Niger’s Regional Role in the Sahel and Sahara Regions: Essentials, Challenges and Future

Ahmed Askar | 08 Sep 2020

Niger has been the subject of considerable regional and international attention, given its prominent role in the war on terror in the Sahel, the Sahara, and West Africa. Niger occupies a geostrategic position, which is affected by the crises in neighboring States, such as Libya, and in the wider region. The army is also involved in regional and international efforts to combat terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, with the aim of restoring regional security and stability.

Niger therefore has all the ingredients required to make it a reliable partner and essential ally in the region for the major powers, especially with regard to combatting terrorism in the Sahel and the Sahara, given the international scramble to intervene in the region. Despite its relatively weak capabilities and the challenges that will have to be overcome, Niger may find itself with a significant role to place in the region in upcoming months that will strengthen its position in the Sahel and the Sahara.

Niger’s strategic importance

  • Niger’s strategically important location has garnered the attention of the international powers, especially with regard to the war on terror. Niger has become an increasingly important strategic security partner for the USA in the region. Niger borders Nigeria in the south, Benin in the southwest, Mali and Burkina Faso in the west, Libya and Algeria in the north, and Chad in the east, thereby linking North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.[1]
  • Niger also has a geopolitical importance, as it is located in the coastal desert strip at the crossroads between the unstable regions of North Africa, the Sahel, the Sahara, and the Lake Chad Basin. This location is a double-edged sword, however; while Niger is connected to vast swathes of the continent and is a corridor for trade and transport between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, it is also surrounded by intense conflict and by insecurity caused by the spread of terrorist and extremist organizations throughout neighboring countries.
  • Niger has been an historic gateway for migrants between sub-Saharan Africa and north Africa, and more recently is has become a transit point for migrants seeking to reach Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean.[2] Some 75% of African migrants destined for Europe take this route.[3] Many terrorist elements have taken advantage of Niger’s geopolitical importance to launch attacks and increase their activities against government forces, neighboring States, and international interests in the Sahel and the Sahara.
  • Niger is surrounded by countries in the midst of security crises, and is itself involved in the armed conflict in West Africa – a conflict that poses a threat to the regional interests of the international powers. Nonetheless, Niger is considered to be an international hub, and the international powers active in combating terrorism and preventing illegal migration in the region rely on Niger’s cooperation. Many military bases have therefore been established throughout the country, such as the US air base in Agadez, and the French military base established with the aim of limiting the activities of Al-Qaida and Islamic State elements and restoring stability and security to the region.
  • As a regional player, Niger has been involved in counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel and the Sahara in recent years, especially in the Lake Chad Basin and Mali. Although terrorist organizations active in the region are not based in the country, Niger is one of the areas most affected by terrorist activity and by deteriorating regional security, as terrorist elements have been able to exploit instability to smuggle fighters and weapons from Libya through Niger to countries such as Mali and Nigeria.
  • Niger is also the site of a major power struggle between regional and international powers. The USA and France are engaged in an unspoken competition to expand their influence in the region, as evidenced by the US rush towards Niger and the region. Other powers, such as Russia and China, have also shown an interest.
  • Furthermore, to the international powers Niger represents an important source of essential resources, such as uranium and oil. Uranium exports account for some 72% of all exports from Niger.[4]

Niger’s limitations

  • Niger is a landlocked State, covering a vast geographical area. It has a total area of 1.267 million km2, making it the largest territory in West Africa. The population numbers around 24.2 million.[5] While Niger is considered to be one of the least developed countries in the world, it enjoys relative stability compared to its neighbors, despite being in a region that faces multiple security challenges, including from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, Al‑Qaida, and Islamic State.[6]
  • Niger’s economy is not very diversified and depends primarily on agriculture, which accounts for 40% of GDP, and on the export of some commodities. The government also depends on natural and mineral resources, such as uranium, oil, gold, iron, and coal, for income. Niger relies heavily on foreign investment, which it uses to prop up the national economy. Niger’s GDP is only around $13 billion.[7] In 2019, Niger had a poverty rate of 41.4%, affecting 9.5 million citizens. Poverty rates have increased as standards of living have fallen. Nonetheless, Niger experienced robust economic growth of 6.3% in 2019, as economic activity in the country is driven by essential infrastructure development supported by international donors.[8]
  • Niger ranks 20th in Africa for military power, and 103rd among the 138 countries ranked globally.[9] Niger has 14,200 troops, and has committed around 975 soldiers to various UN missions throughout Africa, as well as some 1,000 soldiers to the Multinational Joint Task Force established to combat Boko Haram. Niger has 16 military aircraft and 182 military vehicles. The budget of the Ministry of Defense is around $325 million.[10] President Issoufou has launched a relatively unprecedented plan to develop the Niger army by allocating up to 17% of the national budget to defense, with the aim of strengthening the country’s military and security capabilities.[11]
  • Niger receives international military cooperation and training to help combat the turbulent situation in the Sahel and Sahara. For example, through the European Union Capacity Building Mission in Niger (EUCAP Sahel Niger), security forces in Niger have received training, advice, and assistance to help strengthen the rule of law and to encourage regional and international cooperation in the Sahel and the Sahara to combat terrorism and organized crime.[12]

