Niger: Droughts, Floods, and Locusts

This year, as last year, a cruel cycle has taken shape in the Western Sahel: drought, floods, and locusts. This cycle affects Niger strongly, with rainy seasons bringing floods and pests after months of hunger. For overviews of the Sahelian food crisis, see here and here. In this post I look quickly at the problems of flooding and locusts.

As IRIN writes, “In 2012 Niger experienced the worst floods on record since 1929, with almost half a million people displaced and at least 68 deaths, affecting 70,000 households in total.” This year’s rainy season brought renewed flooding:

Severe flooding since the start of August in drought-prone Niger has killed at least 20 people and left around 48,000 homeless, the United Nations and local media reports said Wednesday.

The central Maradi region [map showing location of Maradi city] is the hardest-hit, with nine deaths and 19,425 people displaced.

Last year, heavy and premature rains contribute to a locust infestation in Mali and Niger.

Swarms of locusts encouraged by early rains are breeding in the north of Mali and Niger, bringing a second generation of insects that could increase 250 fold by the end of this summer and put the livelihoods of up to 50 million people in the region at risk.
The new generation is expected to spread from rebel-held northern regions of the two West African states, where pest control is difficult, to neighbouring countries.
The locusts migrated to Mali and Niger in June from Algeria and Libya, and rains that began in the region in May, almost two months earlier than usual, are helping spawn a fresh lot of desert locusts whose numbers are expected to significantly increase by October.

The United Nations now predicts that this year, too, will see a locust invasion. For a primer on locusts, see here.

As these problems recur on an annual basis, they became chronic if not permanent. And the untreated human toll from one year – the displaced, the hungry, the sick – exacerbates the toll from the next.

In Niger, a Divided Unity Government

On August 13, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou authorized a cabinet reshuffle in order to create a government of national unity. The new cabinet comprised thirty-seven ministers, up from twenty-six, and dismissed ten members while bringing on eighteen. Jeune Afrique (French) profiled Issoufou’s first cabinet here.

The unity cabinet includes members of opposition parties, but Issoufou retained key officials such as Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed, and Defense Minister Karidjo Mahamadou. One source reports, “Among the prominent opposition leaders who joined the government are Albadé Abouba, who becomes senior minister assigned to the President’s office, Wassalké Boukary as minister of Water and the vociferous Alma Oumarou, now minister of Trade.” An official list of the new cabinet members can be found here (French). The government’s formation, in Issoufou’s words, responds to heightened regional and domestic insecurity, especially the crisis in neighboring Mali and the bombings of May 23 in northern Niger.

Division appeared swiftly. On August 17, seven ministers from the Nigerien Democratic Movement (French: Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien, or MODEN), a party allied with the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French: Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme, PNDS) suspended their participation in the government, complaining that their party had received sub-optimal posts. Six posts (French) remain in the hands of new cabinet members from the opposition. On August 23, MODEN announced its withdrawal from the entire governing coalition, called the Movement for the Renaissance of Niger (MRN). In the wake of these disruptions, Issoufou on August 26 (French) gave some ministers additional portfolios and made several new appointments. What long-term effect MODEN’s withdrawal will have on Issoufou’s government I cannot predict, but in the short term the partial collapse of the unity government is a defeat for the president.

On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Niger Has Received at Least Four Streams of Refugees Since 2011

Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that some 6,000 refugees have arrived to Niger from Nigeria, fleeing the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram. Reuters provides additional context.

Refugees from Nigeria add to existing and recent refugee influxes into Niger. I can count four major streams since 2011:

  1. Refugees from the 2011 post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.
  2. Refugees from the Libyan civil war of 2011. In May 2011 AFP put the combined total of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and Libya at 93,000. Some 60,000 of these were probably from Libya – more here. The final total from Libya, given that the war lasted for months after May, was undoubtedly higher. It is difficult to know how many of these refugees have been successfully resettled, but I would imagine many of them continue to live in precarious conditions.
  3. Refugees from the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, whom UNHCR counts at 50,000-60,000.
  4. Refugees from northeastern Nigeria.

Throughout the crisis in Niger’s neighbor Mali, it has often been tempting – including for me – to examine Niger’s “success.” More accurate than calling Mali a failure and Niger a success would be to say that Niger faces its own problems and vulnerabilities, including refugee streams from multiple other countries in the region, and limited resources to give those people.

Niger and Libya on the Recent Bombings

(Somehow I goofed and didn’t post this on May 28th, the day I wrote it. It’s still relevant, so I thought I would post it today. – Alex)

Following the May 23 bombings in northern Niger, the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, charged that the attackers had come from southern Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan denied this claim.

I do not know who is right. But Issoufou and Zeidan’s statements interest me in large part because of the views they reflect on what post-Qaddhafi Libya has become.

