Opaque arms deals in Niger: ‘Petit Boubé’, the man at the heart of the scandal

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s barons of arm sales

By Mathieu Olivier, Special correspondent in Niamey
Posted on Thursday, 7 April 2022 20:25, updated on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 10:27

The young man would park his motorbike outside the offices of the association Alternatives Espaces Citoyens (Citizens’ Space Alternatives), a stone's throw from Niamey’s sandy racetrack. Here, amidst the excitement that surrounded the association’s director, Moussa Tchangari (a community figure), everyone was familiar with the Japanese-made bike and its owner, Aboubacar Hima.

This is part 2 of a 4-part series

As a student at a vocational school where he was learning the basics of business, he had already started his life as an entrepreneur. People described him as “discreet”, “reserved” and “trouble-free”. “No one had any complaints about him,” says a former classmate. Interestingly though, no one called him ‘Petit Boubé’ or ‘Fierce Style’, aliases that he would later adopt.

Back then, you might run into Hima around the office or at the market without really taking much notice of him. Like many young Nigeriens who grew up during the presidency of Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara at the end of the 1990s, the young Aboubacar did odd jobs and his parents were happy to let him do so. This young guy – who just earned his scientific baccalaureate at Lycée Bosso after having attended Lycée Issa Korombé – could barely count the number of kilometres he had covered on his motorbike.

The young Hima found a place to live in Karadjé district, in the capital’s south-west, but would visit the neighbourhood of Abidjan, where his family lived, as well as the big central market, where he started selling small calendars and other printed materials.

At Alternatives Espaces Citoyens, Hima would often hang out with his friend, Wilfried, a journalist. Born in Benin, Wilfried (now deceased) was married to a Nigerien woman and was in charge of the association’s desktop publishing operations. Wilfried was the one who helped Aboubacar make his calendars and business cards. “Hima didn’t know how to do this kind of thing, so he came to the association’s offices so we could give him a hand,” says Moussa Tchangari, who still hosts people at his Alternatives Espaces Citoyens office. He recalls how Hima began to slowly make his mark.

First millions

From customer to customer and from thousands of CFA francs to thousands of CFA francs, he builds up a clientele. After Maïnassara’s assassination, during Daouda Malam Wanké’s coup d’état and the emergence of Mamadou Tandja as president, Hima set out to make connections in the country’s elite.

The year 2000 was approaching and, like other ambitious people, he offered his services to the members of the national assembly. Hima was taken under the wing of Habi Mahamadou Salissou, an elected official from Tahoua. Salissou was the first quaestor of the Mouvement National pour une Société du Développement (MNSD), the party of then prime minister Hama Amadou. “The national assembly needed to re-equip itself after the 1999 coup. Hima was one of the young movers and shakers who was called in,” says Salissou, who is currently an adviser to President Mohamed Bazoum.

He [Petit Boubé] took advantage of this… This allowed him entry to other Niamey power circles.

Hima earned himself a few ‘small’ printing contracts – which were sometimes from Benin – and he would also supply reams of paper for a few million CFA francs. “He was far from being the only one,” Salissou says, but adds that the young entrepreneur, who was not yet 30 years old, took advantage of his network in order to get closer to certain members of Amadou’s government.

The timing was right: Salissou, better known to many Nigeriens as Salah Habi, was in charge of the secondary education ministry, so Hima’s star continued to rise and his business ties spread to other ministries. “At the time, he was getting small contracts worth, for example, up to 15m CFA francs ($24,900),” says Habi.

Hima earned a good reputation during Amadou’s tenure. He knew the prime minister, who was thinking about his future. Within the MNSD, he had some loyal followers who were working with him on his post-Tandja political plans. It was 2003. The strong man of Niamey was eyeing the presidency and keeping tabs on the opposition, especially the Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme (PNDS) and its leader, Mahamadou Issoufou.

The latter had the support of one of Maman Abou, a journalist, party activist and owner of Nouvelles Imprimeries du Niger (NIN), Niamey’s biggest printing company. Amadou was sceptical of their relationship so he decided to counter it by launching his own printing firm.

