Foreign Assistance Follies in Niger
September 4, 2007
U.S. foreign assistance to Africa is under more scrutiny than usual because the Bush Administration is rethinking and restructuring how it distributes and delivers assistance worldwide. Moreover, the recent creation of Africa Command (or AFRICOM), the newest unified combatant command, has focused attention on the relationship between U.S. military and civilian agencies in pursuing U.S. foreign policy goals on the continent.
This evolving relationship is already playing out in the Sahel, the vast bridge between the arid Maghreb region of North Africa and tropical West and Central Africa. Sahelian states are large, impoverished, resource-poor (especially compared to their southern neighbors), and historically way off the U.S. foreign policy radar. However, the United States has recently increased its engagement in the region to further narrow but important counterterrorism objectives. Policymakers are justifiably concerned that for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other extremist groups, the porous borders and loosely governed northern reaches of Sahelian states offer tempting sanctuary.
Niger is one such state. Often cited as the poorest country in the world, Niger has for the past three years ranked dead last on the United Nations Development Index. A severe food crisis during the summer of 2005 highlighted Niger’s chronic food insecurity. One in five Nigerien children will not reach her fifth birthday, health and education infrastructure is virtually nonexistent, and water and arable land are scarce. According to a recent survey by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, Niger has the third highest risk of insecurity in the world, behind Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet despite grinding poverty and political instability, Niger ranks seventy-first in the world in the amount of aid it receives per capita.
Poverty and instability are linked in Niger, but not because poverty promotes religious extremism, as one might think in a country that is 90 percent Muslim. According to a March 2005 International Crisis Group report (Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?) “those who subscribe to the theory that poverty breeds religious fanaticism will be disappointed in Niger.” This is not to suggest that violent extremism is not a problem; the Nigerien army has clashed in recent years with the Algerian-based jihadists and with Islamic militants based in northern Nigeria. However, the principal source of instability in Niger is neither Islamic extremism nor terrorists traversing the Sahel but rather the deteriorating livelihoods and unresolved political fate of one of the Sahel’s most well-known ethnic communities: the Tuaregs.
The key questions for U.S. policymakers on Niger are twofold. How well is the current assistance formula – a mixture of counterterrorism initiatives and a development program weighted heavily toward food assistance– addressing the root causes of instability and extremism in Niger? And if, as we argue, intensifying conflict between the Tuaregs and the Nigerien government the most significant threat to stability in Niger, how can U.S. assistance be packaged in such a way as to achieve security and development in the country and realize counterterrorism objectives?
Roots of Rebellion
Tuaregs in both Niger and Mali staged a violent rebellion against their central governments from 1990-1995. In both countries, the rebellion ended with peace settlements promising amnesty to Tuareg militants and reintegration into schools and civil service for ex-combatants. These agreements ensured that greater services and relief would be delivered to the ailing Tuareg population, and that decentralization measures would be accelerated in order to promote development of the entire country. In Niger, this temporary cessation of hostilities did not hold, and tensions between the Tuaregs and the southern-based government persisted throughout the next decade.
In early 2007, a new Tuareg rebel group called the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ) formed to protest the government’s failure to implement the provisions of the peace accords, and to draw attention to the continued marginalization of the Tuaregs. During their initial rebellion, the Tuaregs demanded autonomy, and some factions made secessionist claims. Today, the Tuareg cause is centered on more modest demands for increased development and better management of uranium resources in the North.
Since the MNJ declared their intent to fight for Tuareg rights, they have battled Nigerien soldiers and taken hostages, kidnapped a Chinese uranium mining official, and bombed the airport in Agadez, a historic Tuareg stronghold in northern Niger. President Mamadou Tandja’s ruling party has organized several demonstrations in the capital city of Niamey, where thousands of citizens have gathered to demand that the Tuaregs release army hostages and lay down their weapons.
The trend-lines are decidedly negative. On August 22, 2007, the MNJ claimed responsibility for killing 15 government soldiers in a clash in the Agadez region, saying that a convoy of 100 military vehicles had advanced on the town of Iferouane. Tuareg rebels tell media sources that they will continue launching attacks if the government does not agree to negotiations. President Tandja has responded by declaring a state of emergency in northern Niger, granting his military additional powers to arrest and detain civilians.
Access for journalists and aid workers to the affected region is patchy. In July, the government imposed a month-long ban on Radio France International’s programs throughout the country, accusing RFI of “biased” reporting on the fighting in the Agadez region between the rebels and the army. Humanitarian NGOs have expressed concerns about the security situation in the North, particularly the threat of mines laid by Tuareg rebels. The restricted access of aid organizations to northern Niger is especially troubling because late summer marks the beginning of the “lean season” in Niger. UNICEF is concerned about rising malnutrition rates among children, and severe acute malnutrition rates have spiked drastically in the Agadez region.
