Niger’s New President Evokes Challenges Ahead of Heavily Secured Inauguration

Mohamed Bazoum will be sworn in on Friday as Niger’s new president in the country’s first democratic transition of power. In an exclusive interview in Niamey with RFI and our sister station France 24, he talks about clashes, intercommunal conflict, the prospect of France withdrawing its Barkhane forces and plans to emancipate young girls.

The swearing in ceremony of new president Mohamed Bazoum at the Mahatma Gandhi conference centre in Niamey will take place under unprecedented security measures, involving the presidential and national guard, and the police.

The event comes at a particularly fraught time for the country, which has faced a coup attempt, elections marred by violence and hundreds killed in terrorist attacks in recent weeks.

Niger’s presidential elections on 21 February saw an unprecedented transition of power between two elected presidents. And yet the election process was marred by violence in the streets of Niamey and elsewhere. Several deaths were reported and hundreds of opposition supporters arrested. This could have cast a shadow on the Mohamed Bazoum’s honeymoon period but he insisted the clashes were “artificial”.

“There were some tensions in Niamey and they lasted less than two days,” he said. “I think this shows how artificial the unrest really was. After those two days, things simply calmed down.” While he regretted the unrest he considered it was now “behind us”.

The opposition candidate Mahamane Ousmane has contested the results of the election, and on the 25 March, 53 opposition deputies boycotted the first session of parliament, suggesting a rocky debut for the new leader.

In an exclusive interview in Niamey with RFI and our sister station France 24 earlier this week, Bazoum talked the challenges the country faces and his hopes for the future as he prepares to take over from his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou.

Note: This interview was conducted prior to the attempted coup on the night of March 30-31, and has been edited. You can watch the full version in the video here.

Terrorist attacks

Niger has suffered terrorist attacks: jihadists groups like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have launched attacks on military camps. Civilians have also been targeted.

More than 300 people have been killed in three attacks in the west of the country since the start of the year. Asked whether ISGS was purposefully challenging Bazoum as he took over the reigns, he said the current situation was “not related to elections and results”.

“What we’re seeing today is what’s going on in the field, the relations between jihadists and the communities that they are trying to control.”

He took the example of the recent attack in the TillabĂ©ri region in which 137 people died. Jihadists were using a system of tithes known as ‘zakat’ to control people, but that system was interrupted when “heavy patrolling by the national guard” meant locals were “less willing to pay”. Punitive attacks followed.

Intercommunal conflict

A recent report by the International Crisis Group found that two terror attacks in March were revenge attacks by ISGS jihadists. It suggested that Niger, like some of its west African neighbours, was falling into a spiral of sectarian violence.

Bazoum acknowledged there was a real risk of “intercommunal conflict”.

“When you see this kind of action, widespread killings against a particular population [… ] it of course leads to a risk of community-based conflict,” he said, “because the jihadists come from particular communities. And the people they attack unfortunately also belong to specific communities.

“Our challenge is to make sure the situation doesn’t escalate. We need to defend people against these rogue operations and that is what we do as a state and we will take up that challenge.”

Niger is not Mali

Taking up that challenge means beefing up the army, but in neighbouring Mali Prime Minister Moctar Ouane has acknowledged there are limits to a strong-armed solution and is open to negotiations with jihadist groups. Bazoum says you “can’t compare” the situation in Niger and Mali as there are no Nigerien jihadists to negotiate with.

“We cannot open dialogue with them because there are no jihadist commanders in Niger, there are no bases for jihadists in Niger and there have been no statements from major ISGS commanders related to Niger,” he declared.

“We have north Africans commanding the ISGS forces who are carrying out jihad in Mali – at least that’s their position – and who sometimes have operations that spill over into Niger.”

French withdrawal

With the French presidential elections just over a year away, the issue of maintaining France’s controversial Barkhane force is becoming a hot button issue. The military operation in the Sahel, both expensive and costly in terms of human life, is increasingly unpopular in French public opinion. The question of partly or completely withdrawing French forces is now on the table.

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If this should happen “we wouldn’t feel abandoned by the French,” Bazoum said, viewing Barkhane as a “mainly Mali-based operation”.

A “partial” withdrawal of French forces from Niger would not necessarily change the balance of power on the ground.

“If some troops were withdrawn it wouldn’t have a big operational impact, it would be more symbolic and political,” he said, given the French army “don’t have boots on the ground fighting against jihadists”.

What matters is for France to maintain its air force.

“What we do need is the air superiority from the French forces which as I understand it would be guaranteed no matter how many troops were withdrawn from the country, if that were to happen.”

Fighting poverty

Niger remains one of the continent’s poorest countries: 40 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Its birth rate – an average of seven children per woman – is the highest in the world. Bazoum said it’s crucial to promote the education of young girls.

“It seems fundamentally important to me to underline the importance of educating young girls [… ] We want to make sure they stay in school.”

His new approach is to create boarding schools in lower middle schools close to where the girls’ families live, thereby encouraging parents not to pull them out of school.

“By building a lot of boarding schools in these local middle schools, keeping girls in school up to the age of 18, we will protect girls from early marriage,” he explained.

77 percent of Nigerien girls are married before the age of 18 and 28 percent before the age of 15.

Niger’s new president is hopeful that “if we educate young girls and keep them in schools for a long time we have a strong way to fight these early child marriages and also protect them from giving birth before they’re 15”.

While recognising this was “a big challenge” he promised to “remain strong and make sure we discuss the problem openly”.

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