Niger has a moment in Washington

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Friday, 3 February 2023 10:52
Niger President Mohamed Bazoum on November 7, 2022. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Niger, a landlocked, French-speaking country of barely 25 million people, with an economy half the size of El Paso’s, wouldn’t normally qualify as a US priority. However, the vast, arid country is having a moment in Washington as a stand-out democracy amid a flurry of military coups that have toppled civilian rule in neighbouring Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Held up as a bulwark against terrorism and Russian influence in the Sahel, Niamey has seen US assistance more than triple over the past six years, while top Joe Biden administration officials have come calling.

This week, The Africa Report caught up with Niger’s new ambassador to the US, Mamadou Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, for the first in an occasional series of interviews with African diplomats in Washington, DC.

An international development economist with three decades of experience, Liman-Tinguiri arrived in Washington last February after a career with the UN and more recently, in the private sector.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Africa Report: Niger saw the first democratic transition in its history two years ago when President Mahamadou Issoufou stepped down after two terms and President Mohamed Bazoum was elected  to replace him. What is your country doing right?

Liman-Tinguiri: From then to now, we are really having democratic governance. What does it include?

Number one, we have competitive elections, many parties that are competing for office.

Number two, freedom of speech and freedom of press; you may write whatever you want, nobody will come to arrest you.

Number three, we have not only separation of powers, we have a judiciary that is independent, and a very practical habeas corpus. We have no political prisoners; everybody who is in jail has been put there by a judge; and of course, you have the legislative process and so on.

I’m not saying that we are Denmark. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m saying we’re building it. We’re doing our best, but I believe that the fundamentals are there.

What are the unique difficulties of governing in a place like the Sahel?

The state is fragile in all our countries. A fragile state means that the state has a really hard time getting the monopoly of the use of force. We face insurgents, we face security threats.

[However,] the biggest source of fragility in countries like ours may be the fiscal capacity. We are not able to tax enough to raise money from our own people to raise revenue for the government to provide basic social services, which makes us very dependent on donors, on external aid. In the case of Sahelian countries, including mine, because of our very rapid population growth, it’s very difficult for us to meet the basic needs of the people.

US aid disbursements to Niger have more than tripled since 2016, from $87 m to $270m in 2022. Are you pushing for any reallocations from troubled countries like Mali and Burkina Faso that have come under US criticism?

Loud and clear, the answer is no. We have no mandate or agenda to advocate for any reallocation of US aid. The allocation of US aid is a sovereign matter. My mandate, and the way we see things in Niger, is that we tell our story, we make known our needs, we improve the policy dialogue with those who are funding our country. […] if we are convincing enough, they might fund more, or they might fund in a direction we feel is best for us.

Much of the aid surge in recent years has come from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which launched a $443m compact to improve agriculture outcomes in 2018. MCC also announced a $500m regional compact – its first ever – with Niger and Benin at the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Can you tell us more about it?

Niger is a landlocked country, and more than half of our international trade goes by the port of Cotonou. If you can easily drive (there) in 24 hours instead of three days, it is a game-changer for us. The cheapest way to run international trade is by sea, so access to a harbour is vital to any landlocked country.

The Joe Biden administration has been keen to promote the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). What is holding back African regional integration?

The most important obstacle to free trade in Africa is not customs [or infrastructure]. Number one is the very nature of the economy. We are not producing things that are demanded in African countries.

When you take the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), there is no custom duty between Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal. We have the same currency. [However], we exchange only 15% within the union, never more than that. That’s because what we need, what we demand, what the consumers demand is not produced in Senegal or in Côte d’Ivoire. What we export is uranium, petrol. Nobody uses uranium in Côte d’Ivoire or Senegal.

Niger is having a moment in Washington right now. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s fourth highest-ranking official, has visited twice and praised Niger as a model of democracy and a key player for stability and security in the Sahel. What do you make of this vote of confidence?  

We’re very happy for any recognition of what we do to establish and strengthen democratic rule in our country. Anytime a friend recognises that what you are doing is in the right direction, that helps you to move faster in that direction.

We welcome visits from any US officials, because that’s the way to deepen our relations. [Nuland] may be able to talk to very senior [officials], including the president, so she would know better than through any reports what are really our needs; what is our perspective on our situation; where we feel we need help, [where] we need assistance to go and where we feel we are not understood enough.

Part of the US agenda is to denounce Russia’s influence in Africa, particularly, the role played by the Wagner Group of mercenaries in countries like Mali and the Central African Republic. Where does Niger stand on this issue?

Our position has been clear and consistent. We feel that for the security of the region, state to state cooperation is what we need. We support any [UN] resolution that calls for the end of use of mercenaries. We do not think that that will help the regional situation. [However], we’re not [following] any country’s policy. We respect the independence of our neighbours. They do whatever they want, but our opinion about that is very clear. There is no doubt about where we stand and with whom we stand.

Back in 2021, Niger co-sponsored a Security Council resolution – vetoed by Russia – that would have linked climate change to global insecurity. Is that still a priority?

In Niger, we’re really a textbook case of evidence that climate change can have an impact on security. In countries like mine, one of the rural activities is breeding livestock and the herders are most attracted by jihadism, simply because climate change has such a bad impact on them. Not only have they lost part of their capital, but it has impacted even their way of life. These are people who are breeding cows by moving with them for hundreds of kilometres. They can’t do it anymore.

Niger recently received its third and final C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft from the US. What is the status of military cooperation?

They’re providing us with intelligence. They’re providing us with equipment. They have drones that can gather intelligence we don’t have and that helps us prepare our military operations. They’re training our junior officials and also our special forces on the ground.

President Bazoum was among the dozens of heads of state who attended the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December. What was Niger’s impression of the summit?

We’re really very happy with what is going on [and that] the US is back in international business after the [Donald] Trump era. The very fact that the summit took place is a big message that the US is back to [supporting] African businesses. We talked about a lot of things during the summit. Food insecurity and nutrition is a big issue in African countries and it’s an issue that is aggravated by climate instability [as well as] the Ukrainian crisis, because many African countries are very dependent on wheat from Ukraine. So yes, we are very happy that there is a new dialogue between the US and Africa. For us, it’s one avenue through which we can voice our concerns.

One of those concerns has been Western powers’ growing reluctance to finance fossil fuel projects in Africa in favour of greener forms of energy. Where does Niger stand in this debate given its reliance on oil exports and its environmental vulnerability?

There is a common African position, which we are a part of, when it comes to contributing to a climate sensitive economy. We are open to new growth, while protecting the environment, basically. We do not have that much to mitigate, because we’re not a carbon producer.

We’re open to do anything that will help us adapt to climate change, but we wouldn’t see a scenario where we should refrain from exploiting our natural resources, because we need to develop, so there is a balance to be kept. We will not just stop exploiting oil, because that’s the only way we have to develop.

We’ve talked a lot about the Sahel. To finish, how closely are you watching the elections in next-door Nigeria later this year?

Definitely, Nigeria is vital for us. We wish it to be as fair and transparent as it can be, we wish them a very peaceful transfer of power. The better they do it in a fair and participatory and inclusive and democratic way, the higher is the likelihood for the region to move closer to peace.

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