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Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?
Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
Report 208 / Africa

Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?

Suicide attacks on military and mining targets, followed by a violent prison break in the capital, revealed Niger’s fragile stability in a crisis-ridden neighbourhood.

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Executive Summary

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 homogeneous, 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

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action

Rural insurgencies across the Sahel are destabilising the region and undermining local security and governance. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue support for the Alliance for the Sahel and promote local dialogue to buttress law and order.

This commentary on promoting political and military action in the Sahel region is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

The Sahel region faces particularly acute challenges. Rural insurgencies across parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are expanding. Jihadi groups exploit local conflicts to secure safe havens and win new recruits. Other militias are being formed, whether to defend communities, conduct criminal activities or both. Sahelian states, supported by Western powers, rely ever more heavily on force. The new G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), encompassing army units from five Sahelian states, must avoid angering local communities and stoking local conflicts. It should be accompanied by local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives, outreach to communities and, where possible, efforts to engage militant leaders.

Mali’s stalemated peace process

In Mali, the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, implementation of the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to turn the page on the country’s 2012-2013 crisis, has stalled. Having acted as chief broker of the agreement, Algiers appears to have lost interest in leading the process. No African or other actor has stepped in.

Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas.

Malian leaders’ attention has shifted to the July 2018 presidential election. In parts of the country, particularly central and northern Mali, a credible vote appears a remote prospect, due to insecurity and state weakness. But any attempt to postpone the vote would likely spark street protests: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has struggled both to restore security and stimulate development, and is increasingly unpopular even in his core constituencies of Bamako and other southern cities.

Nor have state authorities, ousted from much of the north during the 2012-2013 crisis, returned. Security continues to deteriorate in central Mali (Mopti region) and further south (Segou region), fuelling tension among communities. Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas, recruiting new fighters and launching attacks against national and international forces. Their reach is extending into neighbouring countries.

An expanding crisis

Northern Burkina Faso is suffering its own insurgency: notwithstanding spillover from Mali, violence there largely obeys its own logic and feeds off local dynamics. The emergence of Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe jihadist group that has perpetrated a string of attacks against security forces and state institutions, reflects widespread discontent with the prevailing social order in the country’s north. Ouagadougou and most of its foreign partners recognise that a military campaign alone will not end the conflict, but their response needs to better factor in the deep social roots of the crisis, which means greater efforts to stimulate or facilitate communal dialogue. Ultimately, as militants operate between Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis also requires that Mali secure its borders and both states deepen their police and judicial cooperation.

In Niger, the October 2017 killing of U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers near the border between Mali and Niger brought international attention to a long-neglected region that has become the Sahel’s latest jihadist front line. An armed group claiming links to the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Nigerien security forces. In response, Nigerien authorities briefly backed Malian armed groups as proxy counter-terror forces along the border. Such action can prove counterproductive, adding to the already vast quantities of weaponry in the region and fuelling intercommunal conflict. The large number of armed young men in the border area between Mali and Niger – frequently now with combat experience, including fighting both against and alongside jihadist groups – are a key source of instability. Their demobilisation and reintegration into society is a critical component of any effort to end violence.

Chad is vulnerable to instability in southern Libya, where Chadian rebels have found refuge, and in the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram crisis has spread. President Idriss Deby has positioned his military as a bastion against jihadism. This stance has brought financial and political support from Western powers and largely spared him their criticism, notwithstanding the country’s fragility, growing political and social discontent, and deep economic recession. Many businesses have gone bankrupt. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high. The International Monetary Fund suspended budget support in November 2017 after Chad failed to reach an agreement to restructure loans granted by a mining and oil company. Mounting political and socio-economic challenges pose a grave long-term threat to Chad; left to fester, these problems would till fertile ground for violent actors of all stripes, including jihadists.

Going beyond military solutions

After considerable delays, the G5 Sahel joint force has started to deploy at the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border. But it is struggling with funding shortfalls and to define its role, particularly in relation to other forces in the Sahel, from UN peacekeepers to French and U.S. counter-terrorism forces. To secure the support of local populations, the joint force should respect the rights of those living in its operations zones. Efforts to de-escalate local conflicts and, where possible, open or exploit existing lines of communication with militant leaders should accompany military action.

Sahelian states remain worryingly dependent on security assistance. Indeed, foreign donor priorities, to some degree, drive the Sahelian states’ security policies: the focus on curbing human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region in good part reflects European worries about migration and terrorism. Yet overly strict security measures can upset fragile local economies and balances of power between central state and nomadic communities or between local authorities and ethnic or religious groups.

In this light, the Alliance for the Sahel, launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU, and designed to address both security and development challenges in the Sahel region, could be a step in the right direction, if European short-term concerns over migration and terrorism do not trump efforts to reform local governance, especially in neglected rural areas. The EU and its member states should also support government initiatives to strengthen local law and order – again critical in rural areas – through its EU Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger.

In particular, the EU, including its special representative for the Sahel, should warn governments against relying on militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. It should instead encourage regional leaders to promote bottom-up reconciliation through local dialogues, especially in Mali. In Chad, the EU and its member states should not only pursue short-term security objectives but also seek to check, as best possible, the government’s authoritarian impulses so that political space does not shrink further.