Mali’s political crisis of 2012 has had a strong impact on neighbouring countries: especially Niger. Mali is not Niger’s only neighbour facing problems, tensions in Libya also worry Niamey. Safeguarding its own security has therefore become a priority for a nation with great potential and weakness at the same time.
Since 2010, Niger has become an important pawn in the western African scenario. This is first due to its central location in a troubled area. Then because some of the protagonists of these critical situations operate on its territory. The abduction of some employees of the French multinational Areva by a group associated with Al-Qaeda in September of the same year, showed that terrorism had gone one step further.
In fact, in the past, the victims of kidnapping were western tourists and employees of non-governmental organizations. On that occasion, the target of the attack was the strategic activity of uranium extraction.
At the beginning of 2012 Niger began facing a difficult situation. This was the time the Tuareg rebellion broke out against the Mali government claiming independence for northern Mali, after the Bamako coup d’état and the conquest of those territories by extremist movements. From the very beginning, President Mahamadou Issoufou supported military action against rebels that had taken control of northern Mali. He also urged other African nations to send soldiers to fight the extremists, but his call for support went largely unheeded because of mutual suspicion and diffidence among the Sahel countries.
In January 2013, French troops began a military intervention in Mali against rebels (with the help of other States, in particular Chad and Niger). Rebels lost control of the cities they had occupied (such as Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu) and went underground seeking refuge in nearby countries. Niger is among them. It is likely that Islamist militias hidden in Niger are reorganizing to go back to Mali and take up arms again. They could instead stay in Niger, planning attacks on national authorities. On 23 February 2013, a spokesman for the terrorist group MUJAO, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, said Niamey was one of the best targets for future suicide attacks. In the city, surveillance has improved and the northern uranium mines are protected by French special force troops, since local security forces lack means and expertise, as well as information gathering tools. Besides France, Niger has given the green light to the USA, accepting American surveillance Predator drones on its territory to improve the collection of intelligence on Islamist movements. Washington considers Niger a reliable partner, despite the country’s many coup d’états in the past. Niamey’s multi-party political system and, on the whole, free press, can be considered a “decent” ally.
The uranium rally
Niger’s considerable uranium deposits give the country a strategic role: Niger, in fact, is the world’s fourth uranium producer. The international rally for uranium hoarding, for nuclear power and military purposes, has given Niamey new political and economic opportunities. At the same time, risks have increased, as the French employees’ kidnapping in 2010, has shown.
For more than forty years, France has had the lion’s share of uranium extraction (with Areva). Niger considers this deal unbalanced, in favour of Paris. Most texts regarding the agreements are confidential. However, in 2012 it came to light that the French company pays Niger 100 billion euros per year in dividends and taxes (Niamey is a minority shareholder in the mine management companies).
This income represents 5.8% of the national budget. According to some exponents of the local civil society, this is less than those deriving from products such as peanuts. It is therefore understandable why Niger is looking for more buyers, to at least have a bigger role in the deal with France. Iran is one of the countries interested in buying uranium from Niger. Iran has reportedly tried to purchase radioactive material from Niger since 1984, with negative results up to now.
In April 2013, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to Niger on a two-day official visit. Also in this case he failed. Among the reasons is Iran’s international isolation imposed by the USA. The doors are not definitely closed. Saudi Arabia is another country interested in buying uranium for its future electric power generation plants.
Internal socio-political balances
Niger is concerned about the conflict in Mali, also because several factors that brought Mali to a crisis are present in Niger too. One of the main problems in Niger, for the time being, is the presence of a Tuareg minority, which feels politically and economically discriminated.
Tuareg fighters have rebelled several times in the past. In 1995, the government and the rebels signed an agreement. This wasn’t fully applied. Nevertheless, several results were achieved, such as the participation of ethnic Tuareg politicians in the government. Prime Minister Brigi Rafini is an ethnic Tuareg.
However, it must be said that, although Tuareg demands for political and social inclusion and for economic development are similar in both Mali and Niger, other circumstances are quite different. Unlike the Tuareg in Mali, concentrated in the north, those in Niger are spread across the territory, so there can be no secessionist demands.
There are, however, ethnic and cultural links among Tuareg populations from different countries that might facilitate alliances in case of conflict. Tuareg activists in Niger might spark uprisings in other communities.
About 3,000 Peul ethnics have gone to Mali to join MUJAO in the fight against MNLA, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, made up mostly of Tuareg rebels. These clashes could take place in Niger. Besides the ethnic balance, the religious balance must be guaranteed too. Among the reasons for Ahmadinejad’s Niger tour, was the question regarding the diffusion of Shiite Islam, which seems to be growing in the country. This, in itself, is not a factor that can increase tensions, as long as it does not conflict with the activism of Wahabit and Salafite fundamentalist groups. Thanks to financing from the Persian Gulf countries, these groups are increasing their proselytism at the expense of local Islam in western Africa. The likely acquisition of new political and economic partners could change the relationship between Namey and Paris. USA is likely to become Niger’s main military partner. The increased need for security made Niger invest in this sector at the expense of others, such as healthcare and education. This has worsened the situation in a country already affected by social and political stress. (A.C.)