Factors determining Niger’s regional and security role

  • Stretching between multiple geographic region, Niger faces most of the same challenges as its neighbors in the Sahel and the Sahara. Its armed forces participate in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as the situation there directly affects Niger’s own stability. Niger also forms part of the Multinational Joint Task Force to combat Boko Haram. In addition, Niger monitors cross-border traffic passing through its northeastern border with Libya, as such traffic has a significant impact on regional stability.[13]
  • Compared to its neighbors, Niger has performed better at managing the region’s interlocking conflicts, as it is coordinating with international partners such as France and the USA in order to eliminate terrorist organizations and end the ongoing violence in the region. Over the past seven years, Niger has actively sought to ensure that the conflict does not spill over into the regions of Tillabéri in the west, Diffa in the east, or Agadez in the north.
  • Niger is a key member of the G5 Sahel, established in January 2015, alongside Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania. It provides support to multilateral security operations in the region, including the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force operating in the Lake Chad Basin.[14]
  • In October 2012, the government of Niger launched a five-year initiative to overcome security and development challenges in the Sahel and the Sahara, and proposed a number of projects to address the root causes of instability and to implement local, national, and regional mechanisms to prevent regional instability and State collapse in the region. The strategy included five main axes, namely enhancing security for goods and people, ensuring access to economic opportunities, guaranteeing the provision of basic services, strengthening local and community governance, and integrating migrants forced to return from Libya, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire. The strategy also includes proposals on law enforcement and for military and security capacity building projects to address the region’s security challenges, especially drug trafficking, terrorism, and border permeability. In 2013, the European Union supported the strategy by providing training and EU funding for security capacity building.[15]
  • In April 2018, Niger hosted Flintlock, an annual military exercise that brought together around 1,900 troops from some 20 countries under US guidance, with the aim of developing cooperation between African security forces and enhancing their ability to protect civilians from terrorism.[16]
  • In January 2020, Niger begun a two-year term on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, having won the vote of 191 of the 193 UN member States. Tunisia and South Africa are also currently non-permanent members. At the time of publication, Niger held the rotating presidency of the Council.[17] In 2020, Niger also assumed the presidency of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, it holds key positions as permanent secretary of the G5 Sahel and commander of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. In 2018, Niger ranked 19th in the list of States that had contributed troops to peacekeeping operations. This multidimensional engagement has enabled Niger to contribute to stability in the Sahel region by building on existing regional and African mechanisms.
  • Niger is hoping to help resolve the Libyan crisis through its role on the Security Council, by calling for the effective implementation of the arms embargo and by fostering the conditions required to allow transparent elections to take place, an essential step towards restoring the legitimate government and achieving peace in Libya.[18]
  • As a key transit point for African migrants destined for Europe, Niger is hugely important to the international community in halting the flow of illegal migration, which continues to pose a serious challenge for European countries.

