Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum steps out of the wings

Niamey, Feb 23 (AFP/APP):Mohamed Bazoum, named the winner of Niger’s presidential election, worked for years as the right-hand man of outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou, often doing tough or tedious jobs that earned him little prominence.
But that seemingly thankless work became the springboard for his bid for the top job, campaigning as Issoufou’s anointed successor in the country’s elections on December 27 and the Sunday runoff.
On Tuesday, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said in provisional results that Bazoum had been elected with 55.75 percent of the vote, ahead of former president Mahamane Ousmane with 44.25 percent.
One of his campaign songs, a feature of presidential elections in Niger, hailed “Bazoum the worker, the hard worker. The man of rural people and the poor. Issoufou’s brother”.
As Issoufou’s long-standing friend, Bazoum took on nuts-and-bolts tasks such as managing the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), which they jointly founded.
He also gave loyal service as minister of the interior and minister of state in the presidency after Issoufou was reelected in 2016.
Bazoum, 60, claims to have intimate knowledge of his nation, which is vast, deeply poor and struggling with a jihadist insurgency.
During his months-long campaign this year, he visited 240 of Niger’s 266 communes, or districts, according to those close to him. “I know the problems of every commune,” he claims.

– ‘Not a Nigerien?’ –

Born in 1960 at Bilabrine in the southeastern Diffa region, Bazoum is a member of Niger’s ethnic Arab minority, which some opposition figures seized on to accuse him of having “foreign” origins.
A campaigner for national unity, he dismissively asked rallies: “Do people say Bazoum is not a Nigerien?” “You are Nigerien!” the crowd would respond.
But the smear riles him.

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“I am Nigerien and I am an Arab at the same time!” he told AFP. “I don’t think this (attack) reaped any benefit for my critics. It gave them the shameful image of people channelling racist arguments.”
It was time in Africa for “a great revolution, like in the United States”, when a member of a racial minority could be elected to high office, he said, referring to Barack Obama.
After attending school at Goure in the southwest, Bazoum obtained his baccalaureat (high school diploma) in Zinder, the country’s second city.
He left to study philosophy at the University of Dakar in Senegal, where he found his roots in the political left and eventually returned to Niger to become a schoolteacher.
One of his pet projects is education, especially for girls, who often are forced into marriage at the age of 13 or 14 and then start having children.
On average, Nigerien women have 7.6 children, and the country’s fertility rate of 3.9 percent is the highest in the world.
With education and access to reproductive health, “we are going to reduce the fertility rate. We will get results within 10 years”, Bazoum said in an interview with AFP ahead of the vote.

– ‘Top of the pile’ –

From trade union activity, Bazoum took up a political career alongside Issoufou in the 1990s, when they formed the PNDS.
He was sent to prison for his activities under president Ibrahim Mainassara (1996-1999), but he then reclaimed his seat in parliament and held cabinet posts as both junior minister and minister.
Bazoum was a major opponent to president Mamadou Tandja, who held power for more than a decade (1999-2010) during turbulent times in politics studded by military coups d’etat.
In 2011, he became an architect of Issoufou’s first election victory.
He served as foreign minister before taking up the interior portfolio, then stepped down six months ahead of the elections to devote himself to the campaign.
“As far as smartness is concerned, he’s top of the pile” compared with the other candidates, says a Western source, asking for anonymity.
“He’s a hard worker but he is perhaps dry in character and rough around the edges,” says another, citing Bazoum’s tenure at the interior ministry.
Bazoum says, in his defence: “I’m not a lunatic and I’m accessible. There’s no hierarchy among my staff.”
Under Issoufou’s rule, people held that the onetime teacher was the real number two to the president, ahead of Prime Minister Brigi Rafini.
Bazoum reportedly handled all sensitive cases and was consulted on matters from diplomacy to the economy, and especially on questions of national security.
Despite his intimate association with the former president, Bazoum says he will be his own boss.
“I will not walk in Issoufou’s footsteps,” he vowed.

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