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The Sahel’s Oasis of Stability Isn’t Really Stable

Niger’s current elections highlight a tenuous connection between good governance and counterterrorism.

Words: Alexander Thurston
Pictures: Seth Doyle

Amid insecurity and a humanitarian emergency in the Sahel region of Africa, the Sahelian country of Niger held presidential elections in two rounds on December 27, 2020 and February 21, 2021. The victor is ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum. His victory has been challenged by the opposition candidate, former President Mahamane Ousmane, and the official results from the western Tahoua Region contain strikingly lopsided tallies in Bazoum’s favor. International actors’ acceptance of the results — explicitly or tacitly — is effectively closing the window for a close review of the results. African leaders, such as Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Chadian President Idriss Deby, and many others have already congratulated Bazoum, while French diplomats have condemned post-electoral violence without raising questions about the integrity of the results.

In Niger and in the surrounding Sahel region more broadly, international actors — especially France —  have repeatedly shown a willingness to overlook problematic electoral processes and outcomes. These instances include France’s acceptance of the 2016 presidential elections in Niger despite authorities’ detention of the main opposition candidate, as well as France’s rosy official characterization of the 2018 presidential elections in Mali, where hundreds of polling places were shuttered due to violence and threats.

France’s attitude toward Sahelian elections sit uneasily with the strategy that France and Sahelian governments both purport to be following for ending the Sahel’s violent insurgencies — a strategy supposedly predicated on a marriage of political accountability, development, and military force.


Under outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger has often been seen as an “island” or “oasis” of stability within the Sahel. In 2012, just after Issoufou took office, Niger escaped the fate of its neighbor Mali, which saw a full-fledged separatist rebellion break out in the north, led by members of the Tuareg ethnic group. Mali’s rebellion triggered other crises, notably a military coup against Mali’s central government, and the emergence of a jihadist coalition that eventually sidelined the northern separatists. From late spring 2012 until early 2013, jihadists controlled northern Mali, and their southward advance prompted a French-led military intervention in 2013. Since then, the Sahel crisis has only grown, affecting not just Mali but also Burkina Faso and Niger, which already had substantial challenges of their own.

Niger’s relative stability, however, has made it an attractive security partner for France, the United States, and others. Nigerien officials have deliberately cultivated their country’s image of relative stability. The country hosts French and American military bases in sites, such as the capital Niamey and the northern city of Agadez, and Niger is a core node in various region-wide military operations, such as France’s Sahel counterterrorism force Operation Barkhane (headquartered in Chad) and the United States’ Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. Niger briefly popped into headlines in the United States when four American soldiers were killed in an ambush by Islamic State-affiliated militants in 2017, and the incident raised lingering questions about the extent of American (and other foreign) military activities in Niger.

Issoufou also proved amenable to European proposals for managing migration. Niger cracked down on traffic through the northern city of Agadez, a key hub along trans-Saharan migration routes, in exchange for greater European development assistance. These security and migration-related partnerships, however, made little improvement in the lives of most ordinary Nigeriens; according to the 2020 Human Development Report, Niger is the poorest country in the world. Meanwhile, analysts have argued that the migration crackdown undermines local stability in the far north and beyond.

Niger’s relative stability, however, has made it an attractive security partner for France, the United States, and others. Nigerien officials have deliberately cultivated their country’s image of relative stability.

More significantly, Issoufou proved somewhat authoritarian. In 2014, his chief political rival, then-speaker of parliament Hama Amadou, was charged with involvement in trafficking babies. The timing of the charge appeared politically motivated, related to both the falling-out between Issoufou and Amadou and to the then-approaching 2016 elections. Amadou fled the country to avoid being arrested. During those elections, Amadou returned to Niger but spent the campaign period in detention. Issoufou ultimately won in the second round with 92.5% of the vote. More broadly, under Issoufou there have been arrests of journalists, bloggers, and human activists who criticized the government on sensitive issues, such as human rights abuses in counterterrorism or suspected corruption within the military.

