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.