NIAMEY – The small restaurant sits on the corner of two sandy streets in Niger’s capital city, Niamey. It is here, at Le Toulousain, that two Frenchmen were kidnapped by AQIM (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) on Jan. 7, 2011.
The two young hostages – an aid worker and his friend – were killed during a failed rescue attempt, and their captors fled across the Mali border. In September 2011, the kidnapping of seven employees from French nuclear energy firm Areva working at the Arlit uranium mine in northern Niger, dealt another blow to the country.
Niger shares an 800-kilometer border with Mali. “The threats that exist in Mali constitute a domestic security problem for Niger,” Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou recently said.
Elected in 2011, Issoufou was one of the first heads of state to call for an intervention to get rid of the Tuareg Islamic militants who had taken control of northern Mali. “Never has a foreign intervention in Africa been as popular as the French one in Mali,” he declared.
Along with Togo, Niger was one of the first African countries to get involved in the UN’s African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) – 680 Nigerien soldiers are currently stationed in Mali, most of them in Gao. “There was this belief that if we didn’t do anything, we’d be the next country on the list of narco-terrorist groups,” said Olivier de Sardan, a researcher at the Niamey-based Laboratory for Studies and Research into Social Dynamics and Local Development (LASDEL).
Niger has a lot to lose in the Malian conflict. One out of 12 million people living in Niger are of Tuareg ethnicity and the country has been through several insurgencies in the past, the last one being the Tuareg Rebellion of 2007-2009. Niger’s efforts to integrate the Tuareg into the political landscape while clamping down on armed groups has brought a somewhat fragile social peace. There is, however, still much discontent in the Tuareg strongholds of northern Niger, where the population – especially the younger generation – believes it is being cheated out of revenue from uranium mining. Northern Niger is home to one of the world’s largest deposits of uranium.
The most immediate threat for the country, however, is the arrival of Jihadist groups who are being run out of Mali. Northern Niger, with its mountainous terrain and easy exit routes to Chad and Libya in the east is the perfect region for Jihadists to regroup. These last few months, Niger has deployed 5,000 men at the Mali border. “Until now, these groups’ attempts to take refuge in the Aïr Mountains have failed,” assures a western diplomat: “AQIM’s goal is to get to south Libya where it has bases and contacts. Niger is worried its northern region will become a bridge to Libya.”
“Securing the Sahel”
Niger is a poor country, and war is expensive. The nation's army only has 12,000 troops and the territory they have to cover is huge. President Issoufou has repeatedly asked his Western allies – foremost France – for support. Since the beginning of the Mali crisis, Niger has been used by western countries as a base for military operations in the region, with Niamey airport being used for troop and equipment transport. French military instructors and liaison officers are also based here. “We are in favour of anything that will help us secure the Sahel region. We are in talks with several countries, including the U.S. and France,” said President Issoufou, when asked about plans for U.S. surveillance drone bases in Niger.
President Issoufou added: “I don’t believe the French intervention will end with the liberation of the cities of northern Mali. […] The object of this war should be not just to liberate Mali but to free the whole Sahel from this menace."
Niger’s geographic situation puts it at the center of the Sahel conflict. In the south, the country shares a 1,500-kilometer border with Nigeria, which is currently in the middle of a conflict with the Boko Haram Islamist militant group. The north, where the uranium riches lie, is a drugs and weapons smuggling route. “What Niger is most worried about is retaliation from AQIM or its allies. A new attack would be devastating for this country,” said an observer.