Niger - Another Weak Link in the Sahel?

The executive summary of an International Crisis Group report:

The 23 May 2013 twin suicide attacks targeting the Agadez army barracks and an Areva mining site in Arlit, and the 1 June violent prison break in Niamey, cast a shadow over Niger's stability. In a deteriorating regional environment, President Mahamadou Issoufou and his Western allies have favoured a security strategy that has significant limitations, as elsewhere in the Sahel.

An excessive focus on external threats can overshadow important internal dynamics, such as communal tensions, a democratic deficit and the growing marginalisation of poor, rural societies. Security spending looks likely to increase at the expense of social expenditure, carrying significant risks for a country that faces serious demographic and economic challenges. The possibility of a terrorist spillover from its neighbours is compounded by a fragile socio-economic and political environment.

Niger, a focus of outside interest mainly for its uranium and newfound oil reserves, has recently received renewed attention. For several years, Western countries have viewed the Sahel-Sahara region as a particularly dangerous zone, characterised by the rise of insecurity, political crises and poorly controlled flows of people, arms and other licit and illicit goods. The 2011 Libyan civil war, the 2012 Mali crisis and the recent intensification of military confrontations between government forces and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria all affect Niger. Ideas, weapons and combatants circulate across borders. However, surrounded by crisis-ridden neighbours, Niger appears contradictorily to be fragile and yet an island of stability. Its Western and regional allies seek to contain perceived growing threats, in particular from violent Islamist groups such al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Since 2011, Nigerien security forces have been on alert with the support of Western militaries that have been present in the country ever since. They also contribute to the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), with a battalion deployed in the Gao region, close to Niger. The country has been included in security strategies that protect it, but over which it has little influence. Niger constitutes an important element of the French military operation in Mali; is pivotal to the European Union's Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel; and also accommodates a growing U.S. assistance and presence. Encouraged by its allies to upgrade its security apparatus, the government has also substantially increased its military expenditure. But such a security focus could lead to a reallocation of resources at the expense of already weak social sectors.

The security strategy pursued in the Sahel over the last decade has proven weak in neighbouring Mali. In Niger, it will be of little help to President Issoufou in establishing a bond of trust between the state and the people. The current regime, which took over after a transition from military rule in 2011, is still fragile. The president's "Renaissance" program, a high-level platform of reforms on which he was elected, raised hopes but has yet to show tangible results. Social protests are already on the rise. This situation stirs political ambitions, and tensions surrounding the formation of the new national unity government in August 2013 revealed a fragile democracy. Moreover, as in the rest of the Sahel-Sahara region, the state and security apparatus are suspected of being infiltrated by transnational criminal networks. The risks are high when deep socio-economic distress is added to insufficient democratic consolidation.

However, these weaknesses should not obscure a more nuanced reality. In 2009, the attempt by then-President Mamadou Tandja to forcibly remain in power showed that some institutions and civil society are willing to fight to protect democracy. The military admittedly intervened in political life to stop Tandja, but returned to the barracks after a relatively short transition. These gains are certainly still weak. The historically influential military could intercede again in the event of an institutional deadlock. Corruption and impunity remain endemic, and some civil society representatives have been co-opted by the ruling elites. As in Mali, frustration over democratic shortcomings feeds the expansion of an Islamic civil society that is particularly vocal in its criticism; it can represent either a radical, potentially violent protest movement or a peaceful attempt to "re-moralise" public life.

Finally, the Tuareg issue has not been fully resolved in Niger, though it appears better managed than in neighbouring Mali. Far from being homogenous, Tuareg society is divided along generation, clan and social fault lines; some elites are well integrated into the administration and have little reason to turn against the state, while others raise the spectre of a resurgent conflict, out of conviction or to defend their privileged position as middlemen. The population has grown tired of rebellions that have failed to keep their promises, but many youths from the north have few alternatives to trafficking and armed activities.

Rather than a security state, the people of Niger need a government that provides services, an economy that creates employment, as well as the rule of law and a reinforced democratic system. President Issoufou should keep the initial focus of his agenda on these goals and recognise that national security and stability depend at least as much on those issues as on narrow counter-terrorism military responses.

Dakar/Brussels, 19 September 2013

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