Sahel: What’s the secret to Niger’s security resilience?

Seidik Abba
By Seidik Abba

Journalist, author, and political analyst on African news

Posted on Thursday, 30 June 2022 14:29

Nigerien Armed Forces (FAN) on patrol near Ouallam, in the Tillabéri region, July 6, 2021. ©Media Coulibaly/REUTERS

Faced with a jihadist threat on all its borders, Niger has so far managed to prevent terrorist groups from settling in its territory. How and through what means? Here’s our analysis.

“Consolidate and move ahead”: Mohamed Bazoum’s campaign slogan has found its incarnation in the approach to Niger’s security and the fight against terrorism. When he took over from his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou on 2 April 2021, the Nigerien president inherited a country that has shown surprising resilience in the face of exceptional threats in the Sahel.

Of all its immediate neighbours, indeed of all the Sahelian states, Niger is the only one that has to deal with pervasive insecurity on three borders: in the south-east with Nigeria (Boko Haram), the north-west with Burkina and Mali (jihadist groups) and in the north with Libya (Islamic State and the collapse of the Libyan state).

And yet, with the exception of the Nigerian islands in Lake Chad, none of the country’s territory is permanently occupied by the terrorist groups that plague the Sahel. A situation in sharp contrast to the one faced by its Burkinabe and Malian neighbours.

‘Trials by fire’

Niger’s resilience comes, in particular, from the toughening of its army forged by numerous rebellions, including one from 1991 to 1995 that came to an end with the signing of the Ouagadougou peace agreement (24 April 1995) and the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice – MNJ – (Movement of Nigeriens for Justice) rebellion, launched in 2007 and put down by President Mamadou Tandja.

In the face of these tests, the Nigerien Armed Forces (FAN) have acquired combat experience that they put to good use today against Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP, an offshoot of Boko Haram with which it has a violent rivalry), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin – JNIM – (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

These “trials by fire” offered legitimacy and a positive reputation to General Salifou Modi, the head of the Nigerien army, who was urgently recalled in January 2020 to take over a body that had just suffered the biggest setback in its history at Chinegodar, near the border with Mali, during a terrorist attack that killed nearly 90 people in its ranks.

For several years, Niger has allocated 15% of its budget to military and security spending

However, the toughening of the troops would not have been enough if that move had not been supported by an unprecedented effort in terms of equipment and training. For several years, Niger has allocated no less than 15% of its annual budget to military and security spending. According to accounting by Nigerien civil society – which does not hesitate to call out embezzlement scandals – nearly 1.7trn CFA francs (more than $2.6bn) have been disbursed over the past ten years to the security and defence sector.

Niger’s resilience is also based on an operational defence strategy, which brings together the national army and internal security forces: the national guard, the national gendarmerie and the national police as well as other paramilitary forces (water and forests, customs, etc.).

Niger boasts a large network of forward operating posts that make its neighbour Nigeria jealous

The result is that despite its immense surface area (1.267 million square kilometres), which makes it the largest country in West Africa, Niger has a good defence and security network. On its south-eastern border with Nigeria, the country even boasts a large network of mobile and static forward operating posts that make its powerful neighbour jealous.

The end of a taboo

Eager to consolidate the achievements of the Issoufou era but, above all, to adapt his country’s response to evolving threats, President Mohamed Bazoum – who, however, denies any break with his mentor – has broken the taboo of dialogue between the Nigerien state and jihadists. This hypothesis had always been dismissed out of hand during his predecessor’s two mandates.

During a meeting with national officials last February, the Nigerien head of state indicated that he had ordered the release of some jihadists held in the high-security prison of Koutoukalé, 50km northwest of Niamey. He also said the state had contacted the parents of some young people involved in terrorist groups, stating that these two initiatives were part of his desire to explore non-military solutions.

The new president has also decided to convince internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region of Diffa (south-east, bordering Nigeria) and the regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua (north-west) to return to their villages.

Provided that the state makes every effort, the strategy of returning IDPs could quickly bear fruit: it restores dignity to populations reduced to humanitarian assistance and thwarts the terrorist groups’ agenda of territorial annexation.

The hazard of cooperation with Mali

Taken together, the paradigm shift and new equipment efforts, including the acquisition of Bayraktar TB2 drones and Turkish Hürkus reconnaissance aircraft, should enable Niger to maintain its security resilience. However, national efforts will not be enough to contain the threat unless they are combined with the search for cooperation with neighbouring states, particularly Mali, from where terrorism was exported to Niger and Burkina Faso before arriving at the gates of the Gulf of Guinea today.

The hope of constructing a common response with its Malian neighbour has become remote since the May 2021 coup d’état in Bamako, where a military junta has taken the risky gamble of enlisting the services of Russian private security company Wagner.

It is no secret that Mohamed Bazoum and Assimi Goïta have a bad relationship. By withdrawing from the G5 Sahel – a West African framework for regional cooperation on security and development that includes Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Chad – Mali is making it impossible to develop a regional strategy to respond to the security threat, particularly in the tri-border area. The solution to insecurity in the Sahel will either be or not be regional.

Niger’s resilience cannot be sustained without a shared effort with its Malian neighbour.

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The author’s latest work is “Mali-Sahel, notre Afghanistan à nous ?” (“Mali-Sahel, our own Afghanistan?”) Published by Impacts éditions, 150 pages, €15

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