A protector called Labo

This is how L’Imprimerie du Plateau was established. “For Hama Amadou’s supporters, the idea was to have their own printing company, in anticipation of the post-Tandja era, for which they were starting to prepare themselves,” a publishing professional from told us. “It was supposed to be a tool to consolidate power, but politics decided otherwise, since Hama didn’t manage to take over from Tandja. In this respect, L’Imprimerie du Plateau never really served its purpose,” says a former MNSD member.

Would this mark the end of the entrepreneur’s career? Not exactly. Hima had already moved on and towards the end of the Tandja era, he signed a contract with the minister of agricultural development, Mahamane Moussa, to supply a crop-dusting plane to the Nigerien government.

By this time, the man who was now being referred to as ‘Petit Boubé’ had become surprisingly wealthy. In 2005, he married Samira – one of the daughters of the late Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara.

Back in Abidjan, Samira’s mother, Clémence Baré, happened to be neighbours with Petit Boubé’s father, Massi Hima, an official in the livestock ministry known to many as ‘Major’. The two families knew each other well. “He [Petit Boubé] took advantage of this,” says a close friend. “This allowed him entry to other Niamey elite circles.” The skilful entrepreneur also became close to another political ‘godfather’ – Abdou Labo – a former defence minister under then president Mahamane Ousmane in 1994. Labo was also in charge of the equipment ministry (2000-2002) and sports ministry (2002-2004), before he took over the hydraulics ministry from 2004 to 2007.

As the second-in-charge at the Convention Démocratique et Sociale (CDS, then allied with the MNSD), Labo had – throughout the 1990s – developed powerful networks in Nigeria, a major financier of Nigerien political life. “Many Nigerian personalities financed political parties in Niger, including Mahamane Ousmane’s CDS. Abdou Labo was one of the men who organised all this,” says a minister from that era. “He is from the Maradi region, the economic life of which is oriented towards Nigeria.”

Another source close to the businessman says: “It was Abdou Labo’s regional networks that enabled Aboubacar Hima to become the ‘Petit Boubé’ that we know [today].”

Dasuki, the Nigerian godfather

In 2011, Mahamadou Issoufou won the presidential election. Would Aboubacar Hima, who made a fortune befriending members of Amadou’s entourage, disappear? Not at all. “He is not interested in politics,” says one of his friends. “The question arose from the start,” says a member of President Issoufou’s cabinet. “We knew about his connections [to Hama Amadou], but he had the contacts, and the state already owed him large sums of money, so we continued to collaborate.” On top of that, Labo, an ally to the new head of state, joined the government as minister of interior.

Far from having cut ties with Nigeria, Labo made frequent visits there, to the point of aggravating his new boss with his repeated absences. “He was often unreachable, even for the President,” says a member of Issoufou’s entourage. “He wanted to manage everything that happened with Nigeria and saw himself as the messenger between Issoufou and [then president] Goodluck Jonathan.” According to another source, to whom Labo confided in, the minister acted on at least one occasion as a “baggage carrier” between Nigerian entrepreneurs and Issoufou’s entourage. In his account, which referenced the signing of a contract for the delivery of fertiliser to the Nigerien government, Labo quoted the sum of 1bn CFA francs in cash.

Even if it grew up with the MNSD, the ‘Hima system’ is intrinsically linked to the PNDS, whose barons have succeeded one another at the head of the defence ministry since 2011.

When we contacted Labo, he neither denied nor commented on this information. It was through him that Hima made his entrée into Nigeria. Labo’s address book featured the name Sambo Dasuki, who is the son of a sultan of Sokoto, ex-military official from the north and architect of Olusegun Obasanjo’s victory in the 1999 Nigerian presidential election. Dasuki is not just anybody: after a political dry spell in the early 2000s – which nevertheless allowed him to devote himself to business – he returned to the political scene and in 2012 was appointed national security adviser to Goodluck Jonathan.

‘No friends, only self-interest’

Retired from the army, the former colonel was one of the Nigerian President’s right-hand men, in charge of re-equipping his troops confronting Boko Haram rebels in the country’s north. His networks extended as far as Eastern Europe, from where Nigeria was supplied with helicopters and other combat aircraft.

