Armed Drones in Niger Wouldn’t Be My Recommendation

AP:

The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

“In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I do not favor the use of armed drones or policies of assassination in the Sahel (or anywhere, really). I understand the main argument for their use, I think – namely, the idea that killing key bad guys will make a bad situation less bad. But evidence from elsewhere seems to suggest that things often don’t go that way. For example, much has been written in a critical vein about the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. To take one critic’s comments, here is Jillian Schwedler, from 2015, discussing Yemen:

I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.

[…]

The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of interactions playing out in the Sahel – strikes that feed both anti-Americanism and contempt/mistrust for national states that willingly cede their already limited sovereignty.

I also question whether it’s really worth it to kill the top guys, especially the smart ones. Is it better to have a smart enemy, or a dumb one? It might seem intuitive that it’s better to fight a dumb guy, but dumb guys can be vicious and impetuous and if they sometimes act against their own long-term interests, their vicious and short-sighted moves can nevertheless make everything worse for everyone, including you. Then, too, dumb guys can be hard to talk to when it eventually comes time for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Dumb guys also sometimes have a harder time holding coalitions together, so maybe that means when the dumb guy takes over from the smart guy, before too long you’re dealing not just with one smart guy but with the new dumb guy and with a couple of other guys (smart and dumb!) who didn’t want to take orders from the new dumb guy. Does that make your life better or worse? Or maybe you never get the top guy, because his whole life now turns into hiding from you and bragging about how you can’t get him, so now you content yourself with killing second-tier figures, but somehow guys keep signing up for that role. And then all of a sudden you’re killing quite a few people, and you make mistakes and kill a lot of civilians, and then you find yourself in something like the situation that Schwedler describes above, with broad swaths of the civilian population turning against both you and your “partner” governments.

So my two cents is, don’t start the cycle in the Sahel. And if you’ve started, stop it now.

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Niger: States of Emergency Extended in Diffa, Tahoua, Tillabéry

In Niger, the cabinet met yesterday and issued its communiqué (French). Two notable, though unsurprising, items include the extension of the state of emergency covering Diffa and the partial state of emergency covering two departments in Tahoua ((Tassara and Tillia) and five departments in Tillbéry (Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala, and Banibangou). For context, here is a map of Niger’s regions.

The state of emergency in Diffa has been in effect since February 2015 and primarily reflects insecurity stemming from Boko Haram. Diffa suffered a suicide bombing earlier this month. The state of emergency in Tahoua and Tillabéry has been in effect since March 2017 and primarily reflects spillover from jihadist violence Mali, as well as a growing conflict matrix (militia-based, ethnic-based, and jihadist, to put it a bit reductively) that increasingly implicates certain border communities as well. Both states of emergency must be renewed every three months, so this renewal is essentially a routine measure, extending the states of emergency through mid-September.

[Note: no post tomorrow, given the likely Eid al-Fitr holiday.]

A Quick Note on Banditry and Counterterrorism in Niger

RFI (French) reports that over the weekend, Nigerien soldiers in the northeast of their country clashed with armed Chadian bandits. The bandits reportedly fled toward the Nigerien border.

The incident reminds me of a quote (French) I’ve come back to again and again, from Mohamed Anacko, president of Agadez’s regional council. This came in the context of discussing France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism program, Operation Barkhane, in a 2015 interview:

First of all, I should say that if Barkhane had not been there, the last Nigerien lock would have been forced open during the war in Mali. The national army would not have been able to prevent the terrorists from coming to set up shop in the north. But it is true that from the start, Barkhane suffered from a lack of communication. When you send helicopters and planes into the desert, without having created an information mechanism, you should expect that the populations will see a new form of colonialism in it…The inhabitants do not understand that Barkhane only takes action against certain armed groups. There are gangs, coming from Chad or Sudan for example, that practice looting, particularly since gold panning became important. But Barkhane, because that is not its mission, does not take an interest in them. Neither do the Nigerien security forces, moreover. However, these are the persons who create conditions propitious for the installation of terrorism. The risk is that the population will create militias to defend itself. What’s more, the struggle against terrorism, it’s first of all about intelligence. There must be collaboration with the inhabitants, who know the region. If not, Barkhane will have to content itself with doing tourism in the desert.