Issoufou:

Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel…I had already warned from the beginning of the Libyan crisis…that it was necessary to avoid solutions after Kadhafi’s defeat that would be even worse, and I had said that if the Libyan state turned into a Somalia or fell into the hands of fundamentalists, the solution would be worse…Today the situation is very difficult, the Libyan authorities are doing their best to control it, but the fact is, Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel.

It’s noteworthy that Issoufou frames the problem as a regional one and not just as an issue for Libya and Niger.

Zeidan:

It was Gaddafi who exported terrorism…The new Libya will not tolerate that.

Issoufou depicts the bombings as the work of foreigners, Zeidan depicts Libya’s problems as being the fault of Qaddhafi.

Libya and Niger have had some tension since Qaddhafi’s fall. Niger was relatively slow to recognize the new Libyan government, and the two countries have not reached an agreement on the extradition of Qaddhafi family members and lieutenants from Niger back to Libya (Zeidan raised this issue again at his press conference). Issoufou calling Libya a “source of destabilization” is strong language, and suggests that he (and possibly other Sahelian leaders) are deeply unhappy with their northern neighbor’s trajectory. Issoufou’s concerns about Libya, in other words, go well beyond the latest bombing.

On the Prison Attack in Niger

On June 1, violence occurred at a prison in Niamey, Niger. Initial, and partly conflicting, reports suggested that the violence came either from inmates or from external attackers, but the consensus now seems to be that inmates were responsible. Perhaps three or four inmates held on terrorism charges attacked guards at the prison, some reports say. AP has reported that 22 prisoners escaped during the incident.

While some news outlets initially blamed the Mali-centric Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) for the attack, suspicion now centers on the Nigeria-centric Boko Haram sect. Some accounts implicate both Boko Haram and the Islamist coalition that controlled parts of northern Mali in 2012-early 2013; one of the escapees, AP reported, was a member of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

If we assume that Boko Haram was involved, there are three basic points I would make:

  1. Reports of Boko Haram operating in Niger are not unprecedented. News outlets have in the past reported suspicions of Boko Haram activity in Niger, such as the arrest of suspected Boko Haram members in Diffa, Niger in early 2012. Some analysts have posited an increasing presence of Boko Haram in Niger.
  2. As always, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully. A moment like the present, when conflicting theories and reported information are swirling, reminds us that the story that gels later – “Boko Haram attacked a prison in Niger to free AQIM members” – can mask ambiguities and uncertainties about what really happened in a given incident. 
  3. Prison breaks have been an important part of Boko Haram’s approach inside Nigeria. The attacks serve to free imprisoned sect members, but also possibly as an opportunity to recruit other convicts. A prison break near Cameroon in March of this year underscored the possibility that Boko Haram might employ this tactic in Nigeria’s neighbors. As we strive to discern what really happened in Niamey, the past pattern of prison breaks in Nigeria casts its shadow over this incident – and highlights the cycles of violence that may take hold when Boko Haram perceives itself as a victim of state authorities, be they Nigerian or non-Nigerian.

Regional Interconnections and Conflict in the Sahel

I am curious to hear readers’ reactions to two pieces that have appeared in recent weeks. These pieces, inspired by the recent bombings in Niger, treat interconnections between crises in different Northwest African countries, specifically Libya, Mali, and Niger.

  • AFP: “With its weak government, porous borders and proliferation of weapons, Libya has been accused of destabilising its southern neighbours, but analysts say it is wrong to point the finger at Tripoli alone. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has said those behind two suicide attacks in his country on May 23 came from southern Libya. He also said the same groups had been planning another attack on Chad…Western diplomats and analysts believe that southern Libya has become a regrouping area for jihadist groups pushed out of northern Mali by a French-led offensive launched in January.”
  • Similarly, from Reuters: “Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come. Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert. Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.”

Analyses of such interconnections are important. Just as I think the civil war in Libya played some part in intensifying the ongoing crisis in Mali, I think the fallout from war in Mali has been one key motivation for (or, at the very least, a rhetorical image invoked by) jihadist movements attacking Algeria and Niger in the first half of this year. Indeed, I would like to see deeper reflection about the unanticipated consequences of external military and political interventions in this part of the world (and in general). At the same time, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully, to preserve awareness of how localities differ from one another even amid regional interactions, and to minimize analogical thinking (i.e., understanding one place by comparing it with another).

What do you think?

Bombings in Northern Niger

Two bombings occurred this morning in northern Niger, one at a military barracks in Agadez (map) and another in Arlit (map), at a uranium mine operated by Somaïr, a subsidiary of the French firm Areva. At least nineteen casualties (and fifty wounded) have been reported so far, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has claimed responsibility (French). MUJWA was a key member of the Islamist coalition that controlled much of northern Mali from summer 2012 to January 2013. A MUJWA member also reportedly holds four soldiers hostage.