“Petit Boubé took advantage of Dasuki’s networks to build up an address book in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Russia,” says a source close to the Nigerian. “That’s how he really got into the arms and military equipment business.” Another former government official says: “He moved into another world. The sums became colossal, as did the commissions and kickbacks.”

Labo was arrested in a 2014 case of alleged child trafficking, but he did not take Hima down with him. “[Hima] has no friends, only self-interest,” says one of his acquaintances. Hima became the main supplier of arms to Niger’s ministry of defence under Mahamadou Karidjo (2011-2016), and then to Kalla Moutari (2016-2019).

“The PNDS was forced to work with him in 2011, but the party was well taken care of,” says a ruling party executive. Petit Boubé became the interlocutor and regular guest of the army bosses – the same army in which his brother was an officer. He also boasted of his “direct” relationship with Issoufou, while the latter’s son Sani – long his father’s right-hand man and today the oil minister – had been his neighbour in Niamey.

“We paid him through budget adjustments. We can only do that with operatives who have sufficient financial resources,” says another former government official. “Between unpaid bills and payment arrangements, he could no longer disappear. If we wanted to put an end to the system, we would have had to pay him everything.”

According to a source close to Hima, at the lowest estimate, the state owes the entrepreneur a sum amounting to several dozen billion CFA francs. A PNDS baron says: “It’s a system of patriotic loyalty”, and Hima took full advantage of it. An audit carried out by the general inspectorate of the armed forces in 2020 found that he won at least three quarters of the arms supply contracts signed by the ministry of defence from 2011 onwards.

A copy of the audit of the Nigerien defence ministry carried out in 2020. © All rights reserved.

The scandal

According to the inspectors’ documents, of which we obtained copies, Hima’s ‘system’ revolves around Nigeria. Petit Boubé created several companies there in the 2010s, including one known as TSI and another known as Brid A Defcon. Starting in 2014, the latter signed – according to the accounts from the army’s inspectorate – contracts worth more than $142m with the Nigerien defence ministry.

Brid A Defcon notably won a $4.2m bid to build a hangar for President Issoufou’s plane, which has greatly intrigued investigators. According to them, the tender was rigged: the two other bidders – Motor Sich, based in Algeria, and Aerodyne Technologies, registered in a free zone of the United Arab Emirates – were also run by Hima.

He subsequently won other government ‘tenders’ with Motor Sich, including a $11.4m arms supply contract.

Another of the entrepreneur’s tricks was to make his other Nigerian company, TSI, the official representative in Niger of Rosoboronexport, the Russian state arms export company. “This gave him the possibility of intervening on both sides of the contract, as an agent of the client – the government – as well as a representative of the Russian supplier,” says an expert in the case. Under an agreement facilitated by Petit Boubé in 2016, the defence ministry thus acquired two Mi-171Sh transport and assault helicopters from Rosoboronexport. “We had the needs, he had the networks,” former defence minister Kalla Moutari says.

When Petit Boubé has to deliver 100 cars, you’ll notice a minister’s own fleet swells by 10 vehicles.

Is it that simple? The audit carried out by the army’s general inspectorate reveals much more. It seems the contract for the purchase and maintenance of the two Mi-171Shs cost Niger $60m after being subject to a ‘surcharge’ of $19.5m. Several other cases have been reported on the series of contracts totalling more than $142m signed by Hima via Brid A Defcon from 2014 onwards, according to investigators’ most recent figures.

A judicial investigation was launched, although the state, which had decided to file a civil suit, eventually withdrew its case. The government claims to have been reimbursed for the surcharges and to have received all of the equipment that had been paid for but not delivered. Petit Boubé’s lawyer, Marc Le Bihan, stresses that overcharging is not an offence under Nigerien law and disputes the accusations of illegal enrichment.

‘Wanted’ in Abuja

“We are determined that the truth be told. The state is determined to shed light on what happened. Let the judge continue his investigations,” government spokesman Tidjani Idrissa Abdoulkadri told us. Meanwhile, a civil society leader said: “We don’t believe it. When the state decides [to withdraw its civil suit], it sends a message of impunity. The investigation is officially continuing, but the government does not [really] want to tackle the system.”