International vision for Niger’s role in the region

  • Niger is one of the regional pillars of international counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, the Sahara, and West Africa. The international community views Niger as an oasis of relative stability and as essential strategic ally for achieving stability in the Sahel region.[19]
  • The international community also sees Niger as a source of concern, however, not only because of the need to protect its uranium and oil reserves, but also because of the volatile security conditions in most neighboring countries, such as Libya and Mali. While Niger is a worthy ally, it does not have the resources to effectively fight terrorism. Niamey has therefore received significant international support, especially from the USA and France, to defend the country against the spread of terrorism and the threats posed by extremist organizations.[20]
  • The international powers are seeking a foothold in the region, which is rich in natural resources, in particular uranium and oil. According to some reports, Washington plans to meet 20% of its oil needs from sources in the Sahel and the Sahara.[21] Various international powers are also keen to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region, which is detrimental to their own interests.
  • The international powers see Niger as a buffer against the growing influx of illegal African migration across the Mediterranean into Europe, and many States, such as Italy, have increased their cooperation with Niger and have deployed forces in the country to stem the flow of illegal migration.[22] Many international powers, such as France, Germany, and Italy, are also providing financial support to Niger to that end, and have pledged to strengthen their cooperation and economic partnership with Niamey in the coming years. Germany is the third biggest donor to Niger after France and the USA; in 2014, Berlin pledged €62 million over three years to Niger, and in 2015 and 2016 it pledged an additional €30 million.[23] Italy has also allocated more than €100 million to building an integrated partnership with Niger.[24]
  • Some international powers, such as the USA, France, Germany, and Italy, have a heavy military presence in Niger. The US presence in Niger is one of the priorities of US national security operations in the Sahel, with the aim of fighting terrorism and securing US interests in the region. In 2015, Washington signed a security and military cooperation agreement with Niger, pursuant to which the USA has posted 800 soldiers to Niger to conduct various missions, and Niger has allowed US drones to conduct reconnaissance operations in the region. In 2018, at Niamey’s request, the Italian Parliament voted to send 470 soldiers to Niger on a military training mission with the aim of helping to protect Niger’s borders and combating terrorist organizations and organized crime.[25]
  • A number of international powers have also established military bases in Niger with the aim of preventing the flow of armed fighters and weapons through the Sahara, confronting terrorist organizations, and consolidating their influence in the Sahel. Washington has built a military base in Agadez city in northern Niger at a cost of $100 million, as well as several airstrips for reconnaissance drones. France operates two military bases: one in Niamey, which serves as command center for Operation Barkhane aimed at countering terrorism in the Sahel and the Sahara, and the other in norther Niger, which is dedicated to monitoring the movements of terrorist organizations in the region. Meanwhile, some countries are rushing to enhance their influence in the region and to gain a hand in the geostrategic re-engineering of the Sahel in light of current developments; Turkey, for example, has signed a military training cooperation agreement with Niger that paves the way for the establishment of a Turkish military base in the country.

Challenges to Niger’s growing regional role

  • There are fears that political tensions may erupt in Niger, given the upcoming presidential and legislative elections scheduled for December 27, 2020, in particular as disagreements have boiled up between various domestic political parties regarding the provisions of the election law.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has also had negative repercussions on Niger’s economy, owing to the need for increased spending on health and social services, in addition to the decline in international trade and direct foreign investment. The drop in the price of oil may also negatively affect Niger’s economy, making it vulnerable to shocks and fluctuations in global non-oil commodity prices over the coming period.[26]
  • Corruption is rife in Niger, and undermines the State institutions. In 2017, Niger ranked 112th out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Although President Issoufou has made combating corruption a government priority and has established an anti-corruption committee, corruption remains a pressing challenge.[27]
  • Niger is located in the middle of a regional crisis belt, surrounded as it is on all sides by difficult political and security situations. The political challenges in Mali and Libya makes meeting basic needs and maintaining internal security a challenge for the authorities in Niger.[28] Continued conflict in neighboring countries has also drastically increased the influx of refugees into Niger, especially from Nigeria and Mali. In April 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registered 221,671 refugees and 196,717 displaced persons in Niger, in particular in the regions of Diffa and Maradi.[29]
  • Increasing terrorist activity in the region could spread into Niger. The national army is stretched to its limits trying to prevent the arrival of terrorist elements. Niger faces several main security threats, including from the increase in organized crime and terrorism in the regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua on the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, the threat posed by Boko Haram/Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) and by Islamic State elements in Libya, and the growing regional instability of the Sahel.[30] Terrorist groups have begun to conduct attacks on Niger’s soil, which poses an increasing threat to the country’s stability and security. Various reports indicate that Boko Haram is becoming more active in southwestern Diffa, and that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses a growing threat to uranium extraction operations in northern Niger.[31]
  • Niger remains reliant on international aid with regard to strengthening the economy, reducing poverty, and enhancing security; Niger is therefore increasingly dependent on international powers and organizations, and the health of its economy is hostage to the nature and volatility of its relationship with those international powers.