AFP quotes a MUJWA spokesman on their motivations:

“Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger,” MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui told AFP.
“We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against sharia (Islamic law).”

The BBC adds that the latter statement is “thought to be a reference to French and Nigerien involvement in combating Islamists in neighbouring Mali.”

More from the BBC’s Thomas Fessy:

There is little doubt that these two attacks are evidence of a spill-over from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. However, although Niger shares a border with Mali, the attackers are more likely to have come through southern Libya, given the location of their targets in the country’s far north. This could confirm suspicions that fighters linked to al-Qaeda had been on the move in the area.

But this would also be the bloodiest attack carried out since the French started their military campaign in Mali this year…Militants have just shown how determined they are to strike across the region.

The attacks in Niger will heighten concerns about security throughout the Sahel, including the security of multinational companies’ facilities. The attacks in Niger also highlight the unpredictability that the crisis in Mali and the French/African intervention have generated; it merits reflection that the intervention aimed in part to prevent exactly these kind of events. The governments of the region are struggling to deal with the fallout of the crisis and the intervention, and I think it is likely that there will be more bombings in the Sahel in the coming months.

RFI (French) and Jeune Afrique (French) are providing live updates on the situation in Niger.

Information on Niger’s Food Crisis

Via Reuters, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (view the latest Niger report here, in French .pdf – I could not find the English version) says that around 800,000 people in Niger will need food aid between now and the summer. Niger faces cyclical food crises – famines in 2005 and 2011 were particularly bad – meaning that the challenges are both short- and long-term. This year, elevated cereals prices and Malian refugees are contributing to the crisis. From Reuters:

[OCHA] cited problems with supplying food to markets in some areas, such as the northern mining regixon of Arlit and Tahoua in central Niger and Tillabery in the west, which had driven up cereals prices.

Recurrent shortages in recent years have forced pastoralists to sell livestock, including valuable young females normally kept for breeding, reducing their resistance to food shocks.

The presence of some 60,000 refugees from Mali – where a French-led international mission has battled Islamist rebels since January – has exacerbated the food shortages in Tillabery [map] and Tahoua [map], OCHA has said.

The Famine Early Warning System Network’s Food Security Outlook (.pdf) for Niger gives further detail on the rise in cereals prices. From p. 1:

Increasing millet and maize prices, already well above average in April, will overshoot seasonal norms between now and the height of the lean season and the end of
Ramadan in late August due to market disruptions
triggered by last year’s floods in Nigeria. Central and
Eastern Niger will be most affected.

P. 7 of FEWS Net’s outlook, which lists factors that could affect food security, is worth reading. Notably, they list the elections in Mali (scheduled for July) and conflict in Nigeria as possible risks.

The World Food Programme has more (.pdf). An important paragraph from p. 2:

Close monitoring of food markets and the food security situation is necessary. There are indications of recent decreases in the terms of trade of pastoralists. In March, the terms of trade between goat and millet reached alert levels with a goat trading for much less than 100 kg of millet, a threshold indicative of inadequate purchasing power for pastoralists.

Available casual labour opportunities and incomes
generated by cash crops (horticulture and onions) so
far contain the deterioration of the purchasing power
among other livelihood groups. As the lean season
reaches its peak in July-September, further increases
in cereal prices will reduce vulnerable households’
economic access to food.

As far as the solutions that Niger and various aid agencies are seeking, readers may find the following resources helpful:

  • IRIN on President Mahamadou Issoufou’s $2 billion Nigeriens Feeding Nigeriens initiative.
  • WFP on Norway’s donations.

Portraits of Malian Refugee Camps in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso

Alongside armed conflict in northern Mali, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing a refugee crisis. I keep bringing this up in an effort to ensure that the scale of the crisis will not be ignored. UNHCR’s country pages for Mali and Mauritania show that massive numbers of people have been displaced: over 200,000 inside Mali, 70,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Those numbers are all expected to rise by year’s end, to a total of approximately 540,000.

A few portraits from camps:

Niger:

The Mangaïze camp was officially created in May, following an influx of a large number of Malian families fleeing to Niger, said Idrissa Abou, a member of Niger’s National Commission for Refugees.
Besides a monthly food ration, refugees have access to drinking water from three small boreholes and primary health care. There are sanitation facilities with 250 showers and toilets, and a household waste management system. Refugees also have access to administrative services, a school and, with the opening of a police station, a security service.

“At the moment, there are 1,522 families, which amounts to a population of 6,037 mainly made up of Malian refugees, but there are also Nigerien returnees,” Abou told IPS, adding that an overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Ménaka, the closest Malian town to the Ouallam municipality in south-western Niger. He added that the numbers in the camp had increased in February after some 1,700 refugees from the nearby Bani Bangou camp were transferred to Mangaïze.

Mauritania:

Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

And France24 has a video report from Burkina Faso here.