General elections are scheduled at the end of 2020. The economy faces huge changes and the country, which is the main transit area for migrants towards Europe is caught between three fronts by jihadists, in addition to the climate change challenges
Presidential and legislative elections which have been postponed several times, owing to rainy seasons and difficulties to register voters, are scheduled on the 27 December. President Mahamadou Issoufou has declared he would not run for a third mandate. The current Minister of Home Affairs, Mohamed Bazoum will represent the ruling party instead while the main main opponent, Hama Amadou, candidate of the Democratic Movement of Niger, is in jail since last November, after having been sentenced to one year prison for his alleged involvement in a trafficking of babies scandal with Nigeria. This might offer greater chances for three challengers: the former President Mahamane Ousmane of the Democratic and Republic Rally, Seini Oumara from the National Movement for the Development Society and former foreign minister, Ibrahim Yacouba.
The political climate has improved in November 2019 with the opening of a national dialogue on the organisation of the election by Prime Minister Brigi Rafini. But the initiative arose from the need to calm down tensions at a moment where the country is facing serious challenges.
The first is radical economic transformation. According to the International Monetary Fund, Niger registered a 5.2% GDP growth in 2018, expected to rise to 6.5% in 2019 and to 11% by 2022 but at the same time, huge imbalances remain in a country which is one of the world’s poorest. Niger which belongs to the G5 Sahel Group set up to fight jihadist terrorism and includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Chad, boasts from the image of a country which is determined to curb the terrorist scourge and is considered as a strategic partner in the fight against illegal migration by the European Union.
Growth is expected to continue if the 3N initiative “Nigeriens nourish Nigeriens” which absorbs 15 percent of the national budget, succeeds. So far, rain-fed agricultural output has increased by 71 percent while irrigated agriculture output rose by 360 percent. But extreme poverty is still hitting 41 percent of its 22 million inhabitants.
The fall of the uranium price since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 in Japan and Germany’s decision to close its power stations in 2022 poses a serious challenge. Uranium accounts indeed for 40 percent of Niger’s exports. Production which amounted to 2,911 tons of mineral in 2018 is sharply decreasing; Some mines are close to exhaustion while extraction costs are becoming higher than revenues.
The Compagnie minière d’Akouta, a joint venture including Orano (France) Oveseas Uranium Resources (Japan), ENUSA (Spain) and the National Office for the Mineral Resources of Niger (ONAREM) will stop production in 2021. Another Orano subsidiary, the Société des Mines de l’Aïr and the China Nuclear Corporation and Korea Resources which develop the Azelik mine are reducing output. Operations won’t start at the large Imamourem deposit as long as world prices don’t rise again, warns the joint venture including Orano, Korea Electric Power and the government of Niger.
The uranium crisis is partially compensated by new activities. In 1980, Niger became a coal producer. A second mine was opened in 2014 at Salkadamna to supply a 600 MW thermal power station. Since 2012, a gold rush is taking place. Beside industrial exploitation which provides an annual output of one tonne, small-scale artisanal mining attracted dozens of thousands of diggers including former Chadian military, Sudanese and Libyan citizens towards the gold deposits of the North, at the Libyan and Algerian borders. Yet, the rush is taking place in a context of banditry and arms trafficking. In November 2019, a International Crisis Group report, suggested that the gold business has contributed to finance terrorist groups.
Accordingly, jihadist imams have preached on mining sites in the Torodi area. Besides, the uncontrolled rush also caused ecological problems such as the use of cyanide, mercury and sulphuric acid which has contaminated soils and phreatic waters.
Niger became also recently an oil producer. The output should increase fivefold by 2021 from 20,000 barrels/day currently, owing to the construction of 2,000 km-long pipeline from Agadem to the Atlantic Ocean in Benin by China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corporation which exploits the Diffa deposit near Lake Chad. A new oil basin was discovered at the end of 2018 near Agadès. But local environmentalists protest against government plans to declassify part of the 100,000 sq km Termit and Tin-Toumma, natural reserve, to allow the transit of the pipeline.
Unfortunately, economic success has not had the expected impact on the social front. One of the reasons is that 18 percent of the national budget goes to the security sector owing to the jihadist threat on three fronts. On the West, Niger has suffered attacks from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) led by Adnane Abou Walid al Sahraoui and by a coalition including Ansar Dine, led by the Tuareg chief Iyad Ag Ghali, Abdelmalek Droukdel’s Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Macina Katiba, led by the Malian Fulani leader Amadou Koufa who is recruiting among the Fulanis from Niger.
On the 9 January 2020, 89 soldiers were killed in the attack of the Chinagodar military base, in Western Niger, at ten kilometres from the Malian border. Previously, on the 10 December 2019, hundreds of jihadists killed 71 Nigerien military during an artillery attack combined with kamikaze vehicles on the Inatès camp, also near the Malian border, which was claimed by the ISGS. The region of Tillabéri where it took place hosts 150,000 refugees and internal displaced persons.
In the South-East, attacks from Boko Haram which has also bases in Nigeria and in the Lake Chad islands are becoming increasingly frequent. On the 29 October, 12 Nigerien soldiers were killed and eight more injured during the attack of the Blabrine military base, near Diffa. The area hosts 260,000 refugees from Nigeria and IDPs. According to the UN, 179 people were kidnapped by Boko Haram during the first eight months of 2019.
French economist Olivier Vallée fears the opening of a third front since Niger has taken sides in the Libyan conflict between the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity led by Fayez-al-Sarraj and Marshal Khalifa Halftar’s army, by authorising the United Arab Emirates which support Haftar to set up a military base on Niger’s territory. Simultaneously, the presence of foreign troops is causing divisions inside the country because of the fear that they may provoke jihadist raids. Hundreds of students demonstrated on the 25 May 2019 in Niamey against the four French military bases.
While the terrorist threat is increasing, over 450,000 refugees and IDPs are caught in a nest. It is increasingly difficult for them to enter into Libya looking for a passage to Europe. Many cannot afford the money to travel back to their country of origin. Besides, a new law on the trafficking of human beings adopted in 2015 under the European Union’s pressure is restricting the freedom of circulation inside Niger. NGOs complain that it is contradictory with the legislation of the regional organisation, the Economic Community of West African States. According to the International Organisation of Migrations, the number of migrants transiting through Niger decreased from 7,000 per month in 20017 to 5,500 in 2018 but Sudanese migrants including alleged members of armed groups and former Chadian and Malian fighters returning from Libya have been arriving to Agadez. Niger benefitted from EU-financed projects to compensate the revenue losses of transporters, hostel owners and smugglers of human beings. But only a fraction of them has received support for a reconversion of their activities. Climate change and demography pose also huge challenges. Over 220,000 people were affected by floods in June and July 2019. The Niger River flow fluctuates considerably between 500 to 27 000 cubic meters/second according to seasons, causing terrible challenges for fishermen and pastoralists in a country whose population should soar from 22 to 70 million between 2020 and 2050.