Niger’s new president faces daunting tasks even before taking office. Terror attacks and massive opposition demonstrations are a sign that things are not going to get any easier.
By the time Mohamed Bazoum, is sworn in as president of Niger on Friday, six very eventful weeks will have passed since his election. He had been the right-hand man to his predecessor, President Mahamadou Issoufou.
After the election, the losing candidate, Mahamane Ousmane, had refused to concede the race. Instead, he took his case to the courts, sparking mass supporter protests, which security forces brutally quelled — killing two people and arresting several hundred.
On top of that, Niger’s civilian population was targeted in several vicious terror attacks in the border triangle area with Mali and Burkina Faso. Fifty-eight people were killed on March 15, 137 on March 21 and 13 on March 24.
“That’s to remind the president-elect that the situation is serious and will require extra effort to avoid further escalation,” Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a consulting analyst for West Africa at the International Crisis Group, told DW.
Abdoulaye Sounaye, the head of the research unit on religion and terrorism in West Africa at the Leibniz center, also told DW that the attacks might have served as a warning to the incoming president. “Niger really fought hard to make sure France and Europe became militarily involved in solving the problem of Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region,” Sounaye said.
In 2012, Touareg separatists and extremists in northern Mali declared an independent republic, casting the region into conflict. Bazoum, who was Niger’s foreign minister at the time, quickly declared open season on separatists and terrorists, Sounaye said.
‘This new approach’
Whereas terrorists in the past tended to target security forces, today it is often civilian populations in the crosshair. That also has to do with the fact that more and more civilians are arming themselves to fight groups linked to the so-called Islamic State or IS.
“This new approach of going after local communities shows that IS is willing to collectively punish communities in which resistance forms,” Ibrahim said.
“That adds an ethnic component to the armed conflict because Islamists and civilian militia members belong to different groups,” Ibrahim added. He said militants were behind the biggest attacks: “There are no other armed groups in the region who could carry out attacks on that scale.”
Sounaye said regional ethnic conflicts had the potential to further destabilize the conflict. “This [ethnic] factor cannot be allowed to take on more significance,” he said. He added that if local forces are mobilized and join the fight, the already complex situation will worsen and become even more difficult to contain.
Bazoum is considered the architect of Niger’s existing strategy of dependence on the regional G5-Sahel security alliance, as well as international assistance.
As the presidential campaign entered its final phase in January, Issoufou and Bazoum embarked on a visit to Paris — infuriating Niger’s opposition but bolstering Francophone relations. And just days before Niger’s February runoff election, French President Emmanuel Macron took part in a meeting of Sahel countries — and hurried to congratulate the new president after election results were announced.
Niger’s war on terror depends heavily on France’s Operation Barkhane, an EU mission, US air bases and international security training. Still, Sounaye said that was not enough: “In a way, militarization can actually weaken the state. First, it’s too expensive for a country like Niger. And second, outside support, especially from Europe and France, will wind down and eventually stop.”
Sounaye said Bazoum must begin thinking about how he can facilitate a dialogue among all parties to the conflict.
“Terrorism, regional conflicts and political opposition cannot be allowed to coalesce the way they did after the election,” Sounaye said. Otherwise, he fears that the country could find itself adrift in chaos.
Dialogue with the opposition is the second major challenge facing Bazoum. “He has to open himself to it and show it attention,” Sounaye said. Gestures are needed now, he added, and political prisoners must be freed. With so much uncertainty, only one thing seems clear: It will be up to the new president to take the first step.
This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton