Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.

Quoted in Al Jazeera on France and Niger

Al Jazeera’s Mucahid Durmaz has a new piece out called “Analysis: Can Niger become the main Western ally in the Sahel?”

I’m quoted briefly. An excerpt:

“[Former Nigerien President Mahamadou] Issoufou knew that he only had to clear a minimum bar to appear like a democrat,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati.

[…]

“The West looked the other way as authorities leveraged the law to constrain the ambitions of Hama Amadou [Issoufou’s rival has been imprisoned and barred from running as an opposition candidate in the last election],” Thurston told Al Jazeera. “Western governments also did not scrutinize the 2016 and 2020/2021 elections, both of which had irregularities.”

Roundup on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Trip to Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is wrapping up an April 30-May 5 “Ramadan solidarity visit” to Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria, timed to coincide with the days around Eid al-Fitr. This was Guterres’ first visit (!) to Africa since the start of the pandemic.

Here is the official agenda:

On Saturday, the Secretary-General will begin a Ramadan solidarity visit to Senegal, Niger and Nigeria, during which he will also highlight the impact of the Ukraine war on the African continent.      

The Secretary-General will meet and share an Iftar dinner with President Macky Sall of Senegal, who assumed the Presidency of the African Union earlier this year. He will also take part in Eid celebrations with President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger and he is scheduled to meet President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria.     

In the three countries, the Secretary-General will have meetings with senior government officials as well as civil society representatives, including women, youth groups and religious leaders. He will meet families deeply affected by violence and instability in the Sahel, including people internally displaced and refugees. Mr. Guterres will also see first-hand the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and will assess progress and challenges to the COVID-19 recovery.

Guterres lamented what he called a “triple food, energy and financial crisis” in Africa, now made worse by the fallout from the war in/on Ukraine. In Senegal, he called for “vaccine equity” as well as debt relief for debt relief for African countries, appealing in particular to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In Niger, he lavished praise on the country’s democracy and military, conforming to a longstanding Western trope that treats Niger as the model Sahelian country. One announcement in Niger was a new role for Niger’s immediate past president, Mahamadou Issoufou, a chair of an Independent High-level Panel on Security & Development in the Sahel. In Nigeria, finally, Guterres is visiting both Borno State and the capital Abuja.

A few tweets:

Two Important Pieces on Dialogue with Sahelian Jihadists

The issue of whether and how to dialogue with jihadists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is a central issue in the region’s politics now. Here are two important pieces on the subject:

At The New Humanitarian, Sam Mednick interviews Burkina Faso’s Minister for Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation, Yéro Boly. A key portion:

The New Humanitarian: How is the current dialogue in Djibo progressing?

Boly: If [you] go to Djibo this morning, [you] will see that the situation is beginning to change…The chief of Djibo was in Ouagadougou [and] the jihadists asked to see him. He left with a 22-person delegation. The chief of Djibo was the head of the delegation of those who went… and Jafar [Dicko] was the chief of the jihadists. So, it was at a high level. It went well, with a good atmosphere. But [both sides] told a lot of truths. It was tense.

[Community leaders] asked us to help them get to Djibo, for those who were in Ouagadougou. The army dropped them in Djibo by helicopter. It’s the first time that the people from Djibo asked us for help. Since Djibo is inaccessible and there are leaders who were in Ouagadougou who had fled, [they wanted] help. 

One thing to note is the multiple and shifting meanings that the word “dialogue” takes on, even in the mouth of a single speaker, such as Boly. The interview really gets at that – is dialogue about rehabilitating individual fighters? community-level agreements? high-level deals? All of the above? Five years into the conversation about dialogue in the Sahel (counting from Mali’s Conference of National Understanding in 2017, which made a dialogue a formal recommendation), the parameters of what dialogue does mean and could mean are still very much up for grabs.

A second important piece is Luciano Pollichieni‘s “Rétablir le cycle : précédents historiques et avenir potentiel des négociations de paix au Mali,” a contribution to the Bulletin FrancoPaix. Pollichieni places the question of dialogue into the wider historical “cyclical tradition of uprisings and negotiations” in northern Mali, with a clear-eyed look at the shortcomings of past negotiations. To me, the most interesting portion of the article had to do with arguments for negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); even pro-dialogue commentators usually assume (including me) that when we’re talking about dialogue, we’re talking about the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM; French acronym GSIM), which is under al-Qaida’s banner. Pollichieni makes a strong case for negotiating with ISGS (p. 5):