Words worth reflecting on.

Niger: On Bazoum and al-Sahrawi

Earlier this week, The Guardian published a report on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) based on an interview with a Nigerien soldier whom ISGS held captive for three months. The whole piece is worth reading, but what stood out to me – more than the soldier’s testimonial – was a passage about an exchange between ISGS leader Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum:

When Bazoum took the interior minister job, he sent emissaries to ask what [ISGS] wanted.

“I said ‘listen, if you have political claims, or problems with the justice, the administration, the state, then tell me’,” said the imposing Bazoum, sitting on the sofa in his Niamey office. “We are ready to discuss your problem with you and resolve it. Declare that you’re a rebel front with specific claims on the Nigerien state.”

He said he received a handwritten letter from Sahraoui himself, which said: “No, we have no problem with you; we are waging jihad against Mali.”

According to Bazoum, the letter contained a list of Sahraoui’s comrades in Nigerien jails, whom he wanted released. If they were freed, ISGS promised to shield Niger from attack.

“I freed some of them to show my good will, but I couldn’t free all of them because some were on trial,” Bazoum said.

After that, the communication channel broke down and attacks escalated. Some believe the group’s militants could still be offered an olive branch to demobilise and be reintegrated into Nigerien society. But Bazoum is not among them.

If true, this account points to some patterns that American officials and analysts are often unwilling to acknowledge: national governments sometimes communicate with jihadists on a non-hostile basis and cut, or attempt to cut, deals with them. And jihadists are sometimes willing to talk, and even to deal a bit.

I’ve been working on some pieces that touch on how different Nigerien officials’ understanding of Sahelian jihadism is from American officials’ understanding of it; here is yet another instance of that divergence.

Think Bazoum was being naive? The guy’s been around the block more than once. And you might play your cards similarly if you held the hand he does.

Niger: Two Local Critics Address Structural Issues

Two articles on Niger recently caught my eye. One is Jeune Afrique‘s interview (French) with civil society activist Moussa Tchangari (or Tchangary); the other is an article (French) by a professional civil administrator, Soumaila Abdou Sadou. Readers of this blog may be familiar with Tchangari, whose 2015 arrest I briefly covered.

In the recent interview, Tchangari makes some interesting comments about Nigerien democracy, the role of political parties, and the role of civil society. An excerpt:

Tchangari: Power is more and more captured by only one man! [i.e., President Mahamadou Issoufou]

Jeune Afrique: But there are free elections, an opposition?

Tchangari: Niger is still a very superficial democracy, which is not completed. The opposition is struggling, it tries to fight, but the regime tries to divide it.

Jeune Afrique: So the opposition is civil society?

Tchangari: No. We just have a role of vigilance. We are not there to replace the political parties with ourselves, but to propose ideas and to defend human rights.

 

 

Later in the interview, Tchangari rejects the idea that he himself become the head of the opposition. At least for now, he seems keenly interested in a real division of labor between political parties and civil society. At the same time, he alludes to a key problem for opposition parties: ruling regimes (in the Sahel and elsewhere) are often able to divide and rule, offering incentives to some opposition members while marginalizing others.

Abdou Sadou, for his part, directs criticism at the senior bureaucrats of the Nigerien state. An excerpt:

The “affairism” [one might translate this as “greed” or “commercialization,” but there is also a sense of turning one’s bureaucratic post into a business] of the agents of the state is piercing. In fact, these many affairist bureaucrats spend more time outside their offices for the attentive monitoring of their own affairs, instead of devoting themselves to the daily tasks of administration. Public service has henceforth become the site par excellence of affairism. The site most favorable for making his business grow with free capital.

In serving the state, many bureaucrats have become excessively rich, an ostentatious wealth that they do not even bother to camouflage, feeling certain of the cover and understanding of politicians.

