est limitée par rapport à celle du gouvernement nigérien qui a récemment entamé des négociations avec les djihadistes. Ensuite, par rapport à d’autres acteurs armés de la région, l’EIGS est plus fragmenté : l’assassinat de son chef Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi a engendré une crise de leadership qui, de facto, affecte son programme politique. Au-delà de l’appel idéologique à une interprétation draconienne de l’islam, le type de résultats qui pourrait émerger de ces négociations potentielles n’est pas clairement défini. Cependant, l’EIGS et le GSIM sont en compétition, entraînant parfois des conflits ouverts. Ainsi, négocier avec l’EIGS pourrait nuire à un accord avec le GSIM. Malgré tout, la branche du califat reste une partie importante de l’équation à résoudre pour stabiliser définitivement le pays.

To summarize: ISGS should be included in negotiations in Mali because it represents a significant number of people and has significant military capabilities; Niger may be better placed to negotiate with ISGS, as Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has at least gingerly tried to do; ISGS is ultra-hardline but also currently fragmented; and negotiating with ISGS could help bring about an accord with JNIM/GSIM, given the competition between those two groups. I’m persuaded.

Analyzing Niger’s National Assembly Vote on French Forces [Lightly Edited]

On April 22, Niger’s National Assembly approved a policy change that gives greater leeway for the redeployment of two French-led counterterrorism missions – Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba – from Mali to Niger. The vote was 131 to 31, representing all but four of the National Assembly’s members.

In a sense, the vote was theater. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had already effectively accepted the French redeployment back in February (see his series of posts on Twitter starting here). Moreover, on March 5, the parties of the presidential majority released a joint statement welcoming the redeployment of foreign forces. Yet the April 22 vote was theater that the government took seriously – Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou addressed the deputies before the vote, evoking Niger’s dire security situation and arguing that Niger cannot face the threat alone.

Why bother with such a vote? Likely to head off, or at least wield a powerful talking point against, the anti-French sentiment in the country and in the Sahel as a whole. It’s a better optic to have the redeployment approved by a huge majority vote in parliament than to merely impose it by presidential decree. See more on the logic of the vote here.

French forces (or, that is, additional French forces) are coming from Mali to Niger primarily because of the deterioration in diplomatic relations between France and the junta in power in Bamako. After the August 2020 coup that brought the junta to power, there was still a fair amount of normalcy in French-Malian relations until the May 2021 follow-on coup that consolidated the junta’s power. Since then, relations went into a tailspin, with big consequences for Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014 as a successor to the French-led Operation Serval, the operation that broke jihadist control over northern Malian towns in 2013. Amid international outcry over the May 2021 coup, French President Emmanual Macron announced “the end of Barkhane as an external operation” (whatever that means, and clearly not a description that applies even amid big changes for Barkhane). Then, as the junta increasingly signaled that it would defy international and regional pressures to hold elections by February 2022, relations worsened further, to the point where Malian transitional authorities expelled the French ambassador in January of this year. That led Macron and allies to announce, in February, a shift of Barkhane and the associated Takuba Task Force (a special forces unit drawing personnel from multiple European countries) elsewhere. Other factors were involved too, though, including the above-mentioned anti-French sentiment in the region, particularly in Mali, as well as some domestic fatigue back in France with the tactically sophisticated but strategically aimless Barkhane and its attendant casualties.

Niger was the logical fallback for Barkhane and Takuba – a country adjacent to Mali, with two presidents (Mahamadou Issoufou, in office 2011-2021; and Bazoum, elected in 2021) who have shown themselves overwhelmingly friendly if not outright deferential to France, the United States, Germany, the European Union, etc.

A bit of background on Niger’s domestic politics: Issoufou and Bazoum, close allies, both belong to the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French acronym PNDS). When Issoufou hit his two-term limit, he backed Bazoum (who had held multiple senior positions within Issoufou’s governments and within the party) as the PNDS’ presidential candidate. Bazoum won the run-off election in 2021. The PNDS, in legislative elections in 2020-2021, won a total of 80 seats out of 166 (it is supposed to be 171, but five seats allocated for the diaspora ultimately went unfilled because of the difficulty of organizing diaspora-based elections amid COVID-19). The speaker of parliament is Seyni Oumarou, who placed third in the first round of the 2020-2021 presidential elections; his party is the National Movement for the Society of Development (MNSD), currently part of the presidential majority in the National Assembly. Reuters and others put the presidential majority at 135 seats. The largest opposition party in parliament is MODEN/FA, the party of ex-speaker and Issoufou enemy Hama Amadou.

