Standing in a landscape of sand and scrub that rolls to the horizon, General Mahamadou Abou Tarka dabs sweat from his forehead and points north to Niger’s frontier with Mali and west to Burkina Faso.
“There’s a vacuum on the other side,” he says, referring to the lawless regions in the countries abutting Niger’s restive Tillabéri region. Across the invisible border, the Malian and Burkinabe states barely function, the general says. Swaths of territory have been overrun by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
“Mali is a failed state. Burkina is failing,” says Abou Tarka who, as head of Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, advises his civilian government on the fight against a hydra-headed terrorist threat, much of it spilling over hundreds of miles of unpoliced frontier.
“As for Nigeria,” he gestures in the direction of the huge country to the south. “We say we have a border with Boko-Haramia,” he says, in a biting reference to the Boko Haram fundamentalists who, until recently at least, frequently swept across the frontier to attack villages in Niger.
The world’s poorest country, according to the UN’s human development index, Niger is rarely considered a geopolitical linchpin. But that is exactly what it has become as successive dominoes fall, terrorism spreads and Russian influence grows in the Sahel, a sub-continental-sized belt of semi-desert stretching thousands of miles across Africa.
In May, Olaf Scholz visited German troops stationed at a base close to Niger’s border with Mali, extending Berlin’s mission to train Niger’s soldiers in counter-terrorism. The German chancellor met his counterpart Mohamed Bazoum, who was elected president last year in Niger’s first democratic transfer of power.
Western officials have praised Bazoum, a former schoolteacher and right-hand man of the previous president, as someone who is willing to fight terrorists and tackle the root causes of radicalism. His administration has promised to increase the range and efficacy of the state, including by improving its inadequate school system. It has started tentative peace talks with some terrorist groups.
Scholz was the latest of a string of senior European, US and other officials to pledge support for Niger. In 2019, the US opened a drone base near the northern city of Agadez to carry out surveillance. France, whose troops were this year ejected from Mali, has started ramping up its presence in Niger, a pivot towards what has been dubbed Paris’s “partner of last resort” in the Sahel.
If the jihadist threat intensifies in Niger — and particularly if Bazoum’s government were to fall to one of the coups that have toppled successive civilian regimes in the region — analysts say Islamists could end up controlling a contiguous belt across the Sahel from Mali to northern Nigeria. That would threaten more prosperous coastal west African states such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo or Benin that have largely escaped terrorist attacks. It could also provoke waves of immigration to Europe, they say.
“Western powers are saying that Niger is a bulwark against all those extremist groups,” says Abou Tarka. “They are saying that Niger is a democracy, that we have to help Niger survive in a neighbourhood that is crumbling.”
With the exceptions of Algeria and Benin, every one of Niger’s neighbours is in crisis. A military junta has seized power in Mali, where a homegrown Tuareg rebellion continues and both Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, a consortium of al-Qaeda-linked groups, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara control territory and carry out attacks.
In Burkina Faso, a junta shot its way to power in January, citing the civilian government’s inability to tackle a jihadist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions more. These days, if anything, Burkina is considered more dangerous than Mali.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has also been gaining traction in the region. Mali’s generals have replaced French troops with mercenaries supplied by Russia’s shadowy Wagner group, some of whom have been implicated in atrocities. Wagner has also manoeuvred its way into the Central African Republic, where it protects the president and runs lucrative businesses, including in gold mining.
Chad, previously a stalwart French ally, is unstable after Idriss Déby, president and commander of the most effective fighting machine in the Sahel, died in battle last year at the hands of insurgents allegedly trained by Wagner. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, attended Déby’s funeral in N’Djamena.
Much of the rot set in after western powers, including France and the UK, engineered the downfall of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammer Gaddafi, in 2011. The resulting power vacuum precipitated a flood of arms into the Sahel, weaponising ancient antagonisms and providing Islamists and criminal gangs with the wherewithal to wage terror. Wagner is now fighting in Libya too, alongside the rebel general Khalifa Haftar.
Ibrahim Yahaya, senior Sahel analyst at Crisis Group, endorses the idea that Russia has opened “a second front” in the Sahel with the aim of destabilising European interests. Using Wagner, he says, is a cheap way of making trouble that provides deniability and costs Moscow nothing. “It’s a different way of doing diplomacy. You use private companies that are there to make money, but then you use them to promote your strategic goals.”
The more immediate concern, says Yahaya, is the plethora of Islamist groups who now control large swaths of Mali, Burkina Faso and parts of northern Nigeria — and who have made some inroads in Niger.
Ornella Moderan, head of the Sahel Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, points out that Niger is not standing entirely alone. Mauritania, she notes, has avoided a coup and Niger is itself battling terrorism on several fronts, including in the Tillabéri region and the area around Diffa on the south-east border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram had been active in the past. “Banditry and acts of violence” have also been seen in the south-central border area with Nigeria, Moderan says, which “could spiral into a third front”.
The Mali debacle
At France’s military base in Niamey, General Hervé Pierre, a veteran of French deployments in the Sahel, has no doubt about Niger’s strategic importance. “Niger is one of the countries that has a strong and very professionalised army that is able to face the terrorists,” he says, over the roar of two Mirage fighters taking off from the base. “President Bazoum took the responsibility for this struggle at a regional level and the Nigerien army really fights the enemy.”
France, says Pierre, has learned lessons from Mali where French troops were initially welcomed as liberating heroes in 2013 only to be drummed out of the country a decade later when relations nosedived. France was accused of propping up a civilian government that many saw as lacking in legitimacy. That stoked anti-French sentiment in the country, which spread on social media, allegedly fanned by Russian troll farms operating in the region.