Enfin, il est important de noter que la branche locale de l’État islamique, l’État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), est également présente au Mali, et, considérant ses capacités militaires et le fait que ses combattants sont des membres des communautés maliennes participant à l’insurrection, elle devrait être incluse dans les négociations. L’EIGS est particulièrement actif dans la région des trois frontières, particulièrement au Niger. Par conséquent, l’influence politique dont jouissent les autorités maliennes à l’égard de ses dirigeants est limitée par rapport à celle du gouvernement nigérien qui a récemment entamé des négociations avec les djihadistes. Ensuite, par rapport à d’autres acteurs armés de la région, l’EIGS est plus fragmenté : l’assassinat de son chef Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi a engendré une crise de leadership qui, de facto, affecte son programme politique. Au-delà de l’appel idéologique à une interprétation draconienne de l’islam, le type de résultats qui pourrait émerger de ces négociations potentielles n’est pas clairement défini. Cependant, l’EIGS et le GSIM sont en compétition, entraînant parfois des conflits ouverts. Ainsi, négocier avec l’EIGS pourrait nuire à un accord avec le GSIM. Malgré tout, la branche du califat reste une partie importante de l’équation à résoudre pour stabiliser définitivement le pays.

To summarize: ISGS should be included in negotiations in Mali because it represents a significant number of people and has significant military capabilities; Niger may be better placed to negotiate with ISGS, as Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has at least gingerly tried to do; ISGS is ultra-hardline but also currently fragmented; and negotiating with ISGS could help bring about an accord with JNIM/GSIM, given the competition between those two groups. I’m persuaded.

Analyzing Niger’s National Assembly Vote on French Forces [Lightly Edited]

On April 22, Niger’s National Assembly approved a policy change that gives greater leeway for the redeployment of two French-led counterterrorism missions – Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba – from Mali to Niger. The vote was 131 to 31, representing all but four of the National Assembly’s members.

In a sense, the vote was theater. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had already effectively accepted the French redeployment back in February (see his series of posts on Twitter starting here). Moreover, on March 5, the parties of the presidential majority released a joint statement welcoming the redeployment of foreign forces. Yet the April 22 vote was theater that the government took seriously – Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou addressed the deputies before the vote, evoking Niger’s dire security situation and arguing that Niger cannot face the threat alone.

Why bother with such a vote? Likely to head off, or at least wield a powerful talking point against, the anti-French sentiment in the country and in the Sahel as a whole. It’s a better optic to have the redeployment approved by a huge majority vote in parliament than to merely impose it by presidential decree. See more on the logic of the vote here.

French forces (or, that is, additional French forces) are coming from Mali to Niger primarily because of the deterioration in diplomatic relations between France and the junta in power in Bamako. After the August 2020 coup that brought the junta to power, there was still a fair amount of normalcy in French-Malian relations until the May 2021 follow-on coup that consolidated the junta’s power. Since then, relations went into a tailspin, with big consequences for Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014 as a successor to the French-led Operation Serval, the operation that broke jihadist control over northern Malian towns in 2013. Amid international outcry over the May 2021 coup, French President Emmanual Macron announced “the end of Barkhane as an external operation” (whatever that means, and clearly not a description that applies even amid big changes for Barkhane). Then, as the junta increasingly signaled that it would defy international and regional pressures to hold elections by February 2022, relations worsened further, to the point where Malian transitional authorities expelled the French ambassador in January of this year. That led Macron and allies to announce, in February, a shift of Barkhane and the associated Takuba Task Force (a special forces unit drawing personnel from multiple European countries) elsewhere. Other factors were involved too, though, including the above-mentioned anti-French sentiment in the region, particularly in Mali, as well as some domestic fatigue back in France with the tactically sophisticated but strategically aimless Barkhane and its attendant casualties.

Niger was the logical fallback for Barkhane and Takuba – a country adjacent to Mali, with two presidents (Mahamadou Issoufou, in office 2011-2021; and Bazoum, elected in 2021) who have shown themselves overwhelmingly friendly if not outright deferential to France, the United States, Germany, the European Union, etc.

A bit of background on Niger’s domestic politics: Issoufou and Bazoum, close allies, both belong to the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French acronym PNDS). When Issoufou hit his two-term limit, he backed Bazoum (who had held multiple senior positions within Issoufou’s governments and within the party) as the PNDS’ presidential candidate. Bazoum won the run-off election in 2021. The PNDS, in legislative elections in 2020-2021, won a total of 80 seats out of 166 (it is supposed to be 171, but five seats allocated for the diaspora ultimately went unfilled because of the difficulty of organizing diaspora-based elections amid COVID-19). The speaker of parliament is Seyni Oumarou, who placed third in the first round of the 2020-2021 presidential elections; his party is the National Movement for the Society of Development (MNSD), currently part of the presidential majority in the National Assembly. Reuters and others put the presidential majority at 135 seats. The largest opposition party in parliament is MODEN/FA, the party of ex-speaker and Issoufou enemy Hama Amadou.

