Niger: the west’s bulwark in opposition to jihadis and Russian affect in Africa


Standing in a panorama of sand and scrub that rolls to the horizon, Basic Mahamadou Abou Tarka dabs sweat from his brow and factors north to Niger’s frontier with Mali and west to Burkina Faso.

“There’s a vacuum on the opposite facet,” he says, referring to the lawless areas within the international locations abutting Niger’s restive Tillabéri area. Throughout the invisible border, the Malian and Burkinabe states barely perform, the final says. Swaths of territory have been overrun by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

“Mali is a failed state. Burkina is failing,” says Abou Tarka who, as head of Niger’s Excessive Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, advises his civilian authorities on the battle in opposition to a hydra-headed terrorist risk, a lot of it spilling over a whole lot of miles of unpoliced frontier.

“As for Nigeria,” he gestures within the course of the massive nation to the south. “We are saying we’ve got a border with Boko-Haramia,” he says, in a biting reference to the Boko Haram fundamentalists who, till just lately no less than, incessantly swept throughout the frontier to assault villages in Niger.

The world’s poorest nation, in accordance with the UN’s human improvement index, Niger isn’t thought-about a geopolitical linchpin. However that’s precisely what it has change into as successive dominoes fall, terrorism spreads and Russian affect grows within the Sahel, a sub-continental-sized belt of semi-desert stretching hundreds of miles throughout Africa.

Niger Sahel map

In Might, Olaf Scholz visited German troops stationed at a base near Niger’s border with Mali, extending Berlin’s mission to coach Niger’s troopers in counter-terrorism. The German chancellor met his counterpart Mohamed Bazoum, who was elected president final 12 months in Niger’s first democratic switch of energy.

Western officers have praised Bazoum, a former schoolteacher and right-hand man of the earlier president, as somebody who’s keen to battle terrorists and sort out the basis causes of radicalism. His administration has promised to extend the vary and efficacy of the state, together with by enhancing its insufficient faculty system. It has began tentative peace talks with some terrorist teams.

Scholz was the most recent of a string of senior European, US and different officers to pledge help for Niger. In 2019, the US opened a drone base close to the northern metropolis of Agadez to hold out surveillance. France, whose troops had been this 12 months ejected from Mali, has began ramping up its presence in Niger, a pivot in the direction of what has been dubbed Paris’s “companion of final resort” within the Sahel.

Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum (centre) and German chancellor Olaf Scholz leave the Presidential Palace in Niamey, Niger, in May this year
Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum (centre) and German chancellor Olaf Scholz go away the Presidential Palace in Niamey, Niger, in Might this 12 months. Berlin has been coaching Niger’s troopers in counter-terrorism © Boureima Hama/AFP/Getty Pictures

If the jihadist risk intensifies in Niger — and notably if Bazoum’s authorities had been to fall to one of many coups which have toppled successive civilian regimes within the area — analysts say Islamists may find yourself controlling a contiguous belt throughout the Sahel from Mali to northern Nigeria. That might threaten extra affluent coastal west African states equivalent to Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo or Benin which have largely escaped terrorist assaults. It may additionally provoke waves of immigration to Europe, they are saying.

“Western powers are saying that Niger is a bulwark in opposition to all these extremist teams,” says Abou Tarka. “They’re saying that Niger is a democracy, that we’ve got to assist Niger survive in a neighbourhood that’s crumbling.”

Energy vacuum

With the exceptions of Algeria and Benin, each considered one of Niger’s neighbours is in disaster. A navy junta has seized energy in Mali, the place a homegrown Tuareg insurrection continues and each Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, a consortium of al-Qaeda-linked teams, and Islamic State within the Better Sahara management territory and perform assaults.

In Burkina Faso, a junta shot its method to energy in January, citing the civilian authorities’s lack of ability to sort out a jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds and displaced thousands and thousands extra. As of late, if something, Burkina is taken into account extra harmful than Mali.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has additionally been gaining traction within the area. Mali’s generals have changed French troops with mercenaries provided by Russia’s shadowy Wagner group, a few of whom have been implicated in atrocities. Wagner has additionally manoeuvred its approach into the Central African Republic, the place it protects the president and runs profitable companies, together with in gold mining.

Niger troops patrol using a pick up truck in Tillabéri
Niger’s restive Tillabéri area is patrolled by troops to cease terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State from crossing the border © Colin Delfosse

Chad, beforehand a stalwart French ally, is unstable after Idriss Déby, president and commander of the best combating machine within the Sahel, died in battle final 12 months by the hands of insurgents allegedly educated by Wagner. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, attended Déby’s funeral in N’Djamena.

