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.

 

State(s) of Emergency in Niger

On March 3, Niger’s government declared a state of emergency (French) in two of its seven regions while maintaining a state of emergency in a third.

The new state of emergency affects Tillabéri and Tahoua, two western regions on the border with Mali. Specifically, the state of emergency includes the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala et Banibongou in Tillabéri and the departments of Tassara et Tillia in Tahoua. The declaration responds to recent attacks, including one in October that I covered here on the blog, as well as the recent killing of sixteen soldiers in an attack on a military patrol in Ouallam (French) and the recent killing of five gendarmes in Bankilaré. That last incident occurred after the state of emergency was declared.

The Nigerien government also maintained the state of emergency in Diffa, in the far southeastern part of the country near the borders with Nigeria and Chad. The government explained that “despite the relative respite observed in the Diffa region,” it wanted to keep exceptional security measures in place. Diffa has been the site of numerous attacks by the Boko Haram sect since 2015. The state of emergency in Diffa dates to February 2015.

As the cliché goes, Niger is in a “bad neighborhood” and its border zones are vulnerable to multiple sources of violence, whether emanating from Nigeria, Mali, or Libya. The northern Agadez region is not under a state of emergency, but the region (and the city of Agadez) face their own problems amid a new anti-smuggling crackdown. Going forward, then, there will be questions about what the states of emergency allow the Nigerien government to achieve in terms of security, or whether further security challenges are coming.

The Attack on Tazalit, Niger and an Insight into Nigerien Perspectives on Northern Mali

On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:

The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.

This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.

The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.

Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”

Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):

This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.

The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).

It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.

Niger Telecom Merger

Last week, Niger’s government announced that it would merge two state-owned telecommunications companies – “Sonitel, which operates landlines, and Sahelcom, a mobile operator” – to form one company, Niger Telecom. Sahelcom currently competes with Bharti Airtel (an Indian company), Orange (a French company), and Moov (a subsidiary of Atlantique, which is itself a subsidiary of Emirati-owned Etisalat).* The merger of Sonitel and Sahelcom has been in the works for at least a year, and is part of a longer story involving the failed privatization of Sonitel (including a failed sale to a Libyan company in 2011).

A few more details about the merger can be found in the official readout (French) of last week’s cabinet meeting in Niger. Perhaps most importantly, the Ministry of Communication envisions that the merger will “assure optimal and rational management of the resources of the two companies” and “make the national public operator more attractive.”

Needless to say, there have been waves upon waves of privatization of state-run companies in Africa in the past thirty-five years and more. It will be interesting to see whether Niger can meet its goal of making state-owned telecoms more efficient and competitive. That will be an uphill climb, though: Jeune Afrique (French) says that both Sonitel and Sahelcom are deeply in the red, and that Sahelcom lags far behind its competitors in terms of subscribers. Out of 7 million mobile subscribers in Niger, Jeune Afrique gives the following breakdown of market share:

  • Sahelcom: 347,000 subscribers
  • Bharti Airtel: 3.5 million subscribes or 58.62% market share
  • Orange: 1.67 million subscribers or 27.5% market share
  • Maroc Telecom/Moov: 604,499 subscribers or 9.96% or market share.

Sahelcom/Niger Telecom will have a lot of catching up to do.

*If I have my facts straight, it seems that Moov Niger was set up (French) by Maroc Telecom (Morocco), in which Etisalat acquired a majority stake in May 2014.

 

Guest Post: The 2016 Election in Niger: A Missed Opportunity?

[This is a guest post from Ibrahim Yahya Ibrahim, a Research Associate with the Sahel  Research Group and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida. – Alex]

Continuous Political Tension

On February 21st, Nigeriens voted massively – 67% of registered voters cast their vote – in a ballot that turned out to be Niger’s most controversial election in recent history. Hama Amadou, one of the major contenders, was in prison throughout the electoral process, accused of involvement in a baby trafficking scandal.  Given the multiple allegations of electoral fraud, not to mention the boycott of the run-off election on March 20th and the subsequent rejection of the election results by the opposition, the 2016 election appears as a missed opportunity for Nigeriens to resolve in a peaceful and institutional manner the ever-growing political tensions that seem to herald yet another cycle of political instability.

Figure 1 Niger

Figure 1: Voters waiting to cast their ballot on February 21st.

It is worth mentioning that Niger is a country with a long history of political instability. The most recent episode started in August of 2013 when President Issoufou, in reaction to a deteriorating climate within the ruling coalition, and threatened with losing the majority in the National Assembly, suggested the formation of a government of national unity, which he invited the main opposition parties to join. But, drawn by the prospect of creating a new coalition that could impose a regime of cohabitation – where Issoufou would remain President while the opposition took control over the government – the opposition decided to decline the offer. A climate of disdain and mistrust emerged between the two camps, each one seeing only conspiracy and sabotage in the other’s actions. In a last-minute struggle, the government managed to divide the opposition coalition and extracted crucial support from opposition breakaways, so that it maintained its parliamentary majority and remained in power.

