Niger: war at the heart of west Africa

One of the world’s poorest nations at the centre of international efforts to fight jihadis

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Niger sits in a dangerous neighbourhood. Six of the seven countries it borders face crises of one degree or another. Across its northern border, a military strongman’s march on Tripoli threatens to send Libya back into civil war. To the south, Boko Haram and criminal gangs wreak havoc along much of the border with Nigeria, and the jihadi insurgency has bled into neighbouring Chad. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb haunts Algeria’s desert lands; and the ethnic clashes and jihadi insurgencies of northern and central Mali have spilled over into Burkina Faso, leading to the precipitous collapse of parts of a country once viewed as a model of stability.

In his office, in Niger’s sleepy capital Niamey, defence minister Kalla Moutari points to a large map of his country that sits at the heart of the Sahel, the semi-arid strip that runs the width of Africa, and describes a region in turmoil. Just 10 miles away French Reaper drones and Mirage fighter jets take off daily on missions targeting a growing number of sophisticated and violent extremist groups, principally in neighbouring Mali, as part of Operation Barkhane, France’s 4,500-troop strong campaign in the Sahel.

A surge in violence over the past six months has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced across one of the poorest regions of the world. Now, some in Niamey fear that renewed fighting in Libya could lead some of the nearly 1m migrants stranded there to flood across its border.

“It’s a miracle that our country is still standing, given these threats,” Mr Moutari says. Of Niger’s 5,800km border, just 200km — along the tiny coastal country of Benin — remains mostly undisturbed. “The situation is terrible.”

The Niger authorities recently broke up a sleeper cell of jihadis operating in Niamey that Mr Moutari says was targeting Nigerien and foreign military interests. The raid has added to the anxiety of regional and western powers that the violence is spiralling, and could yet spread to coastal west Africa and beyond, sparking fears among some Europeans about a potential spike in migration.

France — the main European player in the region — has built a series of military bases along the Mali-Niger border in order to contain the threat, and signed an expanded security co-operation deal with Burkina Faso in December to address the spike in violence.

“With the disappearance of the Libyan state, Niger is now the border with the west,” Mr Moutari says. “If Niger falls, there is nothing.”

Landlocked Niger — a country twice the size of Ukraine — is ranked last in the UN’s Human Development Index of 189 countries. Its neighbours Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali are all in the bottom 10. The threats in the Sahel are, at the moment, largely domestically driven — jihadi groups exploiting local grievances ranging from centuries’ old conflicts between farmers and nomadic pastoralists to governance vacuums and the brutality of individual security forces. But these threats also take in criminal gangs, ethnic militia, vigilante groups and traffickers in drugs, arms and people.

“We’re very concerned about what is happening in the Sahel,” says Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, director of intelligence for US Africom which oversees the Pentagon’s operations in Africa. “There has been an uptick both in this [extremist] activity as well as an uptick in just the challenges associated with governance issues and governance problems in the Sahel that have led to this increase in violence.”

France intervened in the region — where it was once the main colonial power — to defeat an Islamist insurgency in Mali in 2013, but the terror groups have since regrouped and mushroomed, raising questions about Paris’s strategy.

The past year has seen a surge in violent incidents, with more than 5,000 deaths in the Sahel over the last five months alone, an increase of 46 per cent on the same period a year earlier, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which is part funded by the US state department.

The spike in violence has forced thousands to leave their homes. In January 2018, Niger had no people internally displaced by the unrest in Mali. It now has 63,000, along with 55,000 Malian refugees, according to UNHCR, with roughly 100,000 displaced in Burkina Faso since July.

“Instability in Mali affects its neighbours, increased instability in Burkina Faso affects theirs,” says Rear Admiral Berg. “And I’m concerned that it could move south and affect Côte d’Ivoire [and other coastal nations] . . . that it could move regionally.”

Niger is at the heart of international counter-terrorism strategies for the region. US civilian presence has roughly trebled over the past decade. The US Air Force is building a $110m base for armed drones near Agadez in the country’s desert centre, an ancient trans-Saharan trading town, where aid workers dealing with the flow of migrants attempting to reach Europe mix with burly private contractors and service personnel.

According to the military, it is the largest construction project the air force has ever undertaken on its own. Washington is also building a new embassy, signalling its commitment to the country and region.

Mr Moutari dismisses criticism that the increased presence of western forces is acting as a recruiting tool for terrorists, insisting that the US and France are in Niger at his government’s request and only until the jihadi threat is neutralised. “The Islamists recruited before the arrival of these bases,” he says. “Once the situation has changed . . . there will be no reason for these [military] arrangements to continue.”

But suspicion remains. Prominent civil society activist Nouhou Arzika characterises the deployment of international forces in Niger as a bid to capture its resources and predicts that local authorities will use western military might to stay in power, echoing a criticism that France in particular is propping up strongmen in the region.
“There’s a big collaboration between local authorities and western armies — so when local authorities get in trouble,” says Mr Arzika, “they will count on western armies to save them.”