The National Assembly vote on Barkhane and Takuba’s redeployment was along party lines, although I have not been able to find the precise breakdown of which deputies voted for or against the policy change. In terms of what was actually voted on, this concerned a revision of the 2021 “Declaration of the General Policy of the Government,” and specifically its first plank, which relates to security. The deputies voted on a measure adding new language to that policy document, now formally allowing the government “to build the largest possible alliances for fighting terrorism, to welcome allied forces on its soil and to have them participate in joint military operations.” From what I can tell, the deputies were not directly voting on Barkhane and Takuba, but it was clear what foreign deployments the vote would authorize.

The opposition, meanwhile, objected on the grounds that the redeployment violates national sovereignty, and on the grounds that the measure is unconstitutional, legally feeble, and/or gives too much power to the government. Multiple observers, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow at the visit of the French Agency for Development’s Director General to Niamey just days before the vote, seeing it as yet another instance of the continued existence of “Françafrique.”

Meanwhile, there was a minor cabinet reshuffle in Niger on April 23, the day after the vote – but I’ll have to tackle that in a future post.

See some footage of the Prime Minister’s speech, and the vote, here.

Roundup of Recent Reports and Essays on the Sahel – 4/22/22

Nina Wilén and Paul Williams, “What Are the International Military Options for the Sahel?” (Global Observatory, April 12):

If there is a potential middle way [between expanding the United Nations peacekeeping force MINUSMA versus drawing it down], it probably involves focusing on two potential tasks. First, MINUSMA could prioritize its civilian protection mandate while the UN Security Council seeks to reinvigorate the increasingly moribund Algiers Agreement, or tries to negotiate another peace accord in its place. This might involve doing something like the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) did in December 2013 when civil war broke out and South Sudanese government troops began massacring civilians. Here, UNMISS opened its bases and set up emergency “protection of civilians sites” which housed at one stage over 200,000 civilians at risk. However, conflict dynamics in Mali are different than South Sudan (2013-14) with MINUSMA facing greater risk of attack than UNMISS did. Moreover, such an approach might risk an increase in conflict between local nomads and farmers since the latter might be able to move to such sites more easily. The other route to reconfiguring MINUSMA would be to reduce its footprint and focus primarily on observation and monitoring tasks to document abuses perpetrated by the FAMA [Malian Armed Forces], jihadists, and other actors. This type of mission would not be easy to configure and force protection would be a major concern. Nor would it be welcomed by the junta. In sum, there are no obvious good options for MINUSMA.

Virginie Maudais and Souleymane Maïga, “The European Union Training Mission in Mali: An Assessment” (SIPRI, April)

Based on the interviews and desk research carried out in this study, the impact of EUTM Mali’s activities appears to be positive at the operational level. However, the mission faces several challenges in implementing its mandate and the FAMA is regularly accused of committing crimes with impunity. [p. 11]

Delina Goxho, “Protecting Civilians From Those Who Should Protect Them” (Egmont Institute, April 19):

In many regions in the Sahel, communities are doubtful of their state’s commitment to protect them and are instead veering towards the conviction that state-backed abuses represent a condoned form of systematic discrimination. Acknowledging the harm done to civilians is a first and necessary shift in changing perceptions in the region, potentially leading to a stop in the worsening of violence…Legal consequences and an obligation to reparations for those who commit abuses must also follow suit: this will require better accountability on the part of not just the armed forces and their military leaders, but also the political elites of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. These trends should prompt Sahelian militaries and political leaders, as well as foreign security providers, to rethink their involvement in the region. [p. 6]

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, interviewed by Le Monde (April 16):

On voit bien que Paris marche sur des œufs. [Le président nigérien, Mohamed] Bazoum, de son côté, ne veut pas apparaître comme un vassal de la France. Il n’en est d’ailleurs pas un, mais la présence française peut en effet le mettre en difficulté. Pour le moment, le plus compliqué à gérer, pour lui, c’est sans doute son propre camp, parce qu’il doit composer avec la vieille garde de Mahamadou Issoufou [au pouvoir de 2011 à 2021]. Je pense vraiment qu’il veut lutter contre la corruption en actes et non en mots et qu’il a une réelle volonté d’améliorer la gestion de l’Etat. Mais sa marge de manœuvre est réduite, même si à Niamey, qui lui était très hostile, il a gagné une certaine popularité en rompant avec les habitudes de son prédécesseur, dont les déplacements paralysaient régulièrement la ville, ce qui insupportait les habitants.

