In the eye of the storm: Niger and its unstable neighbors

Moto taxis gather at a bus station that migrants often arrive at in Agadez, Niger, May 7, 2016. Picture taken May 7, 2016. To match Analysis EUROPE-MIGRANTS/AFRICA REUTERS/Joe Penney - RTSS2RO

A poor, sun-scorched Sahel country, Niger is rapidly becoming a key U.S. and Western counterterrorism ally. The former French colony already hosts French troops, and, as part of its TransSahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, the United States is building a $100 million drone base there to monitor and respond to terrorist activities across the Sahel. Germany is also building a military outpost in Niger to support the U.N. mission in Mali.

When I visited Niger in May, hotels in the capital of Niamey were abuzz with foreign military personnel. And no wonder: A country rich in uranium supplying France’s nuclear powerplants, Niger is surrounded by countries with active jihadi and separatist insurgencies, civil wars, and potent global jihadi terrorist groups operating throughout the Sahel.

Although there is no Niger-born militant group, the conflicts in neighboring Mali, Nigeria, and Libya have spilled into Niger and compromised internal security, as have global jihadi terrorism and kidnapping. And as a key channel of migrants to the Sahara and to Europe, Niger is also rife with smuggling in assorted contraband. To boot, its political situation is precarious. Addressing this toxic mix of challenges requires sustained efforts to improve governance, not just military operations.

Mali’s Malaise

The intensifying conflict in northwest Mali—which has prompted French military operations in recent years—has creeped into Niger in various ways. Underlying the conflict are persistent, unresolved governance issues.

In October 2016, a U.S. worker with the evangelical group Youth with a Mission—who had been living in Niger since 1992—was kidnapped, most likely by the jihadist group Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Gharb Afriqa, known by the French acronym MUJAO, or by one of its proxies. Several days earlier, at least 20 Nigerien protection troops were killed when jihadists attacked a Malian refugee camp in Niger.

MUJAO is one of the many jihadist groups that the French government, supported by the United States and the United Nations, has sought to suppress in northern Mali since the launch of Operation Serval in 2013. That operation sought to depose the jihadists who took over northern Mali after wresting the insurgency from perpetually rebellious Tuareg tribes under the umbrella group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

But although toppling the jihadists in the north was easy at first, creating stability has turned out to be wickedly difficult. The deficiencies of the Malian military forces induced the French to accept some Tuareg tribes, who abandoned the jihadists, as rulers of the north, which displeased Mali’s central government in Bamako.

The governance deficiencies underlying the  meltdown of Malian national forces and the outbreaks of Tuareg rebellion remain unaddressed. And Bamako’s problematic rule, still characterized by corruption and impunity, hasn’t motivated local elites in the north to behave better.

The French broadened their military operation in 2014 (Operation Barkhane) to deal with some of the Malian military deficiencies, but terrorism and insecurity have still spread into central and southern Mali. Peace deals with the various Tuareg rebel factions have collapsed quickly, and it’s not clear whether Bamako’s promised devolution of power (rather than a mere devolution of neglect, corruption, and bad governance) will ever get meaningfully implemented.

Meanwhile, there is a palpable sense among the foreign diplomats, military officials in Niger, and Nigerien officials with whom I spoke that a significant and perhaps more complicated deterioration of Malian security is under way. Beyond MUJAO, several other jihadi groups operate in Niger and across the region. In 2010, al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped five French employees from the Arlit uranium mine of AREVA, France’s parastatal nuclear energy company. Jihadists have also fired rockets at another of AREVA’s uranium mines, this time in Agadez. The militant group al-Mourabitoune not only smuggles weapons and fighters between Algeria, Libya, and the rest of the Sahel, but is believed to be behind attacks on major Western hotels in Mali and other Sahelian counties.

Migrants crossing the Sahara desert into Libya ride on the back of a pickup truck outside Agadez, Niger, May 9, 2016. Picture taken May 9, 2016. To match Analysis EUROPE-MIGRANTS/AFRICA REUTERS/Joe Penney - RTSS2Q8

Libyan Liabilities and Tuareg Tangles

The civil war in Libya unleashed weapons, militants, and contraband flows into Niger. But that legal and illegal trade long precedes Libya’s post-Gadhafi troubles. Like in Libya, Mali, and the Sahel overall, smuggling is a way of life in much of Niger, where legal livelihoods have been hard to come by for decades.

The central government—which lacks policing resources and therefore relies more on local elites to maintain stability—rarely counters collusion between local officials and criminal networks. Local tribes are intermeshed with criminal groups, and tribal affinities and commercial relationships span post-colonial borders. For example, until his death in 2016, a prominent northern political chief in Agadez, Cherif Ould Abidine, was widely known as Cherif Cocaine. Tuareg networks in Niger, including former prominent rebels who now support the central government, nonetheless maintain relations with rebellious Tuareg networks and politicians in Mali.