In addition to its Niamey base, France has a second near the Libyan border and gets support from Germany, Romania and Italy. European countries have also ramped up diplomatic ties: the UK plans to open an embassy in the capital next year and a large EU-led security forces training programme operates across the region.

It is the prospect of a fresh surge in migration, says one senior diplomat based in Niamey, that is key to European engagement in the Sahel. “Long term, concern [over] irregular migration is as high as [that] on the terror threat, because of birth rates here,” the diplomat says, referring to Niger’s 7.1 births per woman, a record nearly matched by some of its neighbours.

“Europe [has realised that] the two continents . . . are very close together,” says Frank Van der Mueren, head of the EU’s training mission in Niger, which has prepared 13,000 police, border patrol and national guardsmen since 2012. “The migration flow [during its peak between 2014 and 2016] was the real wake-up call to say ‘what is going on over there affects immediately what happens in Europe’. Now you see the increase of jihadi and terrorist groups’ presence in the region and their capabilities — that also worries Europe.”

For the US the priority is security. It scaled back direct tactical assistance in Niger after nine soldiers — including four of its own — were killed in a 2017 ambush by Isis-linked jihadis. Instead it favours training and intelligence operations. And although it has previously announced that it would cut about 10 per cent of its 7,000 personnel across Africa, the US military in February began weekly cargo flights from Africom’s headquarters in Germany to Ghana to supply troops in west Africa, suggesting a long-term commitment.

Washington’s continued involvement in the region is partly explained, says a senior foreign defence official in Niamey, by concerns that countries in the Sahel could become staging grounds for attacks on the west.

“In the Sahel you have governments who are unable to address their security issues, you have limited economic development and jobs and groups exploiting local tensions; there’s the proximity to . . . Europe and these big open spaces — we don’t want terror groups to set up in these big open spaces,” the official says. “In [Afghanistan] there were ideological similarities between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which don’t exist here, but there’s a concern about that happening.”

Aurélien Tobie, senior researcher on Mali at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says such comparisons are misguided.

“At the moment we haven’t seen any international attacks, we’ve seen regional ones where they use Mali or the Sahel to attack Abidjan [the capital of Cote d’Ivoire],” he says. “They don’t really have the capability to attack the US or France, for instance, at the moment. There are a lot of [western] ideas being imported from the Middle East and [being applied] to the Sahel — such as the migration of Isis fighters to Africa — [but] that is something that we’re just not seeing.”

Still, the region remains, as the senior defence official puts it, “an alphabet soup of bad actors”. Among them the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen — a coalition of four groups, including the Saharan branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Al Mourabitoun and Ansaroul Islam in Burkina Faso. The groups count thousands of fighters between them, and have gained power by co-opting nomadic ethnic Fulani groups, providing services local governments cannot or promising jobs, marriage or religious enlightenment to disaffected youths.

The Sahel is also home to a variety of national, multilateral, regional and international security forces. The most visible of which is Minusma, the UN’s 16,000-strong peacekeeping mission to Mali — considered the most dangerous for UN troops — which operates alongside French and local forces.

The transnational nature of the extremist groups prompted five Sahel countries — Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Chad — to form the G5 Sahel Force, which has the freedom to cross borders. The eventual hope is that it will have 5,000 troops but the force, created in 2014, has faced funding and equipment shortages and last June its headquarters in central Mali was bombed, forcing it to move to the capital, Bamako.

The terror groups of the Sahel are more opportunistic than ideological, say analysts, and tend to work more collaboratively. “You’re not seeing typical fighting between Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements in Mali,” says one western government source. “They’re united in their common interest of primarily pushing back on western military presence and pushing out the central governments, so they have more operating room to install whatever government they see fit.”

At France’s air base in Niamey, the commanding officer for Operation Barkhane, Major General Frédéric Blachon, explains his country’s operations, which are spread across a territory the size of Europe. The base, next to that of the US, is home to three of the country’s five Reaper drones, which fly daily surveillance missions, mostly in Mali and the Niger border region, identifying possible terrorist targets for the four Mirage fighter jets that operate from the base.

“We have to restore the presence of the state, which has never been very, very present in these areas . . . the idea is to create the conditions in order for the government to reinstall or install administration and governance,” he says. The task is complicated by age-old conflicts among nomadic peoples for whom colonially-drawn borders are largely meaningless, in a region where population growth and climate change are rapidly diminishing available resources.

“At the very [root] of the crisis, this is a struggle for resources, and above this crisis, you have terrorist armed groups profiting from and exploiting this situation,” he says. “The conflicts are very, very old . . . it’s not only about terrorism.”

Maj Gen Blachon says the goal is not eliminating the terrorist groups. “It’s not about eradicating these threats, that’s just not feasible,” he says, but to prevent these threats from gaining power or spreading into other countries. “Our presence is meant to bring confidence to all those people who want to invest in development in this area — the French forces will not stay forever.”

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