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.

Anti-Corruption Efforts in Niger

As the crisis in Mali has unfolded, one reads periodic warnings in the press and the policy sphere that violence and instability could spill over into Niger. Meanwhile, analysts and scholars continue to examine the fall of former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré’s government; many have identified regime corruption as a key factor in undermining the regime’s legitimacy and preparing the ground for its collapse. Given these two trends – concern about Niger, and analysis of corruption in Mali – it is important to track anti-corruption efforts in Niger.

In July 2011 (French), shortly after Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou took office, his government created a High Authority for Fighting Corruption. Issoufou has stated that combating corruption is one of his top priorities. The High Authority has investigated allegations of misappropriation of funds during the regime of the country’s last civilian president, Mamadou Tandja. This body’s mission, as its President Issoufou Boureima explained in a December 2012 interview (French), is to identify and correct financial abuses in different sectors of government. The High Authority has experienced some turmoil; in May 2012 (French), its Vice President Mahamane Hamissou Moumouni resigned after protesting “opacity” in the institution’s management of resources.

All this is a preface to mentioning a story that a reader recently told me about. In February (French), Nigerien authorities (the article I found does not mention whether these officials came from the High Authority or not) arrested some twenty doctors on charges of embezzling funds at the NGO GAVI Alliance. The Alliance has reportedly suspended its programs in Niger. The Alliance’s website is here.

This story reminded me a little of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria’s decision to suspend several aid programs in Mali in March 2011 over concerns about corruption. This affair led to the June 2011 arrest of former Health Minister Ibrahim Oumar Toure.

I am not saying that the arrest of the doctors in Niger means that Niger is following Mali’s path. The paths of the two countries are different. But the story does highlight the fact that corruption can have far-reaching consequences, including undermining the confidence of external donors. How Niger handles cases like these will shape how domestic and foreign actors view the country and its government.

A Cross-Border Educational Venture in Nigeria/Niger

Daily Trust:

Kano State governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso said at the weekend that the state government is building a mega secondary school in Niger Republic to boast industrialization.

[…]

“We have so far built 400 houses for teachers in junior secondary schools, especially the [ones] outside the city of Kano to encourage them. As we are sitting here today (Saturday) the deputy governor is in Niger laying the foundation of the mega secondary school which we intend to run together with the government of Niger Republic, and our children who will go there will be trained in French so that when they graduate, they will stay there and complete their degree courses or go to other French speaking countries to do other programmes,” he said.

As the article and others detail, this initiative is part of a broader agenda on the governor’s part to strengthen education in Kano State. But the cross-border aspect of the school is particularly interesting to me. I have four initial reactions that may prove more or less relevant when and if more information emerges about the school:

  1. Assuming the school will be located in southern Niger (in Zinder or Maradi, perhaps?), this initiative could reinforce the shared Hausa cultural and linguistic zone that transcends the border. As William F.S. Miles’ Hausaland Divided shows, the border and the colonial legacies it reflects have separated Hausa in Niger and Nigeria in profound ways. Yet Nigerien and Nigerian Hausa communities have also remained tied to each other through migration, trade, religion, marriage, and, in this context, education and politics. It is significant to me that this partnership is not between Niger and Nigeria per se, but between a particular Nigerian governor and the government of Niger.
  2. The school’s emphasis on French is noteworthy. As Kwankwaso suggests, graduates of the school could work not only in Niger and Nigeria, but also throughout West Africa. More schools like these could strengthen regional integration efforts from the bottom up, by producing skilled workers capable of moving throughout the whole region.
  3. Is the school partly meant to retrain itinerant Qur’anic students? Various states in northern Nigeria have experimented with different models for absorbing these students into government-run schools, partly due to a fear that such boys and young men might otherwise become targets for recruitment by radical groups. Some in northern Nigeria also complain that many Qur’anic students are not Nigerian at all, but rather come from Niger, Chad, and elsewhere. Does the school represent an effort to train some of Kano’s Qur’anic students while simultaneously repatriating some of the students who come to northern Nigeria from Niger?
  4. Does some of the funding come from Niger’s oil profits? I have heard the complaint that despite Nigeria’s oil wealth, northern Nigerian localities sometimes import fuel from Niger. Perhaps this school represents an attempt by a northern Nigerian governor to benefit from Niger’s (mini) oil boom.

Plans for US Surveillance Drones in Niger

News outlets reported this week that the government of Niger has given the United States permission to base surveillance drones there. Reuters:

The U.S. ambassador to Niger, Bisa Williams, made the request at a meeting on Monday with President Mahamadou Issoufou, who immediately accepted it, [a government] source said.

