Why you should care

Niger’s strategic location and new government have made it an increasingly important security partner for the United States in a region buffeted by poverty and, recently, terrorism.

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A landlocked nation of 16 million people that is one of the Africa’s poorest and most remote is an unlikely candidate to be one of the United States newest strategic allies. But thanks to the shifting nature of the global terrorist threat, that’s exactly what Niger has become.

The former French colony nestled along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is not a country most Americans have likely ever heard of. Pronounced NE-zher, it ranks dead last out of 187 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, tied with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Approximately 60 percent of its population lives below the national poverty line. Its capital, Niamey, consists of a few paved roads and even those are clogged with as many goats as car traffic.

All four of Niger’s neighbors are grappling with Islamist militancy that has made swathes of their territory virtually lawless.

But Niger also happens to border Mali, Algeria and Libya to its west and north, with a long shared border with Nigeria to its south. All four neighbors are grappling with Islamist militancy that has made swathes of their territory virtually lawless. Niger also has a relatively stable, democratic government at the moment, after Mahamadou Issoufou was elected president in 2011, replacing a military junta.

The Issoufou government’s strong performance on a range of indicators has given the United States an opening to broaden its relationship with the country, something that assumed a much higher priority after Libya’s revolution in 2011 and the separatist uprising in Mali in 2012. While the ouster of longtime autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi was a victory for democracy advocates and the West, it also destabilized Libya and unleashed into the region a huge flow of illicit weapons, once controlled by Qaddafi’s forces, as well as a bevy of armed mercenaries that Qaddafi had once employed. That in turn helped trigger the uprising in Mali and smaller scale violence elsewhere across the Sahel, the arid region of Africa south of the Sahara Desert, stretching from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east.

Obama speaking on right, with President Mahamadou on far left.

President Barack Obama speaks following a meeting with (from left) Niger ’s President Mahamadou Issoufou and Benin’s President Boni Yayi in July 2011.

As Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Donald Yamamoto testified to Congress earlier this year, “The security vacuum following the Libyan revolution and the crisis in Mali exacerbated the Sahel’s longstanding political, economic security and humanitarian vulnerabilities.”

What has caught U.S. officials’ attention, in particular, is the expanding reach of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist group’s regional affiliate.

“In the Sahel, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, appears to be taking advantage of the chaos. That is what terrorist groups do,” Republican Representative Ted Poe of Texas observed at the congressional hearing in May.

Suddenly Niger looked like an oasis of stability. And, for the United States, a well-placed potential regional partner.

“The occupation of more than half of Mali by a combination of local and foreign extremist groups was a real eye opener in Washington and Paris and that’s played the predominant role in cementing security and intelligence sharing relations with Niger,” says Philippe de Pontet, an expert on the region at the Eurasia Group, a global risk analysis firm.

Soldier on left with rifle escorting a group of men at right walking towards the camera

A Malian soldier escorts prisoners after they arrived by boat in Kadji in 2013.

“The government in Niger is seen as a good partner, a worthy partner but one that just doesn’t have the resources to really combat the terrorist threat effectively on its own,” de Pontet says. So the United States and France are now trying “to bolster the government in Niamey and make it a bit of a bulwark” against spreading jihadism.

To that end, the U.S. government has upped its military cooperation and security aid to Niger since 2011, training Nigerien troops to participate in the international mission to stabilize Mali and spending tens of millions of dollars to outfit their forces with new airplanes, trucks and communications and logistics equipment. Most significantly, the Issoufou government agreed to host a U.S. drone base in the country’s northern desert earlier this year, giving a home to U.S. surveillance craft used to keep watch on militant activity in the region. Roughly 100 American troops soon followed.

A growing Western presence in Niger “could backfire and make it more of a target” for extremists.

U.S. officials insist it’s just part of a broad-based effort to improve stability in the region. “Addressing the Sahel’s many challenges demands a comprehensive approach,” Yamamoto told lawmakers in May. “Our short-term successes may be fleeting if we fail to address the longstanding political and economic fragility and render the Sahel susceptible to crisis and conflict. Poor governance, weak democratic institutions, and a lack of development and economic opportunities cultivate fertile ground for instability.”

To help improve living standards and encourage economic development, the United States has picked up its foreign aid to Niger, selecting it for a coveted Millenium Challenge Corporation compact last December that could ultimately be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance – a tremendous windfall for a country with a GDP of only roughly $13 billion.

But it will be a long term challenge to modernize the country – and region’s – largely agrarian economy, which has long been susceptible to food crises as well as political unrest, military coups and government mismanagement.

Soldier on left with dead body on stairs.

A Malian soldier discovers the body of an Islamist soldier in central Gao in 2013.

Niger is particularly at risk of future instability, thanks to its porous borders, says de Pontet, which have made it part of a corridor for arms trafficking and other shady dealings from Libya down to West Africa, and have allowed extremist groups to cross easily from Mali.

The risk of spillover from the Mali conflict was highlighted in May, when suicide bombers attacked a uranium mine run by the French company Areva in Agadez, a town in northern Niger.

That attack also underscored the risk, de Pontet says, that a growing Western presence in Niger “could backfire and make it more of a target” for extremists.

A spokesman for one of the extremist groups in the region claimed responsibility for that attack, telling Agence France-Presse it was retribution for French military involvement next door in Mali

“With that in mind the U.S. for sure, perhaps France too, is limiting its footprint on the ground,” says De Pontet. In a region that is already a tinderbox, the last thing the United States wants to do is fan the flames.

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