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.

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.

Key Upcoming Dates in Niger’s Electoral Calendar

Niger will hold the first round of its presidential elections, coupled with legislative elections, on December 27 of this year; local and regional elections will come two weeks earlier, on December 13.

The ruling part’s presidential candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, has been in unofficial campaign mode since he left government on June 29. He has been touring the entire country to rally the Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya). Here is one of his latest stops, from the Maradi Region in south central Niger:

So what is supposed to happen, logistically, between now and December 27? A really useful starting point for understanding the Nigerien political system is the Trans-Saharan Elections Project at the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group, which has pages detailing different countries’ systems – here is the page for Niger.

Another useful resource is this calendar from Niger’s Independent National Electoral Commission (French acronym CENI). I am using the version uploaded to their site on August 6, with a file name dated July 28, so I believe it is fairly current/accurate. Here, according to the calendar, are the key upcoming dates:

  • The main logistical issue at present is the finalization of “biometric electoral lists,” the enrollment of citizens/voters, and the distribution of biometric voter cards. The “definitive Biometric Electoral File” is meant to be published in Niger’s Official Journal on September 4, and distribution of cards is scheduled to begin on September 17 (p. 8). As in other cards, this process has been controversial; the president of CENI, Issaka Souna, gave a press conference on August 30 to address “rumors…that the Commission had turned its back on the Biometric Electoral File and particularly on the biometric voter’s card.”
  • Other preparations in summer and fall involve the training of the electoral corps, the selection of members of voting bureaus, etc.
  • By December 1: The Constitutional Court publishes the definitive list of candidates for the first round of the presidential elections.
  • By December 2: After validation by the Constitutional Court, the government publishes the list of candidates for the legislative elections.
  • December 2-11: The official campaign period for the regional and communal elections.
  • December 5-25: The official campaign period opens for the presidential and legislative elections.
  • December 13: Voters cast ballots in regional and communal elections.
  • Between December 13 and 19: Proclamation of provisional results for regional and communal elections.
  • Between December 20 and January 18, 2021: Proclamation of final results for regional and communal elections.
  • December 27: Voters cast ballots for presidential and legislative elections.
  • By January 1, 2021: CENI publishes provisional results for presidential and legislative elections.
  • Between January 2 and January 30: Constitutional Court announces definitive results for the first round of the presidential elections.
  • Between January 2 and January 31: Constitutional Court announces definitive results for the legislative elections.
  • January 29 (if relevant): The official campaign period opens for the second round of the presidential elections.
  • February 19: Official campaign period closes.
  • February 21: Voters cast ballots for the second round of the presidential elections.
  • Between February 22 and February 26: CENI announces provisional results of the second round.
  • Between February 27 and March 26: The Constitutional Court publishes the final results of the second round.

Brief Analysis

What stands out to me is the complexity of the calendar – any electoral calendar is necessarily going to be complex, but to ask voters to come to the polls twice in two weeks seems fated to cut into turnout on one or both of the voting days. As noted in a previous post, insecurity in western and southeastern Niger may also complicate things, on multiple levels. First, although the presidential election date is highly unlikely to change, and although I wouldn’t expect the legislative election date to change, the same does not hold true for local and regional elections – Nigerien authorities have already suggested that under the state of emergency in the Tillabéry Region in the west, some elections may be delayed. Second, insecurity will undoubtedly limit some voters’ access to polling places – not necessarily because jihadists, bandits, or others directly attempt to close voting centers or block voters’ access (although that may happen, as in central Mali in 2018) – but just because violence and uncertainty will dampen some people’s enthusiasm/willingness for undertaking the necessary travel/risk. Third, you have the closely related issue of displacement. As of July 31, according to UNHCR and Nigerien government data, there are over 265,000 people internally displaced in Niger. That’s a lot of voters, or would-be voters, who may have difficulty casting ballots due to logistical and/or security reasons.

Another thing that stands out to me is the combination of (a) the relatively late date for finalizing the list of candidates and (b) the relatively wide timeframes available to authorities for publishing final results. I don’t think Nigerien authorities will hold back results until the end of those timeframes, but there are, so to speak, ample opportunities for authorities to shape the elections and their outcome on both the front end and the back end of the process.

