Niger: Key Points from President Mahamadou Issoufou’s Recent Interview with France24

On October 12, France 24 published a video interview with Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou. The headline from France 24, echoed in some Sahelian media coverage of the interview (example), was somewhat surprising to me: these headlines focused on Issoufou’s reiteration that he will not be seeking a third term. I had thought that he had made this very clear, including by clearly designating his preferred successor in the person of Mohamed Bazoum (whom I expect to win the elections in December 2020/February 2021); and in the interview itself, as I note below, both he and the interviewer take it for granted that Issoufou is committed to stepping down at the end of his term. So perhaps this is something of a media narrative, a kind of generalized skepticism among headline writers that any African leader would really step down voluntarily.

Here are my notes on the interview:

  • Responding to the first question, about whether Mali’s recent prisoner exchange will ultimately prove destabilizing, Issoufou expressed happiness and congratulations over the release of Soumaïla Cissé and several Europeans. Issoufou argued that there are no “ideal solutions” in such situations and that governments must make compromises. Issoufou’s essentially unqualified support for this deal could be seen as a contrast with some more critical remarks he has made in the past about, for example, the situation in Kidal and what he sees as the Malian state’s unfulfilled responsibilities there.
  • Concerning the second question, about the investigation following the August 9 attack at Kouré, Niger, I didn’t find Issoufou’s answer very specific or substantive.
  • Concerning the third question, on COVID, Issoufou mentions what I think of as the standard (though not necessarily wrong) list of factors explaining Africa’s relatively resilience in the face of the pandemic: past experiences, youthful population, etc. He points to Niger’s strikingly low case and death rate as evidence that the health sector, despite its weakness, has performed very well. And definitely in terms of confirmed official cases, Niger appears to have done quite well – better, in fact, than its neighbor Burkina Faso.
  • Regarding the threat of terrorism and criminality, Issoufou evokes what he sees as a multi-faceted policy response: ideological, economic, security, development, democracy, etc.
  • Asked to summarize his record after nearly ten years in office, Issoufou notes his efforts to assure security and consolidate democracy – and it is here that he mentions that he has kept his promise by not seeking a third term, and he emphasizes that the elections will be transparent and clear. It is a bit out of context for France 24 and others to run with the headline that Issoufou is rejecting a third term, because both the interviewer and Issoufou take that as a given in their exchange. Were I writing the headline, I would have gone with Issoufou’s promise for a “free and transparent” election – that’s the real question now. Issoufou avoids discussing any particular case of third-term-seeking elsewhere in the region, but argues that the Africa-wide trend is against third terms.
  • The last question concerns regional free trade and economic integration, and I didn’t find anything in the answer particularly striking.

Niger: A Divided Opposition in the Lead-Up to Presidential Elections

(Hat tip to the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group newsletter for the initial sources for this post – if you’re not signed up, you can sign up here.)

In 2016, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou won a smashing re-election victory in the second round, with 92.5% of the vote – all while the runner-up, former speaker of parliament Hama Amadou, was in detention.

Fast forward to 2020, and Issoufou is now term-limited. His party, the Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya), has designated the prominent politician and party heavyweight Mohamed Bazoum as its candidate for the December 27 elections this year (which will go to a second round in February 2021 if necessary). Bazoum has spent much of the past three months or so touring the country to rally support, before the official campaign period begins in December.

How is the opposition to Bazoum and the PNDS-Tarayya shaping up?

First of all, Amadou is a declared candidate, but his legal ability to run again is unclear. At issue is whether Amadou’s conviction in a human trafficking case should disqualify him from running this year. Amadou has consistently denounced the case, which began in 2014, as baseless and politically motivated; the charges came after a falling-out between Issoufou and Amadou, formerly allies. Freed in March of this year under a COVID-related amnesty, Amadou apparently may have to serve several more months of a one-year sentence. Regarding the 2020/2021 elections, Amadou argues that he fulfills the core requirements of the Constitution, namely being born in Niger and having full civil and political rights. The counter-argument, if I understand it correctly, is that the electoral code blocks any would-be candidate who has been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Amadou’s party, the Mouvement démocratique nigérien pour une fédération africain (Democratic Nigerien Movement for an African Federation, MODEN/FA-Lumana), is divided. On September 19, at a party congress in Dosso (map), one wing of the party nominated Amadou as its candidate. Meanwhile, on the same day and in the same city, another wing of the party nominated Noma Oumarou, who been interim president of the party in Amadou’s absence, as its candidate. This power struggle has been going on for some time now; in August, a court declared that Oumarou, rather than the national political bureau of the party, was the sole figure qualified to speak and act on behalf of the party. For more on the intra-party fight, see here.