In January, Mali’s second military junta in as many years expelled France’s ambassador. In May it terminated a defence agreement with Paris, forcing France to close its military bases. Some people on the streets of Bamako, the capital, celebrated with a display of Russian flags.
The French are trying to avoid a repeat of the Mali debacle by taking a softly-softly approach in Niger. No French flags fly at its sprawling base near Niamey’s international airport. Nigerien captains command platoons of mainly French troops and vice versa.
French troops are supporting operations to establish permanent garrisons on the border with Mali, both to stop incursions and to persuade displaced villagers to return to their homes. “The objective is to reinforce the presence of the state in the eyes of the people,” says Mahaman Moha, a government policy adviser.
Despite its lower-key approach, the French do take direct action. In June, French air strikes, including from Reaper drones, killed nearly 40 members of what Paris called “an armed terrorist group” moving by motorbike from Burkina Faso into Niger. If there are more such attacks, civilian casualties are inevitable, members of Niger’s armed forces concede. “There’s no clean war,” says one. Groups belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM are adept at infiltrating villages, making them hard to pick out.
Lisa Tschörner, an expert on Niger at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says some Islamist groups have won support from local communities by offering what she called “alternative modes of governance and justice” to people who felt marginalised. Islamist ideology, she says, has deeper roots in Niger than its authorities admit.
Terrorists have often exploited local rivalries, Tschörner adds, especially those between herders who roam in search of pasture and sedentary farmers. “The homegrown conflicts that have been labelled bandit-ism for a very long time have been co-opted by jihadist groups,” she says. “Then you have the dynamics of climate change and population growth which has increased pressure on land, intensifying the conflict.”
Some Nigeriens welcome France’s military support, but others point to the ineffectiveness of French tactics in Mali, where terrorism flourished despite — or even because of — French intervention. “We know for a fact that France is behind this insecurity,” says Mikka Adam Maiga, a resident of Niamey.
France concedes there is no purely military solution. Agence Française de Développement, a government-owned financial institution, is increasing its investment in Niger from about €100mn to a projected €150mn in both loans and grants. Some of that will be spent on social and economic projects in the Tilabérri region, a so-called “red zone” where strict security protocols for French officials apply.
On a recent trip to an AFD-financed cattle market, Emilie Garret, acting director for AFD in Niger, spoke of the difficulties of establishing projects amid such insecurity. “It’s a very challenging environment,” she said. In Paris, Rémy Rioux, AFD chief executive, says France is financing projects including a dam to bring power and irrigation to farmers and a job-creation scheme for young men who joined, but then renounced, terrorist groups.
The biggest concern continues to be the weakness of Niger’s state. If terrorists exploit poverty and marginalisation, in Niger there is plenty to go round. The country has a nominal per capita income of $600, according to the World Bank, reflecting the fact that more than 80 per cent of its 25mn people live outside cities and mostly beyond the money economy. The literacy rate is just 35 per cent.
Clashes over land, pasture and water may intensify as the population grows. With an average seven children per woman, the highest in the world, Niger’s population is expanding at nearly 4 per cent a year and is forecast to almost triple to 70mn by 2050.
While some Nigeriens see that as a strength, Bazoum describes it as a weakness. In his inaugural presidential address, he highlighted the fact that more than one-quarter of Nigerien girls marry before the age of 15 and three-quarters before 18, something he said he wanted to stop by keeping girls in school longer.
Such liberal leanings have won the Niger president praise in the west, but may do him fewer favours at home where conservative social norms prevail. By contrast, he has been accused of cracking down on civil society, a sign, say some, that his position at home is not as secure as allies might wish. Two days before he was sworn in last April, soldiers opened fire on the presidential palace in what appears to have been a coup attempt. Rumours of a second plot followed.
Still, in contrast with Mali, where tensions between the north and south persist, Niger has more successfully incorporated different elements of society into government. The sting was removed from a Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s after a peace settlement that has seen a Tuareg serve as prime minister. Officials say the fact that Bazoum, who comes from the tiny Arab minority, has become president at all is evidence that Niger has progressed in tamping ethnic rivalries.
Bazoum has spoken of the need to shore up the capabilities of the state as a counterweight to siren calls from terrorist groups offering cash, religion or a form of justice. There are hopes the economy could receive an important fillip thanks to a Chinese-built pipeline to the coast of Benin, which should lead to a quintupling of oil exports to 100,000 barrels a day and a boost to government revenues.
On a recent trip to Diffa, more than 1,200km east of the capital on the border with Nigeria and Chad, Bazoum told soldiers defending the area: “Terrorists need a vacuum where they can do what they want.” He brought with him all the trappings of state, including a huge military presence, helicopters and even a sweeper to continually brush the desert sand from the red carpet laid out before him.
He has encouraged displaced villagers in Diffa to return to their villages. The hope is that 40,000 will do so in the next few months in time for the planting season. In return, the president says, the army will provide security, partly by recruiting from local communities. It must also provide basic services, including clinics and access to water, he says.
“Things have calmed down,” says Smaine Youndousse, an adviser to Bazoum, of the situation in Diffa. “Three to four years ago you couldn’t sleep at night for the sound of gunshots.” Most insecurity is now concentrated on the border with Burkina Faso, he adds.
Even so, the situation remains precarious. Shortly after the president’s heavily guarded entourage rolled out of a makeshift base, snipers hidden in the scrub took aim at the soldiers left behind.
“What you have to understand is that this is a fight for our nation, a fight for the right of our state to exist,” says Abou Tarka. “We’re in a neighbourhood of failed states, but Niger is still on its feet — for now.”