The Niger exception
While Niger is a daunting country facing constant threats, it is also a land of many opportunities. And its leader is definitely breaking the traditional mold.
A journey to Niger is a kaleidoscopic experience full of striking contrasts. The huge, 1,267,000 km 2 country, two-and-a-half times the size of France, is mostly a wilderness with breathtakingly beautiful sand and stone landscapes. And a mosaic of peoples whose history is intertwined with that of the desert and the immense Niger River, Africa’s third longest after the Nile and the Congo. Niamey’s new airport, which opened in June 2019, is a functional, elegant gateway to a country where life is hard but ambitions run high. The capital has become the crossroads not only of the Sahel, but of international and regional players: the French, who are reorganizing their military forces; the Americans (and their impressive embassy); the Chinese, the Algerians; and the Turks, who are all building and investing full-speed ahead. Niger is also a neighbor of Nigeria’s Northern federal states, a kinship strengthened by the presence of the Hausa culture on both sides of the border. Niamey has become a hub for meetings, summits, and forums, creating a globe-spanning friendship network. Pending a much-anticipated makeover of the historic Gaweye Hotel, new hospitality venues (the Radisson, Noom and Bravia) are often overbooked. The Mahatma Gandhi International Conference Center is almost always at full capacity.
Yet despite this vibrancy and over a decade of growth, Niger remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita income of $600 a year and desperately low human development indices. In addition, jihadist violence spilling over from neighboring countries and the infamous three borders; zone (Mali and Burkina Faso are 200 kilometers from Niamey) poses a constant security threat. Nevertheless, despite its vastness and lack of resources, the country remains resilient. The security forces are on the front lines and inter-community dialogue is strengthening the sense of national belonging. In the context of continuous threats, Niger is one of the region’s last democracies, surrounded by military dictatorships tempted by recklessness, go-it-alone populism and alliances with the Wagner militia. It is this country on edge that Mohamed Bazoum has led for two years. On April 2, 2021, he succeeded two-term president Mahamadou Issoufou, marking the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the history of contemporary Niger. The historic handover almost did not happen. On the night of March 31, two days before the inauguration, gunfire rang out in Niamey—one more attempted coup in a nation where the military has constantly meddled in politics. The presidential guard repelled the attack, the country’s institutions held up and the inauguration took place, as if a page of history had at last been turned.
Bazoum and Issoufou are close and know each other well. They have played on the same team and climbed the rungs of power together for nearly 30 years. Bazoum is a founding member of the Parti nigérien pour la démocratie et le socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya), created in December 1990. When Issoufou was elected in 2011, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, a position he left only to become Minister of State at the Presidency in 2015. After Issoufou was sworn in for a second term, he named Bazoum Minister of the Interior, Public Security, Decentralization, and Customary and Religious Affairs.
A SYMBOLIC BREAK
The president may have been anointed by his forerunner, but he is a politician in his own right, a pure product of Niger’s meritocracy with individual and personal legitimacy. A child of the desert and independent Niger, Bazoum was born on New Year’s Day 1960 into a very modest family in Bilabrine in the Diffa region near Lake Chad. He was lucky, for it was unusual at the time, to attend school in Tesker and high school in Zinder, before graduating from university in Dakar with a degree in logic and epistemology.
Bazoum is a president of continuity, but he also represents a symbolic break with the past. He belongs to a very small minority group, the Ulad Suleiman (Arabs originating from southwest Libya). His skin is not “black”; nor is he a Tuareg. He has no electoral stronghold or local armies. Owing no allegiance to any major traditional community or ethnic group means he is unique, giving him the freedom to be particularly bold and modern, a new breed of political leader, the kind needed to hold a fragile, diverse nation together. Bazoum seems to be the fulcrum of all the country's identities: the Hausas, Fulani, Djermas and Tuaregs, Northerners and Southerners. Of course, his modernism sometimes creating nauseating controversies... Even in neighboring capitals, it is not uncommon to hear him referred to as light-skinned a Libyan or even a "foreigner".
Things go far beyond symbolism. Bazoum knows the inner workings of the State, but above all the places, differences, regional characteristics, groups, families and ties that weave this immense nation together. All of these crucial human and geographical details are what make the Sahel so special—but they are often at the root of conflicts and irredentism. In two years, Bazoum has established a particular, plain-spoken style. He has a natural smile and bluntly speaks his mind on the economic situation, security threats, and relations with France and neighboring countries. He talks about issues that others would rather sweep under the rug, such as population growth (Niger could have over 70 million people by 2050) and its corollary, the sad state of national education.
He has taken the measure of Niger’s strategic role. The country has become the key to regional security and stability, from Lake Chad to the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, from Togo to Benin. This is where French journalist Olivier Dubois and American humanitarian worker Jeffery Woodke were taken after their release, even though Dubois had been abducted in Mali in April 2021. It may also be the best place to learn about the multiple nuances between the Sahel’s peoples, the different brands of modern jihadism and the complexities and rivalries driving armed groups. Since Mali and Burkina Faso have isolated themselves, three big players—France, the European Union and the United States—have chosen Niamey as the place to deploy their forces in the Sahel. The message is clear: the country, the head of State and the Republic must be strengthened. Niger must hold on—and thrive.
Key players parade through the president’s office, including, recently, Antony Blinken, the Francophile U.S. Secretary of State. Washington has a major military facility, Air Base 101, in the middle of the capital, as well as Air Base 201, a regional surveillance center with a fleet of drones, including the mighty MQ-9 Reapers, in Agadez, the North’s biggest city.
Bazoum and his close associates harbor no illusions. They are aware that support from Western powers is vital. But neither Paris nor Washington can provide Niger and its people with an iron-clad guarantee of security and stability. The country will also have to stand up for itself. The President knows that the battle must be waged on the development and governance front as well. Niger is poor but reliable and credible. And it has options. It enjoys the trust of the World Bank (outgoing president David Malpass was in Niamey at the end of March) and multilateral partners. Oil production is being organized and uranium mining could see a resurgence in the coming years. The 2022-2026 Economic and Social Development Plan aims to boost annual growth to 9% and cut the poverty rate from 43% to 35% during this period. International partners pledged almost €45 billion at the round table that brought Niger’s investors and donors together in Paris in early December. The time has come for the country to achieve its demands and goals. The cards are on the table.