The National Assembly vote on Barkhane and Takuba’s redeployment was along party lines, although I have not been able to find the precise breakdown of which deputies voted for or against the policy change. In terms of what was actually voted on, this concerned a revision of the 2021 “Declaration of the General Policy of the Government,” and specifically its first plank, which relates to security. The deputies voted on a measure adding new language to that policy document, now formally allowing the government “to build the largest possible alliances for fighting terrorism, to welcome allied forces on its soil and to have them participate in joint military operations.” From what I can tell, the deputies were not directly voting on Barkhane and Takuba, but it was clear what foreign deployments the vote would authorize.

The opposition, meanwhile, objected on the grounds that the redeployment violates national sovereignty, and on the grounds that the measure is unconstitutional, legally feeble, and/or gives too much power to the government. Multiple observers, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow at the visit of the French Agency for Development’s Director General to Niamey just days before the vote, seeing it as yet another instance of the continued existence of “Françafrique.”

Meanwhile, there was a minor cabinet reshuffle in Niger on April 23, the day after the vote – but I’ll have to tackle that in a future post.

See some footage of the Prime Minister’s speech, and the vote, here.

Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

Niger: Context on the Rejection of Hama Amadou’s Candidacy

On November 13, Niger’s Constitutional Court released a decree regarding the 41 aspiring candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round is scheduled for December 27. The Court rejected 11 candidacies and validated 30; the most prominent of those rejected was Hama Amadou, the runner-up from the last election in 2016 and the third-place finisher from the election of 2011.

The Court’s decision on Amadou’s candidacy was not a 100% foregone conclusion, but on the other hand precisely no one is surprised. Press coverage of the race, and of Amadou’s bid in particular, has long noted that the invalidation of his candidacy was a strong probability. The rejection rests primarily on the fact that in March 2017, Amadou was sentenced to a year in prison after being condemned (perhaps spuriously) for alleged participation in a baby trafficking ring.

Page 5 of the decree I linked to above lays out the legal arguments for rejecting his candidacy. The arguments and counterarguments have been circulating for months if not longer. The argument is that the electoral code disqualifies anyone who has been sentenced to a year or more in prison; the counterargument from Amadou, made well in advance of this decision, was that he still enjoyed the necessary “civil and political rights” mentioned in another provision of the electoral code. Amadou has steadily denounced the legal proceedings against him since 2014, calling them all politically motivated. Meanwhile, the electoral code itself has also been criticized by the opposition as non-inclusive and pro-incumbent.

Even if Amadou had been allowed to contest, it might not have affected the ultimate outcome. In November 2015, on the eve of the 2016 elections the authorities detained Amadou, after he return from exile. That election went to a run-off, which the incumbent (Mahamadou Issoufou, who is now in his second and final term) won with 92.5% of the vote. In other words, authorities clearly have multiple chokepoints at which they can block Amadou from coming even close to winning. I

The way Issoufou’s team has treated Amadou is bad, and anti-democratic. But Amadou’s own career may be a bit checkered, as this micro-biography reminds us (from this paper, p. 2, footnote 4:

Hama Amadou has been a dominant figure in the Nigerien political landscape since the 1980s. He has been prime minister twice, under the presidency of Mahamane Ousmane (1995–96) and that of Tandja Mamadou (2000–07). After a period of exile in France, due to allegations of corruption, he returned to Niger in 2010.

Of course, corruption allegations can be politicized just as much as trafficking allegations can, and Tandja (who was in office 1999-2010; for clarity the dates given in the quote refer to Amadou’s tenure as Prime Minister under Tandja) was no angel – he was ultimately overthrown in a coup after engineering a referendum to keep him in power past a two-term limit. Perhaps Amadou has simply been on the wrong side of various fallings-out with Nigerien heads of state. But this may be one of those stories that, as so often, ultimately has no good guys. That doesn’t excuse the treatment of Amadou in 2016 or 2020, however.

