The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
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.
The result is a state constantly looking over its shoulder. Checkpoints dot the dusty streets of Niamey at night, and hotels are guarded by police officers carrying weathered Kalashnikovs. But the unrest didn’t start with the May attacks. Niger’s security forces, on high alert since the French intervention in Mali, have dealt with a spate of kidnappings in recent years. In 2008, two Canadian diplomats were kidnapped north of Niamey by militants from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and taken to Mali, where they were held for four months before being released. In September 2010, AQIM fighters kidnapped seven foreign workers from the Arlit mine; three were later freed, but the others remain hostages of the group. And in January 2011, AQIM fighters linked to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who helped organize the May attacks, kidnapped two young French men from a popular restaurant in Niamey’s Plateau neighborhood. The hostages died in a failed rescue attempt by French Special Forces near the Malian border.
The attacks and kidnappings hardly convey an image of Nigerien stability. Yet Western governments would be mistaken to think of Niger only as a staging ground for their next fight against Islamist militants in Africa. The U.S. military is training more Nigerien forces as part of a burgeoning security relationship tied to American counterterrorism policies in the Sahel region, where the United States since 2002 has trained regional security services and established a network of bases for surveillance aircraft, including unmanned surveillance drones that operate out of Niamey. But as the recent turmoil in Mali demonstrated, regional security approaches cannot focus on counterterrorism and military training to the detriment of ignoring or excusing other key issues.
In Mali, Western governments’ abiding interest in security cooperation obscured the realities of rampant corruption among bureaucrats and officers alike, and a government that ceded rule in the north to local elites linked to Islamist militants and drugs, weapons, and human traffickers. Malian democracy was in many ways a myth; vital services for basic governance fell to nongovernmental organizations and foreign donors. Tenuous accords with Tuareg rebels and tacit arrangements with militants tied to AQIM maintained a delicate peace but also allowed the spread of armed groups of all stripes within Mali’s borders. Like Mali, Niger must contend with local jihadists, uneasy and armed Tuaregs, and the trafficking of everything from drugs to weapons across its porous borders. But in Niger, staring down the Sahel’s perilous security situation is just one of many challenges, including food security, corruption, and environmental threats such as devastating floods.
Although it shares many of the conditions that contributed to Mali’s collapse, Niger is not Mali. The government has ably handled a series of potentially debilitating crises -- the return of thousands of Nigeriens, many of them armed, who were living in Libya; the outflow of weapons from that conflict; the potential for a renewed Tuareg uprising -- in a way that its neighbor to the west did not. Issoufou has also shown skill in managing and co-opting northern Nigerien elites and opposition politicians, as evidenced recently in his proposal to create a national unity government.
But there are still lessons for Niger and its foreign partners to take from Mali. In order to maintain a counterterrorism partner heralded as a democratic model, Western governments embraced a “fiction” of representative government and stability in Mali, in the words of one French diplomat, even as its institutions were wracked with corruption and criminality. Mali’s political elites promoted consensus around President Amadou Toumani Touré that undermined any effective political competition and opposition. Such a replay would be disastrous in Niger.
The shifting counterterrorism focus on Niger as a Western partner in a region that is both a target and transit point for terrorist groups should not blind the European Union, France, and the United States to Niger’s governance and reform deficits. Internal militant unrest, trafficking and other criminal enterprises, and weak, corrupt governance ought not to be ignored for fear of disrupting Niger’s tenuous stability.
In many ways, Niger is an anomaly. For years, this ethnically diverse and largely Muslim country has also been home to American and French Special Forces that train soldiers and, aided by drones and other surveillance aircraft, protect key assets, especially the uranium mines in the north of the country. But unlike other states with whom the United States has established strong counterterrorism relationships and military and surveillance bases -- such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, and Mali -- Niger has a nominally functioning multiparty political culture, even if it is must contend with the threat of interference from the country’s military. Niger’s military has staged four coups since its independence in 1960; a Nigerien friend of mine jokingly described the military’s “tradition” of stepping into politics if it thinks the country’s government has exceeded its bounds. Yet the military stepped aside and stayed there after its 2010 coup, leading to elections that were widely considered to be free and fair, and which brought Issoufou to power.
Given Niger’s surroundings, it is difficult to fault the government’s focus on security. Besides Mali’s unrest to the west, Niger has had to contend with fears of another Tuareg rebellion within its borders. (There have been two since 1960; the most recent one ended through Libyan mediation in 2009.) In April, former Tuareg rebels in Niamey told me ominously about the government’s failed promises to integrate former combatants into the administration or the armed forces, even though the government has made concessions to Tuareg elites and appointed Brigi Rafini, a Tuareg, as Issoufou’s prime minister. Niger still faces threats from AQIM and its offshoot Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which have clashed with Nigerien forces and kidnapped foreigners and Nigeriens. MUJAO recruits extensively in Niger, according to senior judicial and security officials in Niamey, as well as Nigerien and Western analysts. To the south, the jihadist presence of Boko Haram has crept over the border from Nigeria. Dr. Abdoulaye Sounaye, a professor of religion and philosophy at the Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey, told me that students there openly watch Boko Haram videos of its founder Mohamed Yusuf, who was killed while in Nigerian custody in 2009, and that other students identify with the militant group.
