Where Is Niger?
by

The Niger capital of Niamey was the scene of street clashes the other day, as demonstrators opposed to the government’s proposed 2018 budget reportedly got rowdy. One side evidently claims the tax plan will hurt the poor, the other side says that is not so, it will put pressure on the rich.

Dunno. The government of Niger is dealing with an economic squeeze caused by declines in the price of oil, of which Niger has some modest quantities, and uranium, of which it has significant quantities. However, it is led by a civil engineer, elected last year to a second term as president, Mahamadou Issouff, who is considered one of the most credible and enlightened, and staunchly pro-American, West African leaders.

This could be a purely superficial reputation, but Issouff has been a reliable ally, considering the circumstances, in at least two areas of concern to the outside world, namely immigration (that is to say, emigration) and terrorism.

Niger, most of whose 20 million people have practically no taxable income, receives substantial help in these areas. With funding and training from the European powers and the U.S., it has cracked down on or regulated its people-exporting firms — often criminal enterprises – and beefed up its security forces.

When the Berber legions that had served under Libyan dictator Moamar Qaddafi deserted him during the Anglo-French-American regime-change campaign in 2011-2012, they returned, with plenty of arms, to their ancient stomping grounds on the other side of the Sahara. Issouff said “not here.” He was able to back it up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to encourage the returnees to aim for the country next door, Mali.

Mali took quite a beating, but after losing half its country, recouped in 2013 thanks to a coalition, led by French and Chadian desert warriors, in which Niger also participated. The situation since then has been a low-level war in the Malian Sahara and regular policing and patrolling of the desert and savannah beyond Mali, particularly along the wild and lawless borders, which is where four American soldiers, as well as four Nigerien troops, were killed earlier this month. The killers are believed to have been terrorists associated loosely with AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the latter being “west” in Arabic). Nigerien gendarmes (militarized police) were killed in another attack a fortnight later.

The month’s news from Niger thus has been not the kind President Issouff would like his country to be known for, but at the same time, he knows it is unavoidable. Tax reform and security are what governments do. Niger has never had a peaceful transition of power since it attained independence from France in 1960. Issouff has promised he would not seek to alter the constitution to allow him another term when the current one expires in 2021.

Violent Islamic movements have operated in the borderlands between Arab and Black Africa for centuries, overlapping with banditry and caravanning. They have partaken of the slave trade and cigarette smuggling, gun-running, and assistance to coup-makers and jihadists.

The U.S. has been involved militarily in the region for decades, in earnest since the Clinton administration’s “trans-Sahara security initiative.” The idea is to coordinate security policies among countries in the region; this does not always work since governments tend to be jealous of their prerogatives and mistrustful of their neighbors. Niger is assaulted regularly by an Islamist terror organization called “Boko Haram” (translation: the West stinks), whose origins and bases of recruitment and operation are in the Nigerian north and around Lake Chad; but Niger and Nigeria, and the other countries principally hurt by Boko Haram (Chad and Cameroon), have found they have to rely mainly on their own resources, rather than the unified commands proclaimed by their politicians mainly for PR purposes.

And on the resources of the U.S. and its gallant French allies. French aviators came to the rescue of the American and Nigerien patrol that came under attack a few weeks ago, and who might otherwise have suffered even heavier casualties. The Americans belong to a deployment (about 800 soldiers) ordered by President Obama in the aftermath of the intervention to defend Mali. A U.S. drone base in the desert city of Agadez in north-central Niger helps maintain surveillance over the vast desert.

There is no cause for senators or editorialists to pretend the Defense Department or successive administrations have been engaged in a covert war in the Sahara and its southern rim, the Sahel. If anything, the Africa Command, established in 2007, has been over-eager in publicizing its assistance programs all across the continent. Inevitably, there is a risk of falling short of promised results.

From the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, there are small wars that we can ignore, at some peril. But if we consider it better to have politicians (elected ones, at that) squabbling over tax legislation than warlords taking and distributing money according to their whims, we are likely to find that helping them defend themselves against violent gangs is a necessary part of the deal.

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