What I don’t understand (and I welcome readers’ input) is why Issoufou and his designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum, appear so reluctant to face Amadou in a truly open electoral contest. The ruling party has a lot of advantages, and in any case Issoufou beat Amadou (and then received his support in the second round) in what seemed to me (perhaps naively) to be a relatively clean election in 2011. But perhaps this Court decision is just the form of extra insurance that Issoufou and Bazoum want now.

From the way I’m writing, of course, you can probably tell that I am assuming the Court is under Issoufou’s control. Maybe I’m being unfair. But the perception, at least, of undue executive influence over such courts is becoming a problem across the Sahel:

Some institutions involved in the electoral processes in Niger and Burkina Faso [where presidential and legislative elections will take place on November 22] – particularly their constitutional courts and electoral commissions – are increasingly being criticised.

In Mali, the loss of confidence in these institutions led to the rejection of the results promulgated in April. This triggered a series of demonstrations, culminating in an institutional stalemate and the coup d’état on 18 August.

If we assume that the Court acts at Issoufou’s behest or at least reads his unstated wishes and then channels them, we can say that such maneuvers are a more sophisticated form of rigging than, for example, day-of-election ballot box stuffing. But court-based manipulation of the electoral field is still a relatively blunt tool, and one whose use comes with costs. Namely, the costs are some citizens’ loss of confidence in the process, and perhaps not just citizens who back Amadou or any other of the rejected candidates. The risk here, I think, is not mass electoral violence or anything that dramatic, but rather a continued long-term erosion of faith in the political system. The “political class,” when prominent members allege fraud in one breath and defend working with Issoufou in the next, does not necessarily help build confidence either.

What next for Amadou? Jeune Afrique asks. He does not have many good options, it seems, and as one anonymous diplomat quoted in the article puts it, Amadou “could try to launch a power struggle with le pouvoir, especially in Niamey, where his party is very strong, but that’s a dangerous game.”

Niger: A Glimpse of the Simultaneously Contentious and Cohesive Political Class

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.

Two Recent Analyses of Niger’s Elections

Niger will hold the first round of its presidential and legislative elections on December 27, and municipal and regional elections on December 13 (see more details on the timetable here). I expect the ruling party’s candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, to win, quite possibly in the first round.

Here are two recent analyses I’ve read.

Tatiana Smirnova, “Une autre présidentielle sous tension en Afrique de l’Ouest : le cas nigérien” in Bulletin FrancoPaix, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 8-10. The conclusion:

This text shows that the opposition in Niger, today essentially composed of different formations coming out of the old single party [the MNSD], is weakened. Nevertheless, these divisions will probably not prevent the opposition from getting organized and supporting a candidate capable of rallying people against PNDS-Tarayya [the current ruling party]. The 2020 election will thus symbolize the restructuring of the Nigerien political scene, a process linked to PNDS-Tarayya’s arrival in power in 2011 after dozens of years spent in the opposition, and/or in circumstantial coalitions with MNSD-Nassara and its allies during the period 1990-2011. This election will also be an indicator of the capacity of Nigerien institutions and politicians to collaborate in order to avoid the worst scenarios.

Sebastian Elischer, “Niger’s Elections Amid Violence and Authoritarian Backsliding,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies. An excerpt:

The PNDS is the only party that has a viable party infrastructure across the country. So far, the PNDS has managed to maintain a united front, which is a rare achievement in Niger’s volatile party system. Hama Amadou, a key architect of Issoufou’s 2011 electoral success, managed to reach the second round of the presidential election in 2016. This was an impressive achievement given that he spent the electoral campaign behind bars. Amadou’s political vehicle, Moden FA Lumana suffers from internal rivalries. Seyni Oumarou, the current high representative of the President and a former Prime Minister (2007 to 2009) is another top contender. His party, the Mouvement National de la Société de Développement (MNSD) shaped Nigerien politics throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Since the downfall of President Tandja in 2010 it has experienced many breakaways. Bazoum, Amadou, and Oumarou have been political household names since the return of multiparty democracy in 1993. To what extent either of the three can inject popular enthusiasm into the electoral process is questionable.

Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.