Following this power struggle, Issoufou’s government adopted an uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the opposition on various issues related to the organization of elections, the so-called crushing of the opposition parties, and the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. In reaction to this rigid and aggressive approach the opposition also adopted an increasingly confrontational attitude that often included the incitation to civil disobedience and fanning of ethnic resentment.

This political tension raised the stakes of the 2016 election. It appears, in fact, as if Niger’s aging political elites, viewing the end of their political careers approaching, have become more aggressive in their fight to conquer or hold on to political power. The growing animosity among the elite contributed to the radicalization of campaign discourse, and pushed the protagonists to use all means possible, including non-conventional ones, in order to secure victory. Resorting to ethno-regionalist arguments to mobilize voters as well as the organization of electoral fraud that included underage voting, vote buying, and rigging of election results, were but some of the radical strategies that politicians on both sides used in order to garner votes.

The perspective of a run-off between Issoufou Mahamadou and Hama Amadou – respectively winners of 48% and 17% of the vote in the first round – temporarily allowed for some relaxation of tension. But on March 17th the coalition of the Opposition for Change in 2016 (Copa 2016) declared that they would “withdraw” from the ongoing electoral process, and called on their supporters to boycott the run-off ballot on March 20th. They took this radical position following the Constitutional Court’s validation of what they deemed the fraudulent results of the first round of the elections. Whether this stance is interpreted as the attitude of “ sore losers,” or the only recourse available to victims of fraud, the boycott announcement certainly set the stage for contestation and a post-election struggle.

The “Coup K.O.” Controversy

One of the major issues of the 2016 election was the controversy around President Issoufou’s campaign slogan of “Coup K.O.” – “knockout” in English – meaning his expectation of an undisputed victory in the first round. Throughout the electoral campaign, Issoufou’s partisans asserted he would win the first round. They pointed out that Issoufou was able to win 36% of the vote in the first round of the 2011 presidential election, and that this came to pass despite fifteen years spent in the opposition (1995 – 2011) and at a time when he was running as the candidate of only his party, the PNDS Tarayya. Now that he was running on behalf of a coalition of 44 parties, and after governing the country for five years and successfully implementing his “Renaissance Niger” program, it was very realistic to forecast his reelection in the first round.

The Coalition of the Opposition for Change  (Copa 2016), composed of 17 political parties including Hama Amadou’s Moden FA Lumana Africa, and Seyni Oumarou’s MNSD Nassara viewed the Coup K.O. slogan as “unrealistic and even provocative.” They argued that given Niger’s pluralistic and highly fragmented political party system, no presidential candidate has ever won the elections in the first round, except for Ibrahim Mainassara Baré’s fraudulent victory in 1996. From their perspective, the Coup K.O. slogan was nothing more than a pledge to another electoral fraud, which would only result in chaos for the country.

Figure 2 Niger

Figure 2: Coup K.O caricature portraying Issoufou Mahamdou knocking out Niger. Published by the pro-opposition newspaper, Monde d’Aujourdh’hui.

The Coup K.O. slogan thus contributed to exacerbating an already tense political climate between the opposition and the government. The electoral campaign was in fact marked by a series of arrests of members of the oppositions, clashes between the police and partisans of Hama Amadou, and an unprecedented level of verbal violence, particularly on social media. Two days before the elections, Amadou Boubacar Cisse, the spokesperson of Copa 2016, declared that his coalition would reject any result that gave Issoufou the victory in the first round.

Voter Mobilization and the Revival of Ethno-Regionalism

In Niger, political ideology has never been a relevant factor of political mobilization. Party affiliation, however, used to be strong, but is now in decline in favor of sympathy towards, and personal connections with, political candidates. In the absence of these two factors, ethno-regionalist feeling has emerged as one of the most effective means for political mobilization. Political parties’ strongholds correspond, in fact, to the region or city of origin of candidates. Thus in the 2016 elections major candidates such as Mahamane Ousmane, Issoufou Mahamadou, Ibrahim Yacouba, and Hama Amadou each won over 50% of the votes in their region of origin, respectively Zinder, Tahoua, Doutchi and Niamey. This preference is partly based on clientelistic incentives, such as voters’ expectation that their chance of gaining privileged access to state resources is greater if people from their region or ethnic group hold power.

