Overstating Terror in Niger

Letter from Niamey

A worker carries a basket through an outdoor meat market in Niger's capital Niamey, September 11, 2011. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters)

On May 23, Islamist militants in Niger killed 21 people and injured dozens when they set off simultaneous suicide car bombs at an army outpost in the northern city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the nearby town of Arlit, near the Algerian border. Days later, two guards died and 22 inmates escaped after an attack on the main prison in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Among the escapees was the Malian trafficker and militant Cheïbane Ould Hama, who was convicted of killing the American defense attaché William Bultemeier in a carjacking in Niamey in 2000, along with four Saudi tourists on safari near Mali in 2009. The violence has set the sprawling, landlocked West African country -- the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium -- on edge, testing the reformist administration of President Mahamadou Issoufou. And his government may not be well suited to withstand it: Issoufou has been in office for just over two years, winning elections a year after a coup toppled the increasingly dictatorial president Mamadou Tandja.

Security threats only add to the government’s tall order -- already made more difficult since the Arab Spring -- of stabilizing a desperately poor country that shares often troubled borders with Algeria, Chad, Libya, and Mali. The fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi deprived the Nigerien government of a major source of funding and investment. It also drove more than 200,000 Nigeriens back to their country -- not just armed Tuaregs who had fought for Qaddafi but workers whose families in Niger relied on remittances sent from Libya. The subsequent unrest in Mali -- a Tuareg rebellion followed by a military coup and the takeover of northern Mali by jihadist groups, which prompted French intervention last January -- sent tens of thousands of refugees across the countries’ border, prompting fears of a spillover of violence into Niger. In response to such chaos, the Nigerien government has boosted military spending twice in the last two years. The 2013 budget contains more than $161 million in new outlays, of which more than $50 million is earmarked for the security forces.

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