A “tissue of slander.” On Wednesday February 21, former President Mahamadou Issoufou announced through a press release published by his lawyer, Issoufou Illo, his decision to file a complaint against Sylvain Itté, the French ambassador expelled from Niger at the end of September 2023 by the junta came to power two months earlier. He criticizes him for comments made during a hearing before the defense committee of the French National Assembly on November 29, and made public in mid-February.

Before the deputies, the French diplomat denounced “the direct involvement of former President Issoufou” in the putsch perpetrated on July 26 against his successor, President Mohamed Bazoum, still detained with his wife in the presidential palace in Niamey. “We can advance without much risk of being mistaken that [Mahamadou Issoufou] instigated or at least accompanied the coup,” declared the ambassador.

In recent months, French diplomacy and Mr. Bazoum’s entourage have become convinced that the former leader played a role in the putsch of General Abdourahamane Tiani, whom he himself had placed at the head of the presidential guard in 2011. Doubts fueled by Mr. Issoufou’s attitude towards a pronunciamiento that he did not formally condemn, as well as by his favorable treatment by the putschists, who left him free to move, unlike other executives of the old regime.

According to several official French sources and those close to the deposed president, a conflict over the management of oil resources would have opposed the Bazoum and Issoufou clans, which would have pushed the former leader to want to put an end to the power of his successor with the help of his faithful ally, General Tiani. According to this thesis, taken up by Mr. Itté during his parliamentary hearing, Mr. Bazoum’s desire to clean up the management of the black gold sector would have led to a dispute with Mr. Issoufou while the latter’s son, Sani Issoufou Mahamadou, known as “Abba”, was minister of oil.

Economic sanctions

For the moment, no evidence has been provided to confirm this version. “No dispute exists between President Bazoum and the Minister of Oil,” assured Mr. Illo in his denial on Wednesday, before insisting that Mr. Issoufou was “associated neither directly nor remotely with the coup d’état of July 26.” “These allegations are part of an agenda intended to deconstruct all the efforts that the former president […] made nationally and internationally,” regrets the lawyer. Contacted by Le Monde, Me Illo specifies that the complaint envisaged by his client against Mr. Itté is “in progress”, without however detailing the reason or the court before which he intends to file it.

The hearing of the French diplomat before the defense committee, which was held behind closed doors, should not have been published on the National Assembly website. If an official French source maintains that this is a simple error, Mr. Issoufou’s entourage does not believe a word of it.

Because on the day of its online broadcast, the former president was flying to Addis Ababa to participate in the 37th summit of the African Union (AU). Invited by the President of the AU Commission, the Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat, to present a report on the African Continental Free Trade Area, Mr. Issoufou mainly intended to plead Niger’s cause to officials of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which were present there. With one goal: to obtain a reduction, or even the lifting of the heavy economic sanctions decreed by the West African body against Niger with the aim of forcing the junta to release Mr. Bazoum.

“France is one of the countries that insists that sanctions against Niger be maintained. For seven months, Issoufou has been working hard behind the scenes to alleviate the suffering experienced by the Nigerien population, who are being suffocated by these sanctions. Obviously, France tried to counter it,” says one of his relatives.

Lack of foresight

According to him, Paris voluntarily published Mr. Itté’s hearing with a dual objective. First, “discredit” the former president at the dawn of an ECOWAS summit where the situation in Niger will be discussed, on February 24 in Abuja. But also, “make him take responsibility for the coup in order to hide the failures of the French intelligence services”, which, like other Western chancelleries, did not see this putsch coming. “We did not imagine for a single moment that Issoufou would send the head of the presidential guard, his man, to overthrow the man who had been his party comrade for thirty years,” the ambassador in fact justified himself to the parliamentarians.

The day after July 26, the lack of foresight of the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE) and French diplomacy regarding this umpteenth overthrow of head of civil state in the Sahel – after those of Mali and the Burkina Faso by soldiers hostile to Paris, in 2020 and 2022 – which also removed France’s last significant ally in the region, had provoked the anger of President Emmanuel Macron.

What followed, at the end of 2023, was a big commotion in the ranks of French officials responsible for security and African issues, including the replacement of the Africa director of the Quai d’Orsay, Christophe Bigot, in mid-December, and the boss from the DGSE, Bernard Emié, a few days later.

Contacted, Sylvain Itté and the Quai d’Orsay did not wish to comment. A French diplomatic source emphasizes, however, that under the separation of powers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has “no control over the documents published by the National Assembly” and specifies that it is not currently aware of “no complaint filed against Ambassador Itté.”