Niger is consistently ranked on the UN Human Development Index as one of the poorest countries in the world. Spiraling population growth along with frequent droughts has made it nearly impossible to reduce the poverty rate. Subsistence farmers usually move to the cities for work during the country’s long dry season.
Following the lead of Ethiopia, Chad, and Djibouti, Niger has recently permitted the US and France to operate drones from an air base in its capitol, Niamey. The US military will also be establishing a second drone base in the northern desert city of Agadez, not far from the Algerian border. A major security partner of the US, Algeria’s security forces have already had success in scaling up surveillance and patrol along their border with Niger.
But the establishment of bases in Niger goes a step further in attempting to tackle the region’s security problems. The bases were authorized by the Nigerién government after President Mahamdou Issoufou’s visit to Washington, DC for the US-Africa Leaders Summit in August. The landlocked country of Niger is strategically located for monitoring several overlapping conflicts in the region.
First, there is the ongoing threat of terrorism. Niger’s vast border region is partly home to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM is a mostly Algerian and Mauritanian group that mainly operates out of northern Mali. While the known group is problematic enough, AQIM is itself in turmoil. One of the militant group’s Algerian leaders, Gouri Abdelmalek, recently broke away from AQIM and renamed his splinter group Jund Al-Khilafa or Soldiers of the Caliphate. The new group has just declared allegiance to the Islamic State.
There are also long-held grievances from Mali’s northern ethnic groups. These ethnic groups, including the Hausa, also share the same feeling of neglect in Niger. Boko Haram, a predominantly Hausa-speaking group, has shown signs of activity in southeastern Niger. A group of Boko Haram members were caught journeying from Mali to the Nigerién town of Madaoua last year. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan traveled to Niamey on October 7th for discussions on anti-terrorism cooperation as part of the Lake Chad Basin Commission Summit.
Second, there is the problem of Mali. Niger’s neighbor has been struggling to suppress an insurgency that began in 2012 with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’s (MNLA) short-lived alliance with AQIM. 600 Nigerién soldiers are currently stationed in Mali has part of the UN’s 6,500 strong MINUSMA peacekeeping mission. Several of these Nigerién peacekeepers were recently ambushed and killed in Mali.
Third, there are still spillover effects from the Libyan conflict. Along with over 200,000 migrant workers, many of Qaddafi’s loyalist fighters were Nigeriéns who subsequently repatriated back to Niger or joined the insurgents in Mali. The US wants to keep watch on Libya’s internal crisis from bases in Niger.
In short, the region continues to experience a political and security vacuum. Paired with this are Niger’s internal problems. President Issoufou has been Niger’s president since a 2011 election that was deemed free and fair. However, Niger has a long history of military coups. In 2011, a plot by a small military faction planning to assassinate him was uncovered.
Political drama between the Nigerién Democratic Movement (MODEN) and Issoufou’s Nigerién Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) also presents problems. Formerly part of the ruling coalition, MODEN’s Hama Amadou, has been accused of undermining Niger’s stability. If this worrying trend continues, it could trigger a new political intervention by the military. Amadou fled to France last August.
Niger’s natural resources
But the new surveillance bases are not only crucial for containing the terrorist threat and other related issues. Natural resources also play a key role. Areva, the French nuclear power company, is reducing its investment budget by 150 million euros and plans to sell off approximately 500 to 600 million euros of its assets. However, the demand for uranium is expected to increase. In September, the IAEA issued its Red Book report indicating, that despite the international backlash from the Fukushima disaster, the demand will grow.
The government is anxiously waiting for Areva to give the green light for the new Imouraren mining facility in which could double the country’s earnings. The new location could be the world’s second largest reserve of uranium. The prevention of attacks on these facilities will presumably be a key goal of the new surveillance stations.
Oil is another critical factor. British-owned Savannah Petroleum is investing $90 million in 2015 for five oil exploration projects. Niger’s oil ventures only started in 2011 with China National Petroleum Corp’s $5 billion investment to in the Agadem oilfield along the Termit-Ténéré Rift formation in Niger’s east.
France increases security
The US is not the only Western power with security interests in the region. France has been steadily increasing its involvement in its former colonial dominion in recent years. Operation Serval, the French military offensive in Mali, is now rebranded as Operation Barkhane, an anti-terrorism mission that will span across the entire Sahel. French troops are going to be present in Mali and several Francophone African nations for the foreseeable future. France will keep three drones – a pair of US-bought MQ-9 Reapers and one French-built EADS Harfang drone – stationed in Agadez for surveillance.
“The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security,” France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explained.
But the mission to monitor the area in northern Niger will be difficult. The Agadez Region is receiving an influx of migrant workers after the discovery of gold. Agadez will also need greater international coordination to contain Ebola. On the upside, the local population has so far been tentatively complacent with the establishment of the new drone bases.
The US, for its part, will be giving a substantial $5M to $10M upgrade to Agadez’s airfield. This, along with a renewed partnership with France, will ensure that Niger remains an essential part of Operation Barkhane and of the long term effort to curtail extremism in West Africa.
By Chris Solomon
(Source: http://www.globalriskinsights.com )