The future of Niger’s role in the region

  • Niger is a buffer against the further spread of violence in the Sahel and the Sahara. Its stability is considered crucial to preventing terrorist organizations in the Sahel, the Sahara, and the Lake Chad Basin from establishing more effective geographical connections and from communicating freely.
  • Niger’s security is seen as key to curbing the flow of illegal migration to Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean.
  • Nonetheless, Niger remains particularly vulnerable to future threats to its stability, given its porous borders. Organized crime has spread throughout the country, and Niger has become an important corridor through which terrorist organizations are smuggling weapons and fighters. Other illegal activities in the region also pose a threat.
  • International support at all levels continues to ensure that Niger is able to play an important regional role in combating terrorism in the Sahel. The international powers will likely continue to rely on Niger, which they see as a relatively stable regional ally in efforts to combat terrorism and protect international interests in the region.

Endnotes

[1] Cheikh Mohammed, “النيجر.. بوابة واشنطن إلى منطقة الساحل والصحراء”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 14 October 2017. Available at: https://bit.ly/3m28h5C

[2] Craig Bailie, “Explainer: the role of foreign military forces in Niger”, The Conversation, 9 September 2018, Available at: https://bit.ly/3i9HtOy

[3] Bassem Adli, “التنافس العسكري الفرنسي-الأمريكي بالساحل الأفريقي.. أسباب وأهداف”, Al-Ain, 18 November 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3jYdauC

[4] Nesrin al-Sabahi, “الاهتمام الأمريكي المتنامي بالنيجر: الدوافع والأبعاد”, Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, 5 October 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3m2seJB

[5] World Vision International Hompage, World Vision: Niger. Available at: https://bit.ly/2R5tI7C

[6] Emily Cole and Ramatou Adamou Gado, “In Niger, Security Requires a Collaborative Strategy”, United States Institute of Peace, 27 September 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/33aJaoV

[7] World Vision International Hompage, ibid.

[8] World Bank, The World Bank In Niger, 17 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/328gPjO

[9] Andre Chadrak, “Africa’s 2020 military power ranking (GFP)”, Public Ecofin Agency, 7 February 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3h9Kxcm

[10] Global Firepower, Niger Military Strength 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3h9YoPV

[11] Daniel Mahanty, “Niger: A Bulwark against Further Instability in West Africa”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 24 July 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/35eI26b

[12] Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “A Review of Major Regional Security Efforts in the Sahel”, 4 March 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3bAYMFL

[13] Dr Grégory Chauzal, “From the Malian crisis to the Sahel breakdown: An overview of SIPRI’s work in the G5 Sahel region”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 7 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3i8uaxZ

[14] Daniel Mahanty, ibid.

[15] International Peace Institute, “Republic of Niger Strategy for Development and Security in Sahel-Saharan Areas of the Country”, 25 April 2013. Available at: https://bit.ly/2GBhFwV

[16] Craig Bailie, ibid.

[17] “النيجر تتولى رئاسة مجلس الأمن الدولي”, Qiraat African, 2 September 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2DDIOhL

[18] Aïssa Ibrahim, “Niger in the hot seat at the UN Security Council”, Institute for Security Studies, 24 October 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2RanXpb

[19] Emily Cadei, “A Strategic Ally: Niger”, OZY, 4 December 2013. Available at: https://bit.ly/3i7uk8I

[20] Ibid.

[21] “النيجر بوابة واشنطن لاقتحام مراكز نفوذ فرنسا في أفريقيا”, Al-Arab, 31 July 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/33m5Z9h

[22] Craig Bailie, ibid.

[23] Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany, The Niger. Available at: https://bit.ly/2ZiEz2N

[24] Aki Arabic, “إيطاليا تشدد على الأهمية الاستراتيجية للعلاقات مع النيجر”, ADN Kronos International, 6 February 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/3jTkibR

[25] Ibid.

[26] World Bank, ibid.

[27] Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany, ibid. 

[28] Ibid.

[29] World Bank, ibid.

[30] Overseas Security Advisory Council, USA, Niger 2019 Crime & Safety Report, 8 August 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3bzP5Ye

[31] Gabrielle Reid, “Boxed In: Niger's Geographical Vulnerability and the Regional Militant Threat”, Global Security Insight, 1 October 2016. Available at: https://bit.ly/35lWEk2

 

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