Abdou Sadou’s critique is somewhat generic – there is little in the piece that is specific to Niger – but reading the two pieces together, it’s clear that some Nigerien intellectuals and activists are profoundly unhappy with the political direction of the country. Their criticisms go beyond electoral politics or a criticism of the Issoufou administration specifically, and extend to structural issues: the unequal relationship between government and opposition parties, and the vulnerability of public offices to private manipulation.

IRIN on Boko Haram’s Impact on Diffa, Niger – and a Few Other Resources

IRIN has a new article, well worth a read, on Boko Haram’s impact on Diffa, southeastern Niger. An excerpt:

In the latest attack on 2 July, the jihadists raided the village of Ngalewa, near Kablewa, killing nine and abducting 37 – all of them young girls and adolescent boys. The gunmen, arriving at night, looted food supplies and rustled cattle, before escaping.

[…]

Diffa Governor Dan Dano Mahamadou Lawaly has ordered the transfer of the 16,500 IDPs in Kablewa to a new camp a few kilometres north of Route National 1, the road running to the Chadian border in the east.

South of the highway is seen as vulnerable to attack by Boko Haram, an insurgency originating in Nigeria but believed to be operating in Niger from largely abandoned islands in Lake Chad.

Boko Haram’s strategy appears to be to grab what supplies it can ahead of the rainy season, when rising water levels will make crossing the Komadugu River – which flows along the southern border with Nigeria – all the harder.

Here are a few additional resources on the situation in Diffa:

Niger: A Quick Look at “Uraniumgate”

In Niger, a complex potential scandal involving uranium sales is unfolding. It is so serious as to have prompted a parliamentary inquiry (French), which began on March 27 and will run for forty-five days.

Here is some of the backstory: In 2011, Hassoumi Massaoudou, then-chief of staff to Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, authorized “a bank transfer…for $320 million from an account belonging to state miner Sopamin to an account controlled by an offshore company called Optima Energy.”

Currently, Massaoudou is Niger’s current finance minister. At a press conference in February, he argued that “his involvement in a series of transactions involving the uranium rights, ending in its sale by Sopamin to French state-owned nuclear company Areva, ultimately earned the state a profit.” You can listen to the press conference here (French), where Massaoudou says that at Areva’s suggestion he engaged in “trading” to make a profit for Niger “for free.” He also says that the gains were deposited in the treasury and spent on expenses, “notably vehicles for the presidential guard.”

Documents showing the transfer first appeared in February in the Nigerien newspaper Le Courrier. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the full newspaper report online; the closest I’ve come is a photograph I found of the print edition, and even that appears to show only part of the article. (If anyone has access to a photograph of the entire story and accompanying documents, please email them to me.) One document (French), signed by Sopamin’s director at the time, may contradict Massaoudou’s account by showing that the transfer was not connected to trading but to uranium sales.

So to make things a bit clearer, here are some of the key players:

  • Massaoudou
  • Issoufou
  • Sopamin (La Société du patrimoine des mines du Niger, which might be translated as “Niger Mines Assets Firm”), a state-run company with stakes in major uranium and gold mines
  • Sopamin’s former director Hamma Hamadou
  • Sopamin’s current director Hama Zada
  • Optima Energy, a Lebanese firm based in Dubai (but perhaps a branch of a Swiss firm)
  • Areva, a French state-owned firm that operates two major uranium mines in northern Niger
  • Energo Alyans, a Russian distribution company

Jeune Afrique (French), which has reviewed the documents in question, provides a chronology and gives the prices at each step:

  • Areva’s sale to Energo Alyans: $220 million
  • Energo Alyans’ sale to Optima: $302 million on 24 November 2011
  • Optima’s sale to Sopamin: $319.8 million on 25 November 2011
  • Sopamin’s sale to Areva: $320.65 million

As even this quick look shows, the situation is highly complex. The inquiry could prove explosive for Niger, France, and various firms.