A lot of the rot set in after western powers, together with France and the UK, engineered the downfall of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammer Gaddafi, in 2011. The ensuing energy vacuum precipitated a flood of arms into the Sahel, weaponising historical antagonisms and offering Islamists and prison gangs with the wherewithal to wage terror. Wagner is now combating in Libya too, alongside the insurgent normal Khalifa Haftar.

Ibrahim Yahaya, senior Sahel analyst at Disaster Group, endorses the concept that Russia has opened “a second entrance” within the Sahel with the purpose of destabilising European pursuits. Utilizing Wagner, he says, is an affordable approach of creating bother that gives deniability and prices Moscow nothing. “It’s a unique approach of doing diplomacy. You employ personal firms which can be there to earn cash, however you then use them to advertise your strategic targets.”

The extra speedy concern, says Yahaya, is the plethora of Islamist teams who now management giant swaths of Mali, Burkina Faso and elements of northern Nigeria — and who’ve made some inroads in Niger.

Ornella Moderan, head of the Sahel Programme on the Institute for Safety Research, factors out that Niger just isn’t standing solely alone. Mauritania, she notes, has prevented a coup and Niger is itself battling terrorism on a number of fronts, together with within the Tillabéri area and the world round Diffa on the south-east border with Nigeria, the place Boko Haram had been lively previously. “Banditry and acts of violence” have additionally been seen within the south-central border space with Nigeria, Moderan says, which “may spiral into a 3rd entrance”.

The Mali debacle

At France’s navy base in Niamey, Basic Hervé Pierre, a veteran of French deployments within the Sahel, has little question about Niger’s strategic significance. “Niger is likely one of the international locations that has a powerful and really professionalised military that is ready to face the terrorists,” he says, over the roar of two Mirage fighters taking off from the bottom. “President Bazoum took the accountability for this wrestle at a regional degree and the Nigerien military actually fights the enemy.”

France, says Pierre, has discovered classes from Mali the place French troops had been initially welcomed as liberating heroes in 2013 solely to be drummed in a foreign country a decade later when relations nosedived. France was accused of propping up a civilian authorities that many noticed as missing in legitimacy. That stoked anti-French sentiment within the nation, which unfold on social media, allegedly fanned by Russian troll farms working within the area.

In January, Mali’s second navy junta in as a few years expelled France’s ambassador. In Might it terminated a defence settlement with Paris, forcing France to shut its navy bases. Some folks on the streets of Bamako, the capital, celebrated with a show of Russian flags.

General Hervé Pierre at France’s military base in Niamey
Basic Hervé Pierre, a veteran of French deployments within the Sahel, at France’s navy base in Niamey © Colin Delfosse

The French try to keep away from a repeat of the Mali debacle by taking a softly-softly strategy in Niger. No French flags fly at its sprawling base close to Niamey’s worldwide airport. Nigerien captains command platoons of primarily French troops and vice versa.

French troops are supporting operations to ascertain everlasting garrisons on the border with Mali, each to cease incursions and to steer displaced villagers to return to their houses. “The target is to strengthen the presence of the state within the eyes of the folks,” says Mahaman Moha, a authorities coverage adviser.

Regardless of its lower-key strategy, the French do take direct motion. In June, French air strikes, together with from Reaper drones, killed practically 40 members of what Paris referred to as “an armed terrorist group” transferring by motorcycle from Burkina Faso into Niger. If there are extra such assaults, civilian casualties are inevitable, members of Niger’s armed forces concede. “There’s no clear battle,” says one. Teams belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM are adept at infiltrating villages, making them laborious to select.

Lisa Tschörner, an knowledgeable on Niger on the German Institute for Worldwide and Safety Affairs, says some Islamist teams have received help from native communities by providing what she referred to as “various modes of governance and justice” to individuals who felt marginalised. Islamist ideology, she says, has deeper roots in Niger than its authorities admit.

Terrorists have usually exploited native rivalries, Tschörner provides, particularly these between herders who roam in quest of pasture and sedentary farmers. “The homegrown conflicts which were labelled bandit-ism for a really very long time have been co-opted by jihadist teams,” she says. “Then you will have the dynamics of local weather change and inhabitants development which has elevated stress on land, intensifying the battle.”

French legionnaires inspect armored vehicles in Niger
Some Nigeriens welcome France’s navy help, however others level to the ineffectiveness of French ways in Mali, the place terrorism flourished regardless of intervention © Colin Delfosse

Some Nigeriens welcome France’s navy help, however others level to the ineffectiveness of French ways in Mali, the place terrorism flourished regardless of — and even due to — French intervention. “We all know for a incontrovertible fact that France is behind this insecurity,” says Mikka Adam Maiga, a resident of Niamey.