However necessary, the government’s boost of defense spending has diverted resources from pressing development needs. This summer Niamey was hit by crippling power cuts; substandard infrastructure throughout the country has seen no tangible improvement under Issoufou. His government has outlined a long-term vision in its Economic and Social Development Plan (PDES), but with little action so far. When asked about the increases in the defense budget, a senior government official charged with formulating development priorities just shrugged and said, “We don’t have a choice.” Other officials and analysts in Niamey suggested that most Nigeriens support, or at least understand, the outsize attention on security. There was little outcry last February when President Obama confirmed the presence of American drones in Niger and the signing of a joint Status of Forces Agreement proving legal protections for American military personnel in the country.
Even so, Issoufou has taken steps to reform governance, fight corruption, and spur economic growth. In addition to the PDES, last fall his government announced the nearly $2.5 billion Strategy for Development and Security (SDS), a five-year plan for its northern desert areas, to which the government will contribute half the total cost. The rest will come from a variety of partners, including the United Nations Development Program and the European Union, which have also supplied a team to train Niger’s police forces. The strategy calls for devolving more power to local communities and tribal leaders to coordinate border security and law enforcement and improve infrastructure and social services. Issoufou also established a dedicated anti-corruption body, arrested key businessmen and ex-officials accused of corruption, and even pushed for the National Assembly to strip eight parliamentarians of their immunity in order to face corruption charges.
But Issoufou’s reforms are dangerously incomplete. The SDS’s path to implementation remains vague. Although the official platform for the SDS contains impressive and defined programs and goals, such ambitious planning is undermined by the reality of poor governance. It is perhaps telling, for instance, that the section of the SDS Web site labeled “Action Plan” is blank; officials in Niger told me that they hope to have an operational plan for it by the end of the year. Even its funding is an open question, given limits to international donor commitments and Niger’s own limited budget, and the difficulty of garnering promised support. At a November donor conference in Paris, Issoufou gained pledges of nearly $5 billion in assistance to support the PDES. But as he remarked last week during a speech to mark Niger’s 53rd Independence Day, “it is one thing to obtain promises of financing, another to obtain its disbursal.”
Urgent corruption investigations, meanwhile, rarely lead to convictions -- if they make it to court at all. Indeed, those eight parliamentarians have yet to undergo judicial proceedings more than a year after losing their immunity. This lack of movement could be in part a question of capacity. More than a year ago, a suspicious fire gutted Niger’s Ministry of Justice, erasing decades’ worth of files. The cause of the fire is still unknown, although some suspect it was retaliation for Issoufou’s anti-corruption crusade. The burnt-out shell of the building still stands in the governmental and diplomatic quarter of Niamey, a reminder of how forceful the opposition to reform in Niger can be. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided support for educational programs, but there is little public indication of attempts from foreign backers to address Niger’s thornier issues such as corruption in the government and armed forces.
The Issoufou government, for its part, has at times allowed its internal security concerns to interfere with legal and political reform, including criminal investigations against known militants. In June 2011, the Nigerien military fought a small convoy of smugglers driving from Libya, killing an AQIM member and seizing munitions, cash, and over 1,000 pounds of Semtex, a powerful explosive. They captured a well-known trafficker and former Nigerien rebel leader named Abta Mohamed (also known as Abta Hamidine), who told authorities that he was transporting the weapons for delivery to AQIM, possibly in exchange for four French hostages held by the group. Mohamed reportedly implicated the powerful former Tuareg rebel leader Aghali Alambo, who was arrested in March 2012. But then, in a striking about-face, the Nigerien authorities released both men. The move, according to Sahel expert Wolfram Lacher, “appeared designed to prevent Hamidine’s and Alambo’s associates from taking up arms against the government.” In other words, the need to maintain order among powerful northern tribal communities that, if ostracized, could easily support Islamist militants, compelled the government not to pursue tribal leaders who are deeply involved in the trafficking enterprises that cross Niger’s desert.
In Mali, systemic domestic problems from government corruption to intercommunal rivalries among the military and the ranks of armed rebels fractured its political structure and grievously weakened the state more than terrorist attacks could. In Niger, it appears that similar warning signs are being ignored. For the United States, France, and other European powers, stabilizing Niger’s government and maintaining its security cooperation trumps everything else. Although the onus is on Niger’s government to reform itself, outside powers must make sure such steps are implemented as promised. Western governments set on hunting down Islamist militants cannot ignore impending threats to Niger’s stability that fall outside their narrow focus on counterterrorism.