The day before his plane left, at the end of February when corona still seemed like a distant reality, Abdourahamane Idrissa Abdoulaye, political scientist at the African Studies centre and university lecturer Islam in Sub-Sahara Africa, joked to his favourite French fries seller that ‘eventually, we’ll get it as well’. Little did he know that only ten days later he would be stuck in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
How is he doing, considering he’s been stuck in Niger for a month now? He answers with a doubtful ‘I am OK, I guess’. Not very optimistic, he admits. But he sees no reason to be optimistic, as ‘especially in these times you really don’t know if your OK or not.’
Underneath mango trees
Which measures is Niger taking against the corona virus? ‘Social distancing is recommended, but not obligatory. Big gatherings are forbidden and there’s a night curfew. But there is no strict policy. And no lockdown.’
Does it influence his daily life? ‘Not really’, Abdoulaye says. ‘I already have a monkish lifestyle, so this actually suits me. And I am still allowed to go outside. Shops have water and soap ready. Today I even received some plastic disposable gloves.
Most of my food I receive from my family, who live close by. I also see my friends and colleagues daily. My social life is still flourishing!’
His work also continues. ‘I just published an article. And as main editor of a edited volume on secularism in French speaking Africa, I am busy with encouraging the other authors to hurry up.
‘And I still teach my students from Leiden. Live! The internet connection crashes a lot though. During my last lecture the connection disappeared. It just died, without any explanation. So I went outside, to chase a better connection. When I reappeared online, my students laughed. Behind me they say mango trees and the sun.’
Abdoulaye’s first contact with the coronavirus was in Burkina Faso, where he after a week of presentations in Niger visited a documentary maker. ‘A pastor and his wife had visited a big religious gathering in Mulhouse, France, and came back with corona.’ That city later turned out to be the epicentre of corona infections in France.
‘When I came back to Niamey on 15 March, the country was still officially corona-free. There were also no measures against it yet. I only saw some more medical personnel at the airport.’ There was even a big demonstration in the capital, during which three people died. It barely registered in the (international) news.
‘The government had forbidden the demonstration on the account of the coronavirus spreading. But there was no corona in Niger yet, so people felt like the government used the virus to oppress the demonstration against the political system. And I agree with them.’
Officially, Niger now counts less than 300 confirmed corona cases, and ten deaths. ‘It is probably more’, Abdoulaye says. ‘Especially because a lot of people do not show any symptoms.’
What he does know for sure: the virus could not have come at a better time for the government. ‘If corona hadn’t existed, I am certain that in Niger now demonstration after demonstration would take place. Because in December, a huge scandal came out. It turns out that the ruling party has embezzled no less than 2.5 billion euros. That is an enormous amount of money, especially to one of the poorest countries in the world. Everyone is really, really, really angry about it.’
At the moment, Niger spends a big part of its national budget on its army. The country is at war with Salafists (fundamentalists within the Islam) at the border with Mali and Burkina Faso. ‘Therefore, people were OK with spending a lot of money on the army. Even though it meant cutting back on healthcare and education. But now it turns out that money was used for personal gain.’
The scandal has made people suspicious. ‘If the government was able to lie all this time about the money, who’s to say they are not using the corona measures for their personal agenda as well? That distrust creates a problem with the fight against the virus. The citizens is too suspicious. And they are right too be so, because the government is using corona to oppress normal political discussions.’
However, the mistrust of the measures put aside, it is still difficult to follow them successfully in Niger. ‘The government has forbidden gatherings of more than fifty people. That has a big impact, because that includes the mosques, where especially on Fridays hundreds of people come together to pray. At first they still did, but now the police enforces the measure more strictly. However, outside of the capital there are some clergy who announce that the coronavirus is no excuse to not pray together. That has led to violence between the police and bystanders, because the clergy were arrested.’
Yet, a total lockdown is not the solution. ‘How would we implement that here? We lack the structures and social organisation that countries like France have to just lock the whole place down. What about all the people who live on the streets? Or that do have a home, but earn their money on the street? There’s no social security that compensates for the lost income.’
Niamey, the capital, did close down, because that’s where the infections started. The measures should prevent the spreading of the virus outside the capital. ‘You’re not allowed to leave or enter the city. I had thought to visit another city at the beginning of April to carry out some research. I am glad I didn’t go, because I might not have been able to come back.
‘But how the government wants to keep the capital closed, is a mystery to me. The city has no walls. They can regulate the streets, but a lot of people leave or enter the city by foot. You cannot stop them.’
Lastly, a night curfew has been set. ‘A weird measure. At night, most people aren’t outside anyways, so why would you issue a lockdown at those times? At day, that’s when everybody walks around and mingles, and then there is no lockdown measure. And in line with the measures France has taken, they have closed all the cafes, cinemas and clubs. Also weird, because here we do not have a lot of those.’
Still, the curfew is strictly monitored. ‘The police patrols through the streets, which leads to violence. The police beats up those who are outside. That happened so often, that the governor had announce on the radio that he hadn’t asked his men to do so.’ He also asked to police to refrain from further violence.
‘Yesterday I asked a friend at the National Guard why they beat people up. He said: “If we don’t beat people up, they don’t understand”.’
To pass the time, Abdoulaye tries to focus on other things than the uncertainty. For instance, he is writing a novel in his spare time. ‘Finally the right circumstances to work on that!’ Unfortunate: five older versions of the story are on a computer in Leiden. ‘I cannot access those right now. So hopefully I can return to Leiden soon.’
He’s lucky; just a few days after this interview the Belgian army flies him back to Europe for free with a special army aircraft. Only condition: they will drop him off in Brussels, but he has to leave for The Netherlands right away, he’s not allowed to spend a second in Belgium. Because there are no trains that evening, he has no other option than to take a taxi.
449 euros and a few hours later he is back in Leiden, after being stuck in Niger for a month and a half. ‘I am happy, it’s is also sunny here! But it’s also weird to be back, the social restrictions are much stricter. I have to get used to that.’
At least there’s one advantage to being in Leiden: he can visit his favourite French fries seller again. ‘The seller told me he can use all the help he can get. So I promised him that I’d come back!’