The Constitutional Court is charged with publishing the final list of candidates by December 1, so more than two months of maneuvering remain. I would not be surprised if Amadou is ultimately blocked from contesting.

Meanwhile, another significant declared candidate is former military ruler Salou Djibo (in power 2010-2011), nominated by his Peace Justice Progress party on June 28. And there are many others – coming like rain, to paraphrase this headline. One other major candidate is former President Mahamane Ousmane (in power 1993-1996).

The disunity of the opposition is often cited as a key factor in incumbent victories in West Africa and beyond. The opposition itself is often blamed for its own divisions, although voices often charge – in ways that are difficult to either confirm or disprove – that such fragmentation is abetted and encouraged by incumbents from behind the scenes.

We’ll see what happens. I’m expecting Bazoum to coast to victory, even in the first round, but I’ve been wrong before.

On the topic of party proliferation in West Africa, Catherine Kelly’s recent book is highly recommended.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

Niger: The Release of Blogger Samira Sabou and Wider Issues of Press Freedom in Niger

In Niger, a notable press freedom case concluded (?) on Tuesday, July 28, when authorities freed the blogger and journalist Samira Sabou after a court in the capital Niamey cleared her of defamation charges.

As Amnesty International outlined in its demand for her release, Sabou was arrested on June 10 on charges of “electronic defamation” against President Mahamadou Issoufou’s son Sani, who is also deputy chief of staff to the presidency. According to Amnesty, the younger Issoufou

filed a complaint against Samira Sabou after a Facebook user mentioned on 26 May his name in a comment responding to Samira’s publication relating to allegation of corruption. Samira Sabou did not mention Sani Mahamadou Issoufou’s name. She should have never been prosecuted for these allegations of defamation and detained.

I think this must be the post in question, although she had a few that day (Amnesty is more specific about the post here). If I’m right, then her post was commenting on a Jeune Afrique article from March about how the opposition hoped to leverage an audit of the Ministry of Defense to weaken the ruling party during the lead-up to the 2020/2021 presidential elections. I’ve covered the audit and the related procurement scandal here, and I’ve discussed the elections a bit here.

Sabou was charged under a “cyber-criminality” law passed in June 2019. Concerns have been rising for several years now about press freedoms in Niger, and about political freedoms more broadly. In a 2019 briefing for African Affairs, two U.S.-based scholars wrote, “Western media reports often associate Niger with violent religious extremism, but an arguably more imminent problem is the rollback of Niger’s fragile democracy.” And here is a longer excerpt from the same piece:

Journalists and civil society activists such as Moussa Tchangari and Ali Idrissa are prime targets of government crackdowns. Freedom of information has declined sharply in recent years. The annual Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index dropped Niger from a ranking of twenty-ninth in 2011 to sixty-third in 2018. Two prominent examples illustrate the modus operandi of the government vis-à-vis journalists. In January 2014, Soumana Idrissa Maïga, the editor of a private newspaper, was arrested after the government accused him of inciting hatred and violence. In March 2017, Baba Alpha, the owner of a private radio station, was accused of using false citizenship papers. He was imprisoned for two years and eventually deported to Mali after the government declared him a threat to Niger’s internal security. Both journalists had reported critically on government conduct and corruption.

Sabou’s case occurred after that piece was written, but organizations such as Amnesty have also viewed her detention in a wider context, especially amid the fallout from the procurement scandal:

Journalist Ali Soumana, owner of ‘’Le Courrier’’ newspaper has been arrested and taken into custody since 12 July. His arrest is believed to be linked to the publication of a story on the alleged misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defence. This is the third time in less than four years that Ali Soumana has been harassed while carrying out his journalist work.

For nearly two years, journalists and human rights activists in Niger have been the target of repeated arbitrary arrests. Since 15 March, activists Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila and Maïkoul Zodi were detained mainly on the basis of fabricated allegations, after calling for an investigation into the alleged misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defence.

