NIGER: Despite a weakened opposition ahead of general elections, risks of instability remain elevated

NIGER: DESPITE A WEAKENED OPPOSITION RISKS OF INSTABILITY ARE ELEVATED AHEAD OF GENERAL ELECTIONS 

Presidential and legislative elections will be held on 27 December. Contrary to other West African states, President Mahamadou Issoufou is not seeking re-election, in line with the Nigerien constitution which imposes a two-term limit on presidents.

His anointed successor and long-time ally, Mohamed Bazoum, is facing a myriad of opposition candidates – 30 out of a total 41 presidential bids have been validated. They have failed to rally behind a single candidate, but some have tacitly agreed to support the leading candidate in a potential run-off. This is due to be held in February 2021 if no candidate obtains an absolute majority on 27 December.

Divide and rule

The highly fractured opposition will rely on coalition building, which is likely to undermine its chances of realistically challenging the ruling Parti nigérien pour la démocratie et le socialism-Tarayya (PNDS-Tarayya) and its presidential candidate in the polls. And the absence of the main opposition leader, Hama Amadou, will weaken its chances further. In November, the electoral authorities declared his bid invalid due to a previous criminal conviction from 2017, when he was sentenced to prison for his alleged role in a child-trafficking ring. He was pardoned in March 2020. He contends the original conviction was politically motivated and has called for his record to be cleared.

The Sahelian security problem

Rampant insecurity outside major urban areas is a central issue of this year’s polls. The elections carry historical importance, as they could represent the first democratic transition of power since independence from France in 1960. Nevertheless, the polls present problems of legitimacy due to the expanding presence of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) which may hinder the holding of the polls in some parts of the country. In turn, this is likely to fuel anti-government sentiment in the one- to two-year outlook, particularly in areas badly affected by militant attacks. This includes the Peuhl community in the north of the western Tillaberi region, where Islamist NSAG Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has an established presence and their increasingly deadly and recurrent attacks, in parallel with the authorities’ inability to stop them, are fuelling sentiment of marginalisation. Other areas of the country face similar challenges. These include Diffa in the south-east, on the border with north-eastern Nigeria, where insecurity is rife due to the presence of Islamic State in West Africa Province.

Over the past five years, ISGS, ISWAP, and affiliated katibas have conducted increasingly deadly and sophisticated attacks against the Nigerien armed forces, but also against humanitarian workers, including foreign nationals. In September, ISGS claimed responsibility for the killing of six French nationals and two local workers in an attack in the south-western town of Kouré, Tillaberi. ISGS’ targeting of community leaders in the same region have also strengthened feelings of marginalisation there.

Like his predecessor, Bazoum is likely to continue to favour a strong security apparatus. He has also pledged to provide better and longer education for young women, partly in a bid to slow the exponential demographic growth the country has seen over the past decade. The World Bank estimates that the country’s population will increase by close to a third by 2030. This is seen as a major security challenge over the coming two- to five-year period as authorities fear that a lack of opportunities for young Nigeriens and growing poverty will provide a recruitment pool for the Sahelian NSAGs.

Corruption is fuelling anti-government grievances

Fighting high-level corruption is another key priority of the incoming administration. In April, authorities launched formal investigations into allegations of price-fixing and fictitious competition in public tenders for arms procurement. Several of these contracts were also managed by senior government officials and individuals with close access to Issoufou. However, the armed forces saw little of that funding. Bazoum has suggested to ban some contractors from future contracts, but has stopped short of making any formal campaign pledges.

The ostensibly corrupt contracts – worth a total of USD875 million of which up to USD140 million may have been embezzled between 2011 and 2019 – in parallel with rampant insecurity have contributed to growing frustration within the armed forces. In turn, this worsens the stability risk outlook and the prospect of a coup d’etat over the coming months. In 2015, Issoufou claimed authorities had prevented an attempted coup by a section of the armed forces, and imprisoned several high-ranking officials accused of being allies of Amadou.

ASSESSMENT

While we anticipate that Bazoum will be elected as president due to a weakened opposition, the rampant insecurity and apparent political side-lining of key opposition leaders could serve as motivations for military intervention, particularly in the event of growing civil unrest over the coming two months.

Security managers of staff in the country should increase their monitoring of local news sources and government statements, and conduct more regular security threat assessments ahead of the polls. They should test their crisis responses and ensure these are fit for potential instability, and consider preparing evacuations of non-essential staff and dependents. In the longer term, they should continue to monitor announcements regarding military spending and the arms contracts which may fuel instability. Political risks, in the form of growing scrutiny and possible sanctions by international partners, may also increase over the coming years, in large part due to growing budget constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE december 2020 EDITION OF THE SUB-REGIONAL INTELLIGENCE MONITOR FOR CENTRAL & WEST AFRICA

Also in this edition:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: High risks of instability following elections as old foes face off