In this election, ethno-regionalism was enhanced by a feeling of empathy vis-à-vis certain candidates who were deemed victims of harassment by the government. Candidates such as Hama Amadou, who ran his campaign from prison, and Mahamane Ousmane, who was ousted from his own CDS Rahama party, largely benefitted from voters’ empathy in their respective fiefdoms. In Zinder, Mahamane Ousmane’s supporters prominently used Hausa proverbs that evoke social obligations to lend support to a victimized relative or friend: naka naka ne komin lalacewarshi (“yours is yours no matter how bad he is; if you reject yours, then who will love/support him?”) or ranar takaici kai ya cire (Anger must be expressed regardless of the consequences), or also Ba aro ba haya, yaw aikin gidanmu muke yi (“No loan no rent, now we are working for our own.”) In their local meaning and contexts, these proverbs convey a sort of ethno-regional chauvinism that had hitherto been latent and in decline.

Ethno-regionalism, however, seems to have been more prevalent in the presidential than in the legislative elections. Regarding the latter, local relations of reciprocity such as attending neighbors’ social ceremonies, helping out people in need, generosity, and other such valued personal traits, tended to override the ethno-regionalist considerations. Thus for example in Zinder, a city that is overwhelmingly Hausa and known for its communitarian support for Mahamane Ousmane, there was nevertheless a strong enthusiasm for ethnically Zarma legislative candidates from Dosso and Tillabery.

Remarkably, religion did not play a significant role in the campaign, except for a few references to the anti-Charlie Hebdo riots that struck the country in January 2015. Religious leaders’ activism in the electoral process was limited to invocations and appeals for peaceful elections. Despite the unprecedented rise of political Islam in the region, it is quite surprising that no religious-based movement similar to the Malian Sabati 2012 or the Mauritanian Tawassoul arose in Niger. Perhaps the popular view of politics as dirty and ungodly, together with the Nigerien government’s assertive management of the religious sphere, have created an unfavorable context for religious leaders to develop political ambitions.

Electoral Frauds

Although the elections took place peacefully and on a globally satisfactory note from the point of view of international observers, there have also been reports of several types of fraud that included underage voting, rigging of election results, and vote buying.  While vote buying has remained an effective political tool in Nigerien elections, particularly in rural areas, its effectiveness was in fact declining, as voters had become increasingly aware that, given the way the electoral system operates, they can actually accept money and still vote for the candidate of their choice. But given the high stakes of this election, vote-buyers proved more persuasive, raising the offered amount to a level never reached before in order to try to ensure the voters’ full loyalty. The “cost” of a vote has thus varied significantly. While some people in Zinder apparently accepted to sell their vote in exchange for small amounts of cash – between 1,000 and 2,000 CFA (about $2 to $4) – or for small items such as soap, in Maradi, a closely-contested town, the cost of vote saw an unprecedented inflation, reaching up to 10,000 CFA (about $20) per vote, or a bag of rice.

In other instances, party brokers collected voters’ cards from owners, or managed to get the non-distributed ones from village chiefs or districts leaders, and then re-distributed these to their supporters with ready-made ID cards that allowed them to vote again. This is a preferred procedure for vote buying because the buyers are certain to get the vote. Some people voted several times with different voters and ID cards. In Niamey, another closely contested city, credible information reported people selling their voter cards for up to 20,000 CFA ($40).

Although, the accusations of fraud have been usually directed toward the government, the use of fraudulent practices by all political parties, especially vote-buying, had been in fact more a matter of degree and resources. Many legislative candidates and political brokers from both the ruling and the opposition parties resorted to these strategies in order to garner votes.

A Contested Victory

On March 22nd, the electoral commission announced the results of the run-off. Issoufou Mahamadou came out victorious, winning 92% of the votes. This margin of victory was not surprising, given that the opposition had boycotted the ballot. What was surprising, however, was the 59% participation rate, which contrasts with the low turnout reported by many observers, at least in most urban areas. In a press conference organized on the same day, the Coalition of the Opposition for Change in 2016 reiterated its rejection of the electoral process, as well as of all of the institutions that will result from it. It further declared that it would consider Issoufou’s regime illegitimate starting from April 2nd, the day when Issoufou’s first term comes to an end. Beyond this outcry, the only solution that the Copa 2016 proposes is calling on the international community to help establish a transitional government that will organize new elections. It goes without saying that a transitional government is not on the government’s current agenda. Moreover, in his short victory speech, Issoufou Mahamadou focused on national unity and social cohesion as the only solution to the current crisis. He called upon Nigeriens “to come together, to not waste energy in vain quarrels, to unite in order to construct the nation.”

It is clear that at this moment, government and opposition sit on separate tables and that the gap between their respective proposed solutions is wide.  Although a promising diplomatic effort to bring the two parties to the negotiating table is ongoing, for those who hoped to see in these elections the proof of Niger’s democratic maturity, the 2016 elections were a source of great disappointment.