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.

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.

Khalifa Haftar’s Visit to Niger

On 6 August, Libya’s Khalifa Haftar – head of the Libyan National Army, the most prominent politician in northeastern Libya, and a key rival of Libya’s Government of National Accord – visited Niger. There, he met Nigerien President Mahamdou Issoufou as well as senior Nigerien military officers.

Haftar is not Libya’s head of state, but as one observer commented, it looked a bit like “head of state protocol” for Haftar in Niger, or at least a very respectful welcome. See this official tweet from the Nigerien presidency:

Similarly, Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui took issue with RFI’s headline calling the visit “discreet/low profile.”

No news reports that I have seen, nor the Nigerien presidency’s website, have given an official readout of what was discussed at the meeting. Various analyses have placed the visit in the context of Haftar’s ambitions to dominate/conquer southern Libya, and the corresponding need to coordinate to some extent with Libya’s southern neighbors.

I am aware of at least one past visit by Haftar to Chad, in September 2016, but I am not aware of him paying another diplomatic visit like this to another Sahelian country (and no, I am not counting his capture in Chad in the 1980s as a “visit” in this sense) since he returned to Libya in 2011.

Niger: Two Local Critics Address Structural Issues

Two articles on Niger recently caught my eye. One is Jeune Afrique‘s interview (French) with civil society activist Moussa Tchangari (or Tchangary); the other is an article (French) by a professional civil administrator, Soumaila Abdou Sadou. Readers of this blog may be familiar with Tchangari, whose 2015 arrest I briefly covered.

In the recent interview, Tchangari makes some interesting comments about Nigerien democracy, the role of political parties, and the role of civil society. An excerpt:

Tchangari: Power is more and more captured by only one man! [i.e., President Mahamadou Issoufou]

Jeune Afrique: But there are free elections, an opposition?

Tchangari: Niger is still a very superficial democracy, which is not completed. The opposition is struggling, it tries to fight, but the regime tries to divide it.

Jeune Afrique: So the opposition is civil society?

Tchangari: No. We just have a role of vigilance. We are not there to replace the political parties with ourselves, but to propose ideas and to defend human rights.

 

 

Later in the interview, Tchangari rejects the idea that he himself become the head of the opposition. At least for now, he seems keenly interested in a real division of labor between political parties and civil society. At the same time, he alludes to a key problem for opposition parties: ruling regimes (in the Sahel and elsewhere) are often able to divide and rule, offering incentives to some opposition members while marginalizing others.

Abdou Sadou, for his part, directs criticism at the senior bureaucrats of the Nigerien state. An excerpt:

The “affairism” [one might translate this as “greed” or “commercialization,” but there is also a sense of turning one’s bureaucratic post into a business] of the agents of the state is piercing. In fact, these many affairist bureaucrats spend more time outside their offices for the attentive monitoring of their own affairs, instead of devoting themselves to the daily tasks of administration. Public service has henceforth become the site par excellence of affairism. The site most favorable for making his business grow with free capital.

In serving the state, many bureaucrats have become excessively rich, an ostentatious wealth that they do not even bother to camouflage, feeling certain of the cover and understanding of politicians.

Abdou Sadou’s critique is somewhat generic – there is little in the piece that is specific to Niger – but reading the two pieces together, it’s clear that some Nigerien intellectuals and activists are profoundly unhappy with the political direction of the country. Their criticisms go beyond electoral politics or a criticism of the Issoufou administration specifically, and extend to structural issues: the unequal relationship between government and opposition parties, and the vulnerability of public offices to private manipulation.

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.

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.

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.