Western European countries have been preoccupied with the flows of migrants that assemble in places like Agadez, waiting for smugglers to take them to Europe. Although the migrants have posed serious social challenges for Europe, they are in fact only a small fraction of the migrants who cross through the Sahara. Most of the migration is seasonal, with workers from as far away as Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivore moving to the Sahara for jobs and returning home months later. Simplistic efforts to stop migration—such as moves to shut down the Agadez staging centers or to resettle migrants in the land- and water-poor Nigerien north—ignores that migration is multifaceted. These kinds of narrow approaches will produce be ineffective and even counterproductive.

Boko Haram Borderlands

At its height in 2014 and 2015, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria spilled into southern Niger, recruiting local dissatisfied youth and dragooning others. Although the insurgency’s brutality soured many, the preaching of Boko Haram’s charismatic leader, Yusuf Mohammad, was widely popular, reflecting the region’s alienation.

Although Nigerian forces weakened Boko Haram and the group split into two factions (on top of the prior splinter of Ansar Dine), Boko Haram raids into Niger’s Diffa region, in the south, persist. They are not as large as a year ago, when more than 100 Boko Haram militants attacked a military base in southern Niger, killing at least 32, temporarily overrunning the town of Bosso, and absconding with loot. But they remain a threat to an area that is under a state of emergency and food-insecure, and that hosts tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees (for which the Red Cross provides) and perhaps hundreds of Boko Haram defectors. Moreover, some of the government’s anti-Boko-Haram measures—such a ban on motorcycles and on pepper growth and trade, which the government believes are a key source of Boko Haram’s funding—undermine already precarious livelihoods. Such measures do not endear the central government to the local people, nor do they weaken the insurgency.

In spite of these challenges in the south, the clouds along the border with Mali are darkening more rapidly and dramatically. Under pressure from northern Nigerien politicians—who increasingly grumble that Niamey has neglected the security threats in the north in order to deal with Boko Haram—the government hopes to reposition its overstretched military there.

Precarious Politics

In a country with a history of military coups and political instability, Nigerien President Mahamdou Issoufou’s promise on April 1, 2017 not to seek a third term was met with suspicion. His predecessor made the same promise and broke it—and he was then overthrown in 2010. The growing political opposition, among others, have been unimpressed with Issoufou’s opaque references to constitutional revisions. Adding to the disquiet are recent heavy-handed actions by Nigerien security forces in April 2017, which resulted in the death of several student protestors, as well as reduced bread-and-butter government spending as uranium prices have plummeted and defense spending grows.

Niger’s pro-democracy opposition, however, also opposes the U.S. and other foreign military presence in the country. They see the military deals and bases as a way for an undemocratic government to hold onto power and for rich elites to become even richer at the expense of the majority of the population. It is tough for the United States in Niger and France in Mali to reconcile immediate counterterrorism imperatives—which often require deals with less than savory leaders—with the imperatives of achieving political stability and quality governance in the medium term, to address the root causes of support among alienated local populations for jihadi and separatist groups.

The Obama administration’s Security Governance Initiative (SGI)—through which Niger was selected to receive “an enhanced approach to security sector assistance”—sought to tackle institutional and governance deficiencies in addition to building the military capacities of partner countries. But all too often, the partners turn out to be unreliable allies on the battlefield, entangled in short-term contradictory local exigencies. Among other challenges, their priorities differ from Washington’s and they are often unaccountable for their behavior. They often divert the assistance, provided to build institutions, for the contrary purpose of strengthening their own problematic rule. But at least the Obama administration tried, both with the SGI and with the sanction of denying military aid to egregious human rights violators, such as Nigeria’s military forces.

So far, there is little evidence that the Trump administration has developed a similar awareness that efforts against violent jihadism will not be won by air strikes, weapons transfers, or falling in bed with dictators. Real progress in Niger—and among its troubled neighbors—can only be achieved if there are real efforts to foster good governance. In the short term, that includes allowing peaceful opposition protests to take place and not imprisoning and harassing political opposition leaders. President Issoufou must indeed not seek a third term, as he promised, and in the meantime he must be transparent about the constitutional changes he seeks. He must allow a thorough and meaningful discussion of these changes in the parliament and among civil society. The national government must start seriously consulting with local civil society in Niger’s regions and meaningfully engaging with local governors, instead of oscillating between imposing unpopular top-down decisions on the regions and neglecting them. Credible institutional development, including police reform and military accountability to elected civilian leaders, must get under way.