27 September 2013

Niger: The Stable Sahelian State, for Now


Despite an outward image of stability, Niger can't be used as a model for Mali's reconstruction.

When Mahamadou Issoufou was elected President of Niger in March 2011, he inherited a country which lacked many of the basic trappings of a state.

A desperately poor, landlocked nation of 17 million straddling the southern edge of the Sahara, Niger has suffered from violent rebellions, chronic famine, cyclical droughts and flash floods, all of which are exacerbated by limited state capacity and decades of failed governance.

External shocks emanating from the multiple weak states with which Niger shares long borders have further threatened Niger's stability. The fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 saw some 200,000 Nigeriens who were living in Libya, some of whom were working as mercenaries, return to Niger. The result was a sudden influx of arms, unemployed battle-hardened men, and the decimation of livelihoods for entire communities reliant on remittances earned abroad.

The ensuing conflict Mali in 2012 saw tens of thousands of Malians seeking refuge in Niger, straining local communities who were already on the brink of starvation. Most recently, several thousand more refugees have spilled into southern Niger from northern Nigeria, where the government is caught up in a nasty counterinsurgency against Boko Haram.

In late May, Islamist militants affiliated with Mokhtar Belmokhtar - an Algerian national and veteran terror operative in the Sahara and Sahel with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - carried out twin bombings in northern Niger, targeting military barracks in the town of Agadez and a uranium mine near Arlit.

The attacks were allegedly carried out to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, an AQIM leader who had been killed by Chadian troops in Mali. Subsequently, many feared that the destabilising violence that has plagued Niger's neighbours had finally arrived within its own borders.

Crisis management

Yet President Issoufou, it seems, has managed each of these crises with aplomb, employing a mix of short-term troubleshooting while endeavouring to launch bold, long-term development initiatives directly linked to security.

After the collapse of Mali, for example, Niger immediately deployed upwards of 5,000 forces to the Malian border, increased the salaries of key military units, and shifted close to $80 million allocated for health and education programs to the defense budget.

In the spring of 2012, when most governments were advocating a negotiated solution to the quagmire in northern Mali, Nigerien officials - who have often expressed frustration with regional responses to the proliferation of armed Islamist groups - were among the first to call for an armed intervention. When the French intervention in Mali finally did happen in January of this year, Niger sent 600 troops to help France combat the mosaic of Islamist rebels occupying northern Mali.

These reactive measures have been coupled with forward-looking development ventures, most notably the $4.8 billion Economic and Social Development Plan (PDES) and its concomitant $2.5 billion Strategy for Development and Security (SDS), both of which are reliant on funding from donor nations eager to ensure that Niger can remain an exception to its neighbours.

Niger has also gone to great lengths to bill itself as a useful and reliable counterterrorism ally, courting defense dollars from the US and France, while forging bilateral partnerships within the region, most recently through a military co-operation agreement with Mauritania. In the country, French special forces are operating in various locations, while the US began flying an unspecified number of unarmed predator drones out of the airport in the capital city of Niamey.

Stable, for now

While Issoufou has played the tough hand he has been dealt extremely well, it would be a mistake to misinterpret Niger's relative stability and suite of security and development programs as evidence of something akin to a Nigerien 'approach' to stability.

Though Issoufou has set out to strengthen state institutions, stamp out endemic corruption, curtail trafficking and other criminal enterprises and consolidate the democratic gains of the last two years, he is constrained by several structural challenges that predate his tenure.

Large segments of Niger's military harbour considerable animosity toward civilian elites. Since being pushed out of power in 1991, thue military has overthrown three civilian governments in the last 20 years and Issoufou claims to have uncovered two coup plots against him, one in 2011 and another 2012.

Though both attempts failed, the specter of a military takeover hangs over Issoufou's government, meaning that his range of policy options at any given time are constrained by the need to placate members of the military - and opportunistic civilian rivals - who might otherwise conspire against him.

Issoufou's government is also largely dependent on a delicate balance of coalition partners and shifting alliances, meaning he must constantly balance competing interests. Meanwhile, programs like PDES and SDS look great on paper, but appear stalled in the early stages of planning. Whether there will be sufficient funding remains an open question.

Unsubstantiated narratives

With the international community now undertaking a full-scale state-building project in Mali, policy-makers would be wise to resist the temptation to view Niger as a case study or counterexample from which lessons for Mali can derived and applied.

To start, while ethnic Tuaregs in both states have rebelled in the past over grievances that are broadly similar, the Tuaregs in Niger and the Tuaregs in Mali are different communities, with different demographic, political and historical relationships with their respective governments.

Suggestions that the Niger experience may provide a framework for integration and security to be followed by other Sahelian states are also problematic because they accept, often uncritically, the Nigerien government's claims about its own success stories.

During Niger's most recent Tuareg rebellion, which lasted from 2007 to 2009, the government refused to negotiate with the rebels who they viewed as mere bandits and traffickers, as opposed to representatives of a northern population with legitimate grievances. The government responded with heavy force, but due to a virtual media and information blackout, accounts of what actually transpired in Niger's remote north were impossible to verify.

As a result, many Nigeriens scoff at the idea that the government in Niamey has made significant strides in integrating populations who feel marginalised.

By some accounts, entire communities in northern Niger are still traumatised by the events in 2007. Several analysts and diplomatic sources told Think Africa Press for example, that a significant number of young Tuaregs from certain parts of northern Niger are mistrustful of anyone in uniform. These youths are particularly susceptible to recruitment by armed groups, both secular and Islamist, who seek to challenge the state.

As Africa analyst Sebastian Elischer observed, "The current prime minister's Tuareg ancestry should not distract from the fact that the community lacks genuine political representation in the capital."

It is similarly difficult to parse what exactly took place in northern Niger during the fall of 2011, when a flood of armed gunmen poured into Niger from Libya.

The narrative being put forth by Nigerien government officials, which has in turn seeped into the conventional wisdom of Western policy-makers, asserts that the Nigerien government responded with alacrity to disarm and demobilise the armed fighters who had been fighting in Libya on behalf of their patron, Muammar Gaddafi.

But sources in Niger suggest that Issoufou's government did little more than outsource the task to local proxies, whose loyalty to the Nigerien state only goes so far as their political and economic interests align.

Niger remains a vulnerable state facing a myriad of threats to stability. Put in perspective, Issoufou's responses to a multitude of crises over the last two years should be analysed for what they are: an adroit navigating of treacherous political, economic, environmental and security obstacles over which he has relatively no control. That Issoufou has done so competently, for now, should not be mistaken for him having charted a permanent course to less turbulent waters.

Peter Tinti is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and security in West Africa and the Sahel. Follow him on Twitter at @petertinti.

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