Nigerien voters will go to the polls on Sunday to choose the country’s next president, in a second round pitting the successor chosen by outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou against the country’s first democratically elected president.
Mohamed Bazoum, the candidate of the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, won 39.3% of the vote in the first round of voting on December 27, well ahead of his closest rival, Mahamane Ousmane, with 16.9%.
Coming from Niger’s small ethnic Arab minority community, Bazoum, 61, has held key ministries in Issoufou’s cabinet and is widely seen as the frontrunner against Ousmane. The 71-year-old in 1993 won the West African country’s first multi-party elections, but was toppled three years later in a coup and has since failed to retake the presidency.
Issoufou’s decision not to run for a third term – in accordance with the country’s constitution – has been hailed by Niger’s international partners as a sign of democratic openness. The years leading up to the ballot, however, were marked by growing insecurity along Niger’s borders, major corruption scandals and repressive measures against members of civil society.
Focus on the security crisis
The vote will close the three-month electoral cycle in Niger which began in early December with local elections and is also expected to usher in the first peaceful transition of power between freely elected leaders.
Supported by large multi-party coalitions, the two candidates launched their campaign in the border region of Tillaberi, a hotspot of the deepening conflict that has plagued the western part of the Sahel for much of the past decade – and most recent decades. years, hitting Niger more and more. .
Attacks by armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIL) and Al-Qaeda and counterterrorism operations backed by Western forces have transformed the area near the Nigerian border with Mali and Burkina Faso into a field of regular battle, forcing more than 90,000 people to leave their homes in the past three years, according to the United Nations.
At least 621 people have been killed in the region in the first 11 months of 2020, an increase of more than 40% from the previous year, according to the armed conflict location and events data project. .
“How can we keep our cattle, go fishing, bring our children to school, trade goods, see a doctor, if there is no security?” Ousmane demanded the outcome of his coalition’s rally in Tillabéri on February 6, while denouncing what he saw as the ineffective presence of Western armies.
Two days later, at another rally in front of a different crowd, Bazoum responded by promising that he would do “everything in my power, to restore security” at Tillaberi, referring to the expected arrival of more than 1000 Chadian soldiers to assist a regional military force combating armed groups; and the deployment of hundreds of newly recruited and trained officers of the National Guard, an internal security force.
As a former Minister of the Interior, from 2016 to 2020, “Bazoum is very familiar with the country’s security apparatus, and this played a role in his designation as the natural heir of Mahmadou Issoufou”, explained Andrew Lebovich , Washington researcher based at the European Council on External Relations.
But if “Niger has avoided the security collapse of some of its neighbors, namely Mali and Burkina Faso”, he added, “such persistent insecurity represents a risk for medium-term stability”.
Like many other observers, Lebovich also pointed to the “constant allegations of the embezzlement of public funds in military spending in recent years.”
According to an internal audit of the Ministry of Defense, partially disclosed to journalists in February 2020, at least $ 137 million was lost between 2014 and 2019 as part of a massive corruption scheme, involving agents of the State of high ranking and powerful intermediaries who overcharged the army. contracts.
None of those likely involved suffered legal consequences, and critics argue that Bazoum’s re-election would prolong such a climate of impunity.
Infrastructure, promises of economic growth
Over the past five years, Niger has become a sort of global military hub, hosting military bases with troops from France, the United States, Italy, Belgium, Germany and having recently concluded agreements defense with Russia and Turkey.
For many Nigeriens, however, insecurity is not necessarily the most pressing issue – poverty and basic needs are.
“The heart of the country, the rural areas, were completely neglected under the Issoufou regime, and this is where 80% of Nigeriens live, often in a state of misery – a deep injustice which is the real prelude to the ‘insecurity”. said Moussa Tchangari, secretary general of the civil society group Alternative Espaces Citoyens.
Niger’s record growth in gross domestic product (GDP), reaching around 6% in recent years, “has only benefited a very small part of the population, an urban middle class which is the target of Bazoum’s campaign. “, did he declare.
This growth has been largely driven by large infrastructure projects such as a new international airport in the capital, Niamey, shiny five-star hotels, bridges over the Niger River, conference centers and hospitals.
Largely funded by foreign direct investment from Turkey, China and India, these facilities embody Niger’s new role of international partners, which could eclipse the traditional position of the former colonial ruler, France, and of other European countries, which recently saw Niger as an ally in reducing migration to the north.
While the “Bazoum Coalition” electoral platform promised to continue investing in similar infrastructure projects, including highways, regional roads and oil factories, Osmane’s “Seven E” manifesto focused more on access to water, education and support for farmers, in an attempt to mobilize rural voters.
Seven and a half million people, out of a population of 23 million, are eligible to vote on Sunday, with results expected in the coming days.
The vote projections appear to be in favor of Bazoum, who enjoys the support of 95 political parties in the second round. Ousmane, on the other hand, will count on the support of 17 political groups.
The regional bloc of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) deployed an observation mission, while a local pro-democracy movement called Tournons la Page [translation: Let’s turn the Page] plans to mobilize some 500 observers across the country and a hotline to report possible incidents of fraud.
Maikoul Zodi, the group’s secretary, said the first round of voting was marked “by hate speech, vote-buying and irregularities, including the dysfunction of many polling stations in areas targeted by jihadists. “.
From 2018, Zodi and his fellow activists have spent months in prison following their mobilization against what he calls “unpopular measures” taken by the government, from new taxes to impunity in cases of alleged corruption.
“In recent years, we have seen insecurity, corruption and a growing crackdown on dissent,” Zodi said. “Let’s leave it all behind.”