“Niger has given the green light to accepting American surveillance drones on its soil to improve the collection of intelligence on Islamist movements,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.

The drones could be stationed in Niger’s northern desert region of Agadez, which borders Mali, Algeria and Libya, the source said.

The crisis in Mali seems to be one major factor in generating US interest in having a base in Niger.

More here from the AP, which says the agreement came “after months of negotiations.”

This passage from Stars and Stripes offers further insight into why the US military chose Niger:

U.S. officials have announced no details about basing plans in Niger, but acknowledge the ability to operate out of the country, which is developing increasingly close diplomatic and defense ties with the United States, would place military assets close to many hot spots.

“Just consider the neighborhood,” a U.S. military official speaking on the condition of anonymity said. “Libya to the north, where there’s been instability. Nigeria, and [Islamist militant group] Boko Haram directly south. Algeria, where there was just an attack, and Mali to the west.”

Establishing a base for drones in Niger would add to existing US military infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. The Washington Post reported last June on a “a network of [approximately one dozen] small air bases” that the US military had set up in Africa since 2007, with Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou constituting a “key hub” in this network. The Stars and Stripes article mentioned above quotes Dr. Peter Pham as saying that alleged complications surrounding the base in Burkina Faso may have limited US capacity to operate drones in and around Mali:

Insufficient infrastructure in western Africa could be one reason the U.S. is not engaged in drone strikes in places such as northern Mali, according to some experts.

[…]

“Part of this probably is linked to the reported withdrawal of country clearance by the embassy in Bamako for manned surveillance flights from the formerly clandestine program in Burkina Faso,” said the Atlantic Council’s Pham. “And yet another part might indeed be the reluctance of potential partners to allow operations from their territory after the way the program in Burkina Faso was exposed.”

Despite having some infrastructure in place in Africa, then, US military planners seem to be looking for greater flexibility and capacity.

US military cooperation with Niger is not new. Niger participated in the Pan Sahel Initiative, a counterterrorism program led by the State Department from 2002 to 2005 that included Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Chad. Niger also participates in the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, a US government interagency program (State, Defense, USAID) that replaced and expanded the Pan Sahel Initiative. Niger receives assistance under the International Military Education and Training program as well.

For an official perspective on US-Nigerien relations, see here, and AFRICOM’s Niger page is here. I have not yet found much in the way of Nigerien reactions to the news, but President Issoufou’s site has a brief note (French) on his meeting with the American Ambassador, while a Nigerien news site has a story, seemingly based largely on information reported in the international media, here (French).

What do you think of this news? What are the possible benefits and risks?

Niger-Libya: Another Round of Struggle over Extraditing Saadi Qaddhafi

During his reign, Colonel Muammar Qaddhafi of Libya exercised substantial influence over neighboring Niger. Niger has working relations with the new Libyan government, but the presence of the Colonel’s son Saadi in Niger since September 2011 has been a source of dispute. Saadi Qaddhafi is not the only prominent Libyan in Niger – as of October 2011, “at least 32 Libyans, including three generals, had sought refuge in Niger.” Niger’s government has given permission for Libyan authorities to question the Colonel’s son – but has refused several demands to extradite him to Libya. Mauritania’s government was in a similar position for a time, as Libyan officials sought to extradite Col. Qaddhafi’s former intelligence chief Abdullah al Senussi. Mauritania handed Senussi over to Libya in September of this year.

This week, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan visited Niger and again asked for the extradition of Saadi Qaddhafi and others. Uganda’s Daily Monitor reports that Niger has refused the request. That article contains a brief description of Qaddhafi’s life in Niger, writing that he remains under house arrest and that “it is alleged that the Niger authorities have also curtailed his access to communication gadgets as well as receiving guests due to his open criticism against the host government for restricting his movement.” Earlier reports had given a much different picture of his lifestyle in exile, suggesting that his “house arrest” involved a great deal of freedom. In September, one his lawyers told the press that Niger had given him the freedom to travel, despite a United Nations travel ban against him. Given these different reports it is hard to tell what restrictions Saadi Qaddhafi does or does not face.

I could not find the Libyan Prime Minister’s statement requesting Qaddhafi’s extradition, but Arabic readers may be interested in:

  • the PM’s office’s statement after his trip to Niger, which emphasizes themes of cooperation against terrorism and touches on the situation in Mali, and
  • his office’s approvingly worded statement concerning remarks Chadian President Idriss Deby made on Chadian-Libyan relations during the PM’s stop in Chad (after his visit to Niger).