In this climate, human rights organizations have taken Sabou’s release as a baby step forward – the International Federation for Human Rights calls it “a first positive signal sent by the judicial authority in Niger.”

Notes on Yesterday’s G5 Security Summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania

Yesterday, 30 June, Sahelian heads of state, French President Emmanuel Macron, other top European leaders, and representatives of numerous multilateral bodies met in Nouakchott, Mauritania for a summit on Sahelian security. According to Macron’s agenda for the day, the event consisted of a working lunch for heads of state, followed by a larger meeting and then a joint press conference. The Elysée (French presidency) does not appear to keep permanent links for each separate day, so I am posting a screen shot:

Another version of the agenda, which differs just slightly from the times listed by the Elysée, was published by the Mauritanian outlet Mauri Actu and can be found here. That version gives a sense of the other participants in the event.

The Nouakchott summit is the sequel to one held at Macron’s invitation in Pau, France in January 2020. You can read the transcription of the joint press conference from that event in French here, and the New York Times‘ (appropriately critical) coverage is here. The Nouakchott summit also follows the 25 February G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott as well as the recent virtual launch, on 16 June, of the French-backed Coalition for the Sahel. Nouakchott has been the site of several key meetings this year because Mauritania currently holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, a political (and now military-political) coordinating body for Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, a theme in Western press coverage was the suggestion that France is “gaining” militarily in the Sahel while the Sahelian governments are dysfunctional. I disagree with that framing, but let’s unpack it a bit first.

Here is AFP:

France is increasingly optimistic about the effectiveness of its anti-jihadist campaign in the Sahel, but experts caution that short-term successes will not by themselves bring lasting victory…

The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly-retaken territories and win hearts and minds.

And here is Reuters, whose article is even more explicit that the assessment of “France is winning, Sahel governments are flailing” comes ultimately from the French government:

Mali and Burkina Faso must guarantee at a summit this week that their domestic political problems do not reverse fragile military successes against Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a French presidential source said on Monday.

“Domestic political problems” seems to mean the protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali and the upcoming elections in Burkina Faso, or perhaps the phrase is also a veiled reference to widely reported security force abuses in those countries (and in Niger).

Clearly there is domestic turmoil in Mali and Burkina Faso – but I am uncomfortable with the framing that effectively says “African dysfunction is undercutting French accomplishments.” For one thing, I’m not sure what France’s “fragile military successes” really consist of, beyond the killing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel on June 3. Aside from the killing of Droukdel, most of what I’ve seen recently from France’s Operation Barkhane reads to me as the same kind of operations it has been conducting for years, and any gains in one area inevitably seem to be paralleled by a degradation in another area. The press coverage of this summit is replete with references to French/Sahelian gains made in the tri-border zone (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), but the references are quite vague once you scrutinize them. Meanwhile, the events and reports coming out of the Sahel’s conflict zones seem quite grim to me – blockaded towns in northern Burkina Faso, villages under jihadist sway in the east, Mali’s premier opposition leader in presumed jihadist captivity for over three months, etc. Those are bad signs, and they don’t seem to indicate that the French and Sahelian militaries are on a path toward victory.

And then, to return to critiquing the framing of “French prowess, African dysfunction,” there is the fact that France is not merely a military actor in the Sahel but is, first and foremost, a political actor in its former colonies – and a military intervention is itself a political act, I might add. France appears most comfortable working, when possible, with strongmen; failing that, France leans on a particular type of technocratic, Francophone professional politician in its former colonies. I don’t think that French authorities hand-pick the candidates to run in Sahelian elections. But is it an accident that the heads of state so often look exactly what you would imagine the Elysée would dream up – an economist or banker turned lifelong politician, perhaps still a “socialist” according to their party’s name but generally neoliberal in economic policy and deferential to France and Europe when it comes to international relations? And then you add to that the optic of Macron basically publicly treating the current Sahelian heads of state as his subordinates and clients, and ultimately what you have is an extremely top-down and narrow conception of political authority in the region. Is it a surprise that such a system has proven brittle and fragile, especially amid a widening conflict? How the Sahel can move forward politically is an enormously complicated question and I do not have the answer, but I suspect that the answer does not begin with Macron instructing his counterparts to get their shit together.