OECD, “Natural Resource Governance and Fragility in the Sahel” (April):

Weak minerals governance is a source of economic fragility. In the Sahel, low access to banking and financial services closely relates to illegal minerals trade. Gold derives its value not only from its selling price, but also because it can replace currency. In comparison with cash, it is easier to transport, and easier to exchange against other currencies. For this reason, traders may prefer to use gold in order to build up savings, transfer wealth in accounts abroad, purchase goods and services, and finance trade operations. Significant amounts of Sahel gold are smuggled to Dubai, a leading international gold trading centre (Marks, Kavanagh and Ratcliffe, 2021). The gap between reported gold imports to Dubai and reported combined gold exports from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger amounted to 1.6 billion USD in 2018, and 3.7 billion USD in 2019 as per UN data, suggesting intense illicit trade (UN Trade Statistics, 2022).

The growing use of gold as currency and means to store value creates a parallel economy, which is selfreinforcing. For example, low access to finance implies small miners rely on credit from traders to fund tools and products. The development of a parallel economy and financial system increases risks of money laundering and tax evasion. It also constrains the accumulation of savings in local banks, and therefore credit provision and private sector investment. [p. 26]

Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

A Chadian Secretary-General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

On November 27, at a meeting in Niamey, Niger, foreign ministers from member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) elected a new secretary-general for the organization, Chadian diplomat Hussein Brahim Taha. He will begin a five-year term in November 2021.

The OIC, formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was founded in 1969. As is often noted, it is the second-largest multilateral organization in the world, after the United Nations. It is headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but the general secretariat has not been a Saudi Arabian preserve – of the 11 people to hold the office so far, only two (albeit the most recent two) were Saudi Arabian nationals. Strikingly, the Sahel has been quite well represented on the list, with a Senegalese national serving as secretary-general from 1975-1979 and a Nigerien national serving from 1989-1996 (term lengths, it seems, have been variable). As noted above, moreover, the Council of Ministers meeting that elected Taha took place in the Sahel as well.

The OIC’s secretaries-general have not been clerics/shaykhs, but rather professional government bureaucrats. The outgoing secretary-general, Yousef Bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, holds a Ph.D. in Political Sociology from American University and came up through the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chad’s Taha spent most of his career in the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where, notably, he served as Chad’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1991-2001 according to this profile. He has also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as deputy secretary-general of the Chadian presidency.

The sketches of Taha’s biography that I’ve seen indicate someone who is (a) close to Chadian President Idriss Deby and has his confidence, and (b) deeply familiar with Saudi Arabia. Being familiar to or even close to Saudi Arabia, however, should not lead one to the automatic assumption that Taha is a “Wahhabi” – not all of the institutions headquartered in or associated with Saudi Arabia are “Wahhabi” to the same degree, although that’s a longer discussion that goes beyond the scope of this blog.

Turning to that first point, about Deby, I want to expand on something I said on Twitter, namely that to me it is striking that Deby has now placed three of his top diplomats in three key posts at the regional, continental/African, and now global levels:

  • Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since 2016;
  • Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission since 2017; and
  • Hussein Brahim Taha, incoming Secretary-General of the OIC.

I take a few, admittedly somewhat speculative, conclusions from this. One is that Deby has a pretty solid network of people he trusts and has given space to develop the kinds of resumes that major multilateral organizations take seriously. I assume that no Chadian could take a major diplomatic position like these without Deby’s backing. So on the one hand Deby, like many other long-ruling African heads of state, is infamous for refusing to signal who his successor might be, for reshuffling his cabinets frequently, for playing with term limits and constitutional structures, for creating new posts (a vice president soon, perhaps?) while eliminating others (the prime minister-ship, in 2018). Yet on the other hand, Deby is clearly not so jealous of power that he would cripple others’ careers – and perhaps in particular would not be threatened by professional diplomats who can rise to serious heights without becoming rival politicians per se. Ultimately all this reinforces his power, of course: thrive with the Deby-dominated system and you can have a literally world-class career. This is not me excusing him or praising him, except to say that he has a talent for authoritarianism – he is not as crude or just straight-up dumb about it as many other authoritarians are.

Then there is the question of how Deby positions Chad and Chadians to take these roles. A lot of those dynamics are out of my view, at least. A large part of the answer is the role that Chad has taken on as (one, would-be) guarantor of security in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and that goes a long way to explaining the MINUSMA and African Union Commission appointments. But that role as security guarantor, on its own, is not sufficient to explain an appointment like the OIC’s secretary-general. Another factor there may be the way that the Sahel is a recurring zone of interest for Saudi Arabia, on and off from the 1960s to the present; Chad, additionally, has a number of Arabophone and/or Arab diplomats, and that may be attractive to OIC members as well (see below, where Taha gives his remarks in Arabic). And, finally, perhaps Deby is also skilled at various forms of behind-the-scenes negotiations. I wonder if he committed to anything in exchange for this OIC appointment.

Here is the video of Taha’s acceptance speech:

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.