Of all the Sahelian states, Niger is the only one that must deal with pervasive insecurity on three sides: in the southeast along the border with Nigeria (Boko Haram); in the west (jihadist groups); and in the north (Islamic State and the collapse of the Libyan state).
Yet, apart from the Nigerien islands in Lake Chad, none of the country’s territory has been permanently occupied by the terrorist groups that plague the Sahel – a situation in sharp contrast to the one faced by its western neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso. Why?
Niger’s resilience is largely due to the toughening of its army, which has had to put down various 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 quashed by President Mamadou Tandja.
The Forces Armées Nigériennes thus acquired combat experience that they are now putting to good use against Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (an offshoot of Boko Haram with which it has a violent rivalry), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
These “trials by fire” offered legitimacy and clout to General Salifou Modi, the head of the Nigerien army.
Alone, this would not have been enough. There has also been an unprecedented effort in terms of equipment and training.
For several years, Niger has allocated no less than 15% of its annual budget to security spending.
Nigerien civil society groups – which do not hesitate to call out embezzlement scandals – estimate that nearly 1.7trn CFA francs (more than $2.6bn) have been disbursed over the past 10 years to the security and defence sectors.
Niger’s resilience is also based on an operational defence strategy, bringing together the national army and internal security forces: the national guard, the national gendarmerie and the national police as well as other paramilitary forces.
The result is that despite its immense surface area – with 490,000 square miles, Niger is the largest country in West Africa – Niger has a solid defence and security network.
On its south-eastern border with Nigeria, the country boasts a large network of mobile and static forward operating posts that make its powerful neighbour jealous.
Eager to consolidate the achievements of the Mahamadou Issoufou era while also adapting to evolving threats, President Mohamed Bazoum has broken the taboo of dialogue between the Nigerien state and jihadists. This idea had been dismissed out of hand during his predecessor’s two mandates.
In February, Bazoum said he had ordered the release of some jihadists held in the high-security prison of Koutoukalé, 50km (30 miles) northwest of the capital, Niamey.
He also said the state had contacted the parents of some young people involved in terrorist groups, framing the two initiatives as an attempt to explore non-military solutions.
The president has also decided to convince internally displaced people (IDPs) in the southeast region of Diffa, bordering Nigeria, and the northwest regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua to return to their villages, thwarting the terrorist groups’ agenda of territorial annexation.
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.
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.
The next step, however, may prove harder: enhancing security cooperation with Niger’s troubled neighbour, Mali.
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