</mini rant>

Turning to the substance of the summit, here are a few resources:

  • Here is the final joint communiqué. Honestly, very little stood out to me from the document, which mostly read to me as a restatement of the principles of the Coalition for the Sahel (counterterrorism, enhancing military capacity, “the return of the state,” and development) and a restatement of what was discussed at Pau. There are references in this latest communiqué to not tolerating human rights abuses, a major topic of discussion recently, and the Sahelien heads of state called for (even) more international security contributions, but otherwise I thought the document was bland.
  • Here is the video and transcript of Macron’s remarks on his arrival at the summit. His primary theme was “solidarity” in the face of COVID-19 and terrorism. A secondary theme was the “return of the state,” especially in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. The “return of the state” is, again, one of four pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel.
  • Twitter posts from Sahelian heads of state, regarding their respective participation in the summit, can be found at the following links: Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali; Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso; Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger; Idriss Deby of Chad.
  • RFI’s readout of the summit, which notes the positive and optimistic tone that the heads of state struck.

Speaking of international security engagements, the next development on the horizon there is the anticipated deployment of the French-created Takuba Task Force. At Clingendael, Anna Schmauder, Zoë Gorman, and Flore Berger have written an excellent explainer about the force.

Ould Ghazouani posted a striking photo of the six heads of state; I leave you with that:

 

Niger: A Partial Cabinet Shuffle in Advance of the 2020/2021 Presidential Elections, and a Bit of Election-Related News

On 29 June, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou partly reshuffled his cabinet. The move is, in my view, partly related to the informal, ongoing campaign for the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round is scheduled for 27 December 2020 and whose second round, if one proves necessary, is scheduled for 20 February 2021. The main news in this reorganization is the departure from government of Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, presidential candidate of the ruling Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya).

Issoufou, the outgoing president, is term-limited after his election in 2011 and re-election in 2016. Bazoum, Issoufou’s longtime political companion and the occupant of several senior posts in both of Issoufou’s administrations, was invested as the PNDS-Tarayya’s candidate at a party congress on 31 March 2019 – a move undertaken far in advance in order to “preserve party unity and avoid a multiplication of ambitions.” One particular ambition came from another PNDS heavyweight, current party Secretary-General Hassoumi Massaoudou, who now very publicly supports Bazoum.

I am assuming that Bazoum is now leaving the Interior Ministry in order to prepare a more intensive phase of the campaign.

In all, the partial reshuffle involved six appointments (see also here and here):

  1. Alkache Alhada, promoted from Deputy Interior Minister to Interior Minister; he has been Deputy since last September;
  2. Mohamed Boucha promoted from Deputy Minister of Livestock Farming (Elevage) to Minister of Employment; he replaces the late Mohamed Ben Omar, who died of COVID-19 on 3 May;
  3. Amadou Aissata switches from Minister of Population to Minister of Energy;
  4. Amina Moumouni switches from Minister of Energy to Minister of Population;
  5. Boureima Souleymane enters government as Minister of Youth Entrepreneurship;
  6. Ali Gonki (rendered Banki in some reports, but I think that’s a mistake) enters government to replace Mohamed Boucha as Deputy Minister of Livestock Farming.

The other major election-related news is that former military ruler Salou Djibo, head of the junta that ruled Niger in 2010-2011 immediately before Issoufou’s election, has announced his candidacy. Djibo retired from the military in May 2019 and, according to Jeune Afrique, thought initially that he might secure Issoufou’s endorsement for the 2020/2021 election. When that failed, he created a new party, Paix Justice Progrès (Peace, Justice, Progress, PJP). The party, unsurprisingly, declared him its candidate at a congress on 28 June. Djibo, according to the same report, hopes to embody “a third way” between Bazoum and  the Mouvement démocratique nigérien pour une fédération africain (Democratic Nigerien Movement for an Africa Federation, MODEN/FA-Lumana) of longtime presidential aspirant, 2016 runner-up, and former National Assembly President Hama Amadou.

Finally, it’s worth briefly mentioning that the defense procurement scandal continues to play out – a topic that I’ve covered a bit before, but that merits another whole post of its on. One of the latest developments is the public prosecutor’s announcement that his office will pursue charges related to the case, although perhaps not as aggressively as some citizens and observers had hoped. Whether the scandal will hurt Bazoum, as the opposition is hoping, remains to be seen.

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.