“Even if it grew up with the MNSD, the ‘Hima system’ is intrinsically linked to the PNDS, whose barons have succeeded one another at the head of the defence ministry since 2011. Even if President Bazoum wanted to get to the bottom of this, he would not have a free hand because of the party’s influence. Moreover, minister Issoufou Katambe, who conducted the audit at the defence ministry and even went to investigate in Eastern Europe and Russia, is no longer in government,” the source says.

An investigator who is familiar with the audit says: “Doing a complete investigation would mean shedding light on the ‘distribution key’ in force for military contracts, that is to say, which commissions are granted to each private or public player. Everyone knows that this [element] exists, from the lowest to the highest rung of the ladder.” The source adds: “When Petit Boubé has to deliver 100 cars, you’ll notice a minister’s own fleet swells by 10 vehicles…”

Aboubacar can no longer set foot in Nigeria. He is very afraid of being arrested.

Hima’s personal fortune grew and grew. He reportedly owns several luxury flats in Prague, Czech Republic, including a penthouse overlooking the Vltava River acquired in 2015 for $1.5m. He also owns at least one pied-à-terre in Paris, where he established a relationship with Alexandre Benalla, President Emmanuel Macron’s former head of mission. Hima also has ties with Pascale Jeannin Perez, a businesswoman who is also an important figure in African and Middle Eastern circles.

Since the leaking of the audit by the defence ministry, Hima has kept a low profile. He only rarely visits his Niamey villas located in the vicinity of the presidency, leaving their management to his older sister Fati and to his mother, for whom he built a luxurious home in the Plateau neighbourhood.

He avoids France and Nigeria, where he has another residence and has managed to get close to President Muhammadu Buhari, who has already welcomed him for a visit. In Abuja, he is under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which suspects him of fraud and embezzlement of nearly $10.9m in public funds through another of his Nigerian companies, Société d’Equipements Internationaux. The EFCC, which has issued an arrest warrant for him, believes that he participated in a fraudulent scheme with Sambo Dasuki.

Under protection in Abidjan?

In December 2015, a few months after Buhari’s accession to power and the departure of Jonathan, Dasuki was arrested and accused of having embezzled nearly $2.1bn through fake contracts for the delivery of helicopters, fighter planes and ammunition for the Nigerian army. Released at the end of 2019, he could face trial.

“Aboubacar can no longer set foot in Nigeria. He is very afraid of being arrested,” says a source close to Hima. Although he frequently changes his telephone number, Petit Boubé nevertheless continues to conduct business. “He works throughout the sub-region, in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau…,” the source says. According to those close to him, he now lives between Accra and Abidjan, while his wife spends much of her time in Dakar and Paris.

The arrest warrant issued by Abuja against Petit Boubé. © All rights reserved

Does he have the same connections in Abidjan as he does in Niamey, at the highest levels of government? Is he living ‘under protection’, as a source close to him told us? Hima and President Alassane Ouattara met in 2017, during the summit of heads of state of the sub-region in Niamey. Petit Boubé had put one of his villas – built opposite the presidency – at the Ivorian’s disposal.

The residence, very secure and well situated, had been recommended to Ouattara by his wife Dominique, who had stayed there a few months earlier, during a meeting of West African first ladies organised by Malika Issoufou. “Mahamadou Issoufou’s wife wanted to accommodate her counterparts in secure residences rather than in hotels. Obviously, given Petit Boubé’s real estate portfolio, his assistance was most welcome,” says a source who was a minister at the time. “He has so many villas that even the European Union and its military training mission Eucap Sahel sometimes stay at his places.”

“He is untouchable”, says an expert on the case. No country in the sub-region has responded to the Nigerian arrest warrant.

In Niamey, where the bad publicity resulting from the defence ministry’s audit has upset his legendary discretion, he created a new company in 2021 called Privinvest (which bears the same name as the company of French-Lebanese businessman Iskandar Safa). Petit Boubé has also restructured part of his business, relocating Brid A Defcon from Abuja to Prague, where his Eastern European contacts continue to help him.

A few years ago, then secretary general of the defence ministry General Ibrahim Waly Karingama tried to bypass Hima by going to Russia himself to negotiate arms contracts for the Nigerien government. His Russian interlocutor told him that Hima, the ‘Fierce Spirit’, was “unavoidable”.

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