France concedes there is no such thing as a purely navy answer. Agence Française de Développement, a government-owned monetary establishment, is growing its funding in Niger from about €100mn to a projected €150mn in each loans and grants. A few of that shall be spent on social and financial tasks within the Tilabérri area, a so-called “pink zone” the place strict safety protocols for French officers apply.

On a latest journey to an AFD-financed cattle market, Emilie Garret, appearing director for AFD in Niger, spoke of the difficulties of creating tasks amid such insecurity. “It’s a really difficult atmosphere,” she stated. In Paris, Rémy Rioux, AFD chief govt, says France is financing tasks together with a dam to carry energy and irrigation to farmers and a job-creation scheme for younger males who joined, however then renounced, terrorist teams.

Siren calls

The most important concern continues to be the weak point of Niger’s state. If terrorists exploit poverty and marginalisation, in Niger there may be a lot to go spherical. The nation has a nominal per capita revenue of $600, in accordance with the World Financial institution, reflecting the truth that greater than 80 per cent of its 25mn folks dwell outdoors cities and principally past the cash economic system. The literacy fee is simply 35 per cent.

Clashes over land, pasture and water could intensify because the inhabitants grows. With a median seven youngsters per lady, the very best on this planet, Niger’s inhabitants is increasing at practically 4 per cent a 12 months and is forecast to virtually triple to 70mn by 2050.

Whereas some Nigeriens see that as a power, Bazoum describes it as a weak point. In his inaugural presidential handle, he highlighted the truth that greater than one-quarter of Nigerien ladies marry earlier than the age of 15 and three-quarters earlier than 18, one thing he stated he wished to cease by maintaining ladies in class longer.

French Air Force Reaper drones deployed in Niger in hangar
In June, French air strikes, together with from Reaper drones, killed practically 40 members of what Paris referred to as ‘an armed terrorist group’ transferring by motorcycle from Burkina Faso into Niger © Colin Delfosse

Such liberal leanings have received the Niger president reward within the west, however could do him fewer favours at residence the place conservative social norms prevail. Against this, he has been accused of cracking down on civil society, an indication, say some, that his place at residence just isn’t as safe as allies would possibly want. Two days earlier than he was sworn in final April, troopers opened hearth on the presidential palace in what seems to have been a coup try. Rumours of a second plot adopted.

Nonetheless, in distinction with Mali, the place tensions between the north and south persist, Niger has extra efficiently included totally different parts of society into authorities. The sting was faraway from a Tuareg insurrection within the Nineties after a peace settlement that has seen a Tuareg function prime minister. Officers say the truth that Bazoum, who comes from the tiny Arab minority, has change into president in any respect is proof that Niger has progressed in tamping ethnic rivalries.

Bazoum has spoken of the necessity to shore up the capabilities of the state as a counterweight to siren calls from terrorist teams providing money, faith or a type of justice. There are hopes the economic system may obtain an essential fillip because of a Chinese language-built pipeline to the coast of Benin, which ought to result in a quintupling of oil exports to 100,000 barrels a day and a lift to authorities revenues.

Mohamed Bazoum (second from right) with members of his delegation at the Boudouri camp for displaced persons outside the town of Diffa, in southeastern Niger
Mohamed Bazoum (second from proper) with members of his delegation on the Boudouri camp for displaced individuals outdoors the city of Diffa, in southeastern Niger © Luc Gnago/Reuters

On a latest journey to Diffa, greater than 1,200km east of the capital on the border with Nigeria and Chad, Bazoum instructed troopers defending the world: “Terrorists want a vacuum the place they will do what they need.” He introduced with him all the trimmings of state, together with an enormous navy presence, helicopters and even a sweeper to repeatedly brush the desert sand from the pink carpet laid out earlier than him.

He has inspired displaced villagers in Diffa to return to their villages. The hope is that 40,000 will accomplish that within the subsequent few months in time for the planting season. In return, the president says, the military will present safety, partly by recruiting from native communities. It should additionally present primary companies, together with clinics and entry to water, he says.

“Issues have calmed down,” says Smaine Youndousse, an adviser to Bazoum, of the scenario in Diffa. “Three to 4 years in the past you couldn’t sleep at night time for the sound of gunshots.” Most insecurity is now focused on the border with Burkina Faso, he provides.

Even so, the scenario stays precarious. Shortly after the president’s closely guarded entourage rolled out of a makeshift base, snipers hidden within the scrub took purpose on the troopers left behind.

“What it’s important to perceive is that it is a battle for our nation, a battle for the suitable of our state to exist,” says Abou Tarka. “We’re in a neighbourhood of failed states, however Niger continues to be on its ft — for now.”