Listening to Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou’s recent interview on Al Jazeera one comes away with the impression that everything in Niger is fine except for the terrible things that are going on across its borders: gun drunk anarchists in Libya, fundamentalist tomb desecrators in Mali and Boko Haram crazies in Nigeria.
His view is that Niger’s Tuaregs have nothing nearly as much to complain about as their brethren in Mali, as they have been given more than their fair share of political independence and representation. The folks at Areva – the French nuclear juggernaut whose newest mine at Imouraren will propel Niger into a number two slot in the global uranium output (after Kazakhstan) – are being good corporate citizens and will make sure that profits trickle down to the masses and that the much abused environment will become no more radioactive than it already is.
He also believes that Niger’s oil output, which has just come on line, will only add to the country’s prospects for diversifying its economy, which up to now consists mainly of the aforementioned uranium and erratic amount of meat exports, usually of the on-the-hoof variety. The President hopes that Niger will use the profits from uranium and oil to launch an agricultural revolution and perhaps allow Niger to escape the dubious distinction of being the poorest place on earth.
But what about the crazy neighbours?
We could probably expect a totally different (more urgent) response from the West to current events in the Sahel if AQIM were to try to disrupt or confiscate any portion of the uranium supply chain in Niger. It’s one thing knocking down a few old buildings in Timbuktu, but quite another trying a bit of snatch-and-run with fissionable material. It is also in the Nigerien government’s interest to conflate the political aspirations of its Tuareg population with the more globalist crusade of the jihadists, as an occupation at Imouraren (or any other mine) will bring the French Tiger copters faster than President Issoufou can say “Francois Holland”. (Don’t forget it was the alleged Nigerien ‘yellowcake’ sales to Sadaam Hussein that were part of the smoking gun that allowed George W. Bush to justify his invasion Iraq.)
And therein lies President Issoufou’s dilemma. Not long ago next-door neighbour Mali was considered a darling by the Western donors and champion of good African governance. Apparently those rosy-glassed optimists were missing some key data points about the government in Bamako, namely the corrosive impotence of its armed forces and the unintended consequences of a Libyan melt-down. To be fair, no one who wasn’t living in the Sahel for the past decade could have accurately predicted that one, but now that it has happened, Niger finds itself in the same band of consequence as Mali. Fortunately, it still has a small window of opportunity to garner enough international recognition of its plight so as not to fall down the same rabbit hole.
Hence, President’s Issoufou’s recent comment that the Sahel is poised to become the ‘next Afghanistan.’ This was not an elected official tossing out random metaphors. It was a bald plea for help.
Despite the fact that the French are running for the exits in Afghanistan and the Americans are preparing their own swansong in that failed melodrama, we get his point. Niger boasts a potentially lethal mix of Tuareg separatists, Islamic jihadists, Nigerian Boko Haramistas, international drug, gun and human traffickers, and a population nearly always on the brink of starvation. Consequently, there is a possibility that Niger will become what Afghanistan was and probably will always remain: a boarding house for terrorists, messianics and all sorts of dodgy entrepreneurs and geo-political grifters.
While it does appear that those in charge in Niamey have a program for keeping the lid on in Niger, they cannot possibly control their neighbourhood by themselves. Mali cannot hope to stabilize its own North by itself. Nigeria’s heavy handed response to Boko Haram will likely drive recruitment into that crew as botched counter insurgency strategies normally do, and despite some indication of increasing stability in Libya, there is still little control over remote borderlands or the myriad bands of opportunists who have sprung up in the wake of Ghadafi’s spectacular fall.
So what could a reasonable international response look like? Looking at reasonably recent successful international interventions in West African hotspots like Sierra Leone, Liberia and to a lesser extent in Cote d’Ivoire, it is clear that Africans are still willing to tolerate former colonialist meddling if their backs are really against the wall.
If the vaunted strategists of the world’s superpowers had been paying any attention at all to the Sahel, the occupation of a key town like Timbuktu by AQIM or its friends should have been a trigger for a mixed rapid response of African and European forces who had been training for such a mission for the past decade. Instead, we are witnessing a lot of head scratching and back-room chatter at the UN that will likely produce their favourite product – too little, too late.
I will even go out on a limb here and say that UN peacekeeping should have no role in the Sahel. This is not a job for the Blue Helmets, nor is it a job for an ‘international’ force of African armies that do not have the intelligence, ordnance and logistical support at least of NATO or other members of the EU.
The Sahel has been on a low boil for decades. With the infusion of Ghadafi’s weapons and the ranting of radical mullahs ringing in their ears, the Tuaregs and other desert warriors are likely to put up strong resistance, and given their tenacity and skill at fighting, they might even repel any unprepared force sent in to remove them, no matter how large. And what would happen then? Such a humiliation would only lead to more bloodshed, most likely that of civilians, who are usually the worst victims of scorched earth warfare conducted by amateurs.
Now is the time for a comprehensive security policy for the Sahel that would integrate command and decision making and assign responsibilities for a whole range of contingencies. The future of warfare in this region depends on the actions that are taken right now, and neither the African Union nor the United Nations should be playing a leading role there. It is up to ECOWAS and several of their supporting allies to drive this effort, and a regional operations centre needs to be established as soon as possible.
What is that President Issoufou, you think that Niamey would be the perfect location for the firehouse?
Michael Keating is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has just completed a month long trip through Niger, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire and will be reporting back for African Arguments on each.