Yet Issoufou enjoys a very positive image in Paris, Brussels, and Washington. That image was reinforced by his decision to step down. Far in advance of the 2020/2021 elections, Issoufou made clear that unlike some of his peers in West Africa and elsewhere, he would not attempt to change the constitution to permit himself a third term. That decision may reflect an awareness that seeking a third term could elevate coup risks at home — Issoufou’s last civilian predecessor, Mamadou Tandja, was overthrown in a 2010 coup after engineering a third term for himself. Issoufou is also aware that headlines proclaiming “first peaceful transfer of power in Niger’s history” will go far in burnishing his image, legitimating a victory for the ruling party, and forestalling deeper scrutiny of the elections.


The latest election, however, has been flawed. For one thing, Hama Amadou was barred from running this time, still dogged by the legal fallout of the baby trafficking charges. Meanwhile, the results from the second round raise questions about what exactly happened on election day. At the national level, the tally was not suspiciously lopsided: Bazoum won with 55.75% to Ousmane’s 44.25%. But some regional-level and commune-level results deserve serious scrutiny. Most glaringly, in an election where only 4,487,195 valid ballots were cast, Bazoum defeated Ousmane in the Tahoua Region (see the interactive map here) with 912,274 votes to Ousmane’s 128,153. At the level of individual communes within Tahoua, the results are even more striking: for example, Tchintabaraden, where Bazoum received 54,564 votes and Ousmane received 1,562; Azeye, where Bazoum got 26,722 votes and Ousmane got 105; and Tillia, where Bazoum scored 27,442 and Ousmane scored 280. Nowhere in the country did Ousmane receive such margins, including in his home region of Zinder, which Ousmane ultimately won by just 148 votes. Tahoua, for context, was the third most-populous region according to the 2012 census, yet turnout in Tahoua (75%) far exceeded the more populous regions of Zinder and Maradi (where turnout was 61% in both).

One could argue that Tahoua is a ruling party stronghold – and that it is the birthplace of outgoing President Issoufou. Yet these scores, along with turnout levels approaching 100% in some communes of Tahoua, could suggest rigging. Hard evidence is unlikely to emerge, precisely because Tahoua is a border region, far from the country’s major cities in the south. Indeed, post-election protests have so far been concentrated in the capital Niamey, with some tensions in other southern cities. Meanwhile, local, investigative journalism is logistically, financially, and politically difficult in northern Niger.

Tahoua is also a dangerous environment for other reasons; the region has repeatedly been attacked by armed groups, several communes are under a state of emergency, and Tahoua is adjacent to the even more violent Tillaberi region. In fact, one could imagine that attacks in Tahoua would have fueled some anti-incumbent sentiment there, which makes the pro-Bazoum vote even more striking. It is possible that the ruling party took advantage of Tahoua’s remoteness to pad Bazoum’s total there, calculating that no international actor would pay close attention to commune-level results in the country’s peripheries.


At the security-focused Sahel summit in N’Djamena, Chad on February 16, French President Emmanuel Macron preemptively hailed Niger’s elections — while getting the date of the second round wrong — as a “collective political victory” amid the insecurity in the Sahel. Macron deployed what have become stock phrases in talking about French strategy in the Sahel, namely the idea that French military strikes and development ventures support “good governance” and “the return of the state” in the Sahel’s conflict zones, especially the tri-border region of western Niger, northeastern and central Mali, and northern and eastern Burkina Faso. Yet it remains difficult to see how good governance or the effective return of the state can be achieved when basic mechanisms of accountability for elites are not working. If serious corruption charges against military officers and civilians produce no follow-up; if Nigerien authorities dismiss reports of soldiers summarily executing civilians and burying them in mass graves; if elections occur on an uneven playing field and produce questionable results, then what kind of state will result?

Sahelian politics remains mired in long stretches of stagnation punctuated by coups. Elections are dominated by incumbents. The foremost challengers are former office-holders and known commodities. Periodic coups attempt to reset the political game only to give way to elections that once again put members of the familiar political class back into power. The supposed connection between governance and counterterrorism appears, on closer scrutiny, tenuous at best.

Alexander Thurston is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

Alexander Thurston

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