The takeover of northern Mali by Islamist rebels after a 2012 coup, and the subsequent French-led intervention, have widened fears of a spill-over of insurgency in the region. Niger, which has socio-political problems comparable to those of Mali, is battling to secure its territory from militants still operating in Sahel’s remote wilderness.
Insecurity is an ever-present threat. The country suffered twin attacks on 23 May, when assailants struck a military base and a French-run uranium mine in the north, killing dozens.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a prominent and long-time Sahel jihadist who had claimed responsibility for the Algerian gas plant attack in January, said his fighters were behind the strikes. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which had operated in northern Mali before being dislodged by the French military, also claimed responsibility.
Niamey has been working to bolster its security strategy.
In October 2012, it launched a five-year US$2.5 billion plan to secure and develop its northern region, whose residents, especially the Tuareg, say they have been marginalized. As in neighbouring Mali, the Tuareg in northern Niger have carried out a series of rebellions demanding autonomy, social and political inclusion, and the development of their homeland.
The country has also introduced legal reforms, enacting anti-terrorism legislation, setting up a special team of lawyers and security officers to work with the government on terrorism matters, upgrading military hardware, and cooperating with France and the US on security. US drones began operating in Niger in December 2012. Nigerien troops are also being trained by their American and French counterparts.
“Niger has shown not only political commitment, but a certain level of coherence in dealing with the threat of terrorism,” David Zounmenou, senior researcher on West Africa at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN.
Niger, an impoverished Sahel nation prone to droughts and food scarcity, also faces additional threats from Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria to the south and from militias in the north suspected to be operating in southern Libya, analysts say.
Politically, Niger has worked to improve the inclusion of its Tuareg population to end the cycles of insurgency.
Failed unity coalition
During Niger’s 3 August independence day celebration, President Issoufou Mahamadou called for the formation of a national unity government, part of a political cohesion plan he sees as crucial to dealing with the country’s security threats. However, a subsequent cabinet shake-up has cost his ruling coalition the support of its main ally, who quit in protest of the seats it was allocated in the new government set-up.
“In terms of security plans, it certainly weakens the national consensus that has prevailed thus far in Niger. Institutional consensus has been the backbone of the response mechanism to offset the spill-over of the insurgency in Mali and to manage successive attacks,” said Zounmenou.
But West Africa political analyst Kamissa Camara says the political disagreements have little bearing on Niger’s security worries.
“The political fall-out is more indicative of the superficial political arrangements made before the second round of the 2011 presidential elections and the ensuing struggle for influence between two complementary but oxymoronic political figures,” Camara said, referring to the president and Hama Amadou, the leader of his coalition’s main ally.
In addition to its security worries, Mahamdou’s government, which came to power in 2011 after a brief period of instability, is struggling to better the lives of citizens, the bulk of whom are living in extreme poverty. The country sits at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index.
Although the government is making improvements in sectors such as health, education and agriculture, some 85 percent of Nigeriens survive on less than US$2 a day. Around 2.9 million people currently face food shortages.
Natural disasters and recurrent food shortages are greater threats to many Nigeriens than security fears, say analysts. The country recently appealed for help following devastation by floods that have killed two dozen people and left some 75,000 others homeless.
Niger has the world’s largest uranium reserves, but receipts from uranium mining have made little impact on the lives of many Nigeriens. And while the country began pumping its first oil in early 2011, it was later was forced to cut back its budget due to poor revenue. The shortfalls could impact Niger’s security budget.
“An intense focus on security could affect Niger’s budget spending on other strategic sectors. The defence budget more than doubled in 2012, although it’s still behind the health and education expenditure,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“The risk is that [expenditure] on social assistance programmes could increasingly be adjusted depending on security concerns, and it is doubtful that this will be to the benefit of the Nigerien population as a whole,” Jezequel told IRIN.
When Islamist rebels began advancing on Mali’s capital in January this year, Niger supported the French intervention. It has also sent some 900 soldiers as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. However, there are concerns that its stance in the Mali crisis and its security cooperation with Western countries could stoke extremist militia threats.
“As Islam is dominant in our country, it is easy for these forces of evil to infiltrate Nigerien youths,” noted Zarami Abba Kiari, the ruling party’s deputy spokesman, who argued that the national unity government could forestall such risks.
Insurgent groups have used Niger for their cross-border activities in Mali, Nigeria and Libya, and with light government presence in certain regions of Niger, the country risks becoming a safe haven and rear base for militant groups targeting other countries, like Chad and Algeria, that have largely expelled these groups from their territories, ISS reckons.
“The structural complexities of Niger, illustrated by its vast desert, its arid territory, and the borders it shares with Algeria, Libya and Chad, are certainly contributing factors to these [security] threats,” Camara told IRIN.
Weak governance, underdevelopment and poverty have created a breeding ground for militancy in West Africa and the Sahel, academics argue.
“There is need for concrete response to [Niger’s] socio-economic problems. Young people are looking for jobs, effective health care, education… If they are not satisfied, this can provide them with a reason to join jihadist movements,” said ISS’s Zounmenou.