Niger: Ruling Party Presidential Election Candidate Mohamed Bazoum on the Campaign Trail

Niger’s term-limited President Mahamadou Issoufou is set to step down in 2021. With elections approaching in December 2020 (first round), the ruling Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya) has chosen one of its founders and longtime leaders, Mohamed Bazoum, as its presidential candidate. In order to forestall intra-party competition, Bazoum was invested as the party’s candidate back in March 2019. More recently, Bazoum left government (he was most recently Minister of the Interior) during a cabinet reshuffle announced on June 29; the move was explicitly done to prepare his presidential campaign.

The official campaign period is, if I understand the regulations summarized here, 21 days. Those days are far off for now. This month, however, Bazoum has embarked on a tour to rally the PNDS-Tarayya faithful, in what looks a lot to me like campaigning. He arrived in the Dosso Region on July 10, and then moved to tour the Tahoua Region starting July 18 (see a map of Niger’s regions here). This is far from the first time Bazoum has toured the country, of course, but this offers a snapshot of the evolving pre-campaign.

At least judging from the photographs, he can draw a crowd. This is in Illéla, Tahoua:

Bazoum’s multicultural and multi-linguistic fluency is also on display on this tour. Ethnically Arab, Bazoum hails from southeast/south central Niger: he was born in Bilabrine (Diffa Region), grew up in Tesker (Zinder Region), completed secondary school in Zinder city, and later represented Tesker as a deputy in the National Assembly. If elected president, Bazoum would be one of the few heads of state in Niger’s history to come from an ethnic group other than the Hausa or the Zarma, the two largest ethnic groups in the country (Mamadou Tandja, president from 1999-2010, “is of mixed Mauritanian, Kanuri, and Fulani parentage,” the Kanuri and Fulani being two minority ethnic groups in the country).

Here is Bazoum speaking fluent Hausa in Birni Gaouré during his tour of Dosso:

It is not surprising that a major Nigerien politician would be multi-lingual, obviously. But the basic messages of this tour appear to revolve around party unity and around the idea of the candidate as a national figure. Or perhaps the message is simply “victory.” Here is one local PNDS-Tarayya section, promising that Bazoum will win in the first round:

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.

Niger: On Bazoum and al-Sahrawi

Earlier this week, The Guardian published a report on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) based on an interview with a Nigerien soldier whom ISGS held captive for three months. The whole piece is worth reading, but what stood out to me – more than the soldier’s testimonial – was a passage about an exchange between ISGS leader Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum:

When Bazoum took the interior minister job, he sent emissaries to ask what [ISGS] wanted.

“I said ‘listen, if you have political claims, or problems with the justice, the administration, the state, then tell me’,” said the imposing Bazoum, sitting on the sofa in his Niamey office. “We are ready to discuss your problem with you and resolve it. Declare that you’re a rebel front with specific claims on the Nigerien state.”

He said he received a handwritten letter from Sahraoui himself, which said: “No, we have no problem with you; we are waging jihad against Mali.”

According to Bazoum, the letter contained a list of Sahraoui’s comrades in Nigerien jails, whom he wanted released. If they were freed, ISGS promised to shield Niger from attack.

“I freed some of them to show my good will, but I couldn’t free all of them because some were on trial,” Bazoum said.

After that, the communication channel broke down and attacks escalated. Some believe the group’s militants could still be offered an olive branch to demobilise and be reintegrated into Nigerien society. But Bazoum is not among them.

If true, this account points to some patterns that American officials and analysts are often unwilling to acknowledge: national governments sometimes communicate with jihadists on a non-hostile basis and cut, or attempt to cut, deals with them. And jihadists are sometimes willing to talk, and even to deal a bit.

I’ve been working on some pieces that touch on how different Nigerien officials’ understanding of Sahelian jihadism is from American officials’ understanding of it; here is yet another instance of that divergence.

Think Bazoum was being naive? The guy’s been around the block more than once. And you might play your cards similarly if you held the hand he does.