Alarmingly, the crisis is fast becoming regionalized. Mounting evidence suggests that that Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party is supporting the MNJ, perhaps to rankle Chadian President Idriss Deby by stoking conflict on his western flank. Moreover, Tuaregs in Niger and Mali formed an alliance in July. Details remain sketchy, but averting a full-blown regional conflagration that could merge disastrously with the regional war involving Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic must be an urgent international priority.
Doing no harm?
In its 2005 report, Crisis Group argued that much of the insecurity in northern Niger stems from the failure of the national government to adequately address Tuareg grievances and to work to resolve the root causes of the rebellions. Rather than helping the Nigerien government improve in this regard, U.S. assistance as currently configured does just the opposite.
Niger is one of nine countries participating in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a $100 million dollar per year interagency program that runs through 2013. TSCTP is a more comprehensive follow-up to the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), a U.S.-sponsored infantry training initiative which ran from 2003-2005. Though administered through State, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) had the lead on the ground during PSI, and most Sahelian African populations saw it as a military operation. Observers warned that an expanded U.S. covert presence under TSCTP could lead to increasing anti-Americanism in the region. Instead, observers argued, the United States and other donors should treat development and counterterrorism as interlinked issues in the Sahel.
The cautionary notes seem to have resonated somewhat. In March of this year, the Commander of EUCOM, General Bantz J. Craddock, told the House Armed Services Committee that, “TSCTP seeks to maximize the return on investment by implementing reforms to help nations become more self-reliant in security and more stable in governance” (emphasis added). The U.S. Agency for International Development takes the lead in furthering these objectives in the civilian sector, and its TSCTP budget in Niger has increased steadily from $750,000 in fiscal 2005 to $5 million requested for fiscal 2008, which begins on October 1. Activities range from youth employment and advocacy training to community radio. At the same time, however, EUCOM has stepped up its activities in Niger under Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara, which is described by the Defense Department in a document obtained by the authors as a “train and equip program aimed at bolstering various military troop operational capabilities.” The Defense Department spent over $8.5 million on “T&E” activities in Niger during fiscal 2007. Other TSCTP activities are sensitive and funding is opaque.
Non-TSCTP development assistance to Niger focuses on the usual broad USAID objectives: governance, health, education, and economic growth. The Administration requested a paltry $18.5 million for development assistance to Niger in fiscal 2008 (including TSCTP funds), with $15 million in non-emergency food assistance. Additional aid in the form of emergency food assistance may be allocated to Niger as the year advances. As pastoralists, the Tuaregs should be one of the vulnerable groups who benefit from U.S. assistance. Most experts agree that they do not.
A coalition of humanitarian and development NGOs called the Sahel Working Group argues that the assistance programs aimed at reducing vulnerability in pastoralist communities like the Tuaregs are based on shoddy analysis and therefore fatally flawed. The group singled out USAID’s food assistance programs in the Sahel, noting that imported food aid floods local markets, undermines local producers’ livelihoods, and increases poverty and destitution. Admittedly, the Tuaregs’ ability to supply markets has been reduced as drought and desertification have undermined their pastoralist way of life, but the United States should not be adding to their woes by driving down food prices. Meanwhile, the military component of the TSCTP is causing further harm to Tuareg herders by hampering their ability to move freely throughout northern Niger and to cross borders in search of grazing. According to Africa expert Steven Ellis, military initiatives like those that are part of the TSCTP “threaten the Tuaregs’ very means of living” (“Famine Not Fanaticism the Real Enemy in West Africa”, IRIN, October 20, 2004)
In view of the economic problems they face, it is hardly surprising that the Tuareg have looked to other sources of revenue, including smuggling. In response, U.S. assistance should be focused on addressing the collapse of Tuareg livelihoods and helping the Nigerien government provide young Tuareg men with alternatives to banditry and insurrection.
As noted above, the Tuareg themselves are not Islamist extremists. The MNJ rebels are Sufi moderates, and have practiced a moderate form of Sufi Islam for centuries. They are historically an insular, proud community that has resisted outside influence, especially conversion attempts by Islamists and French colonial forces. They are also, however, frustrated, impoverished citizens who have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to assert their authority in northern Niger and who have refused to surrender to an exclusionary, centralized government.
Ironically, the Tuareg rebels, who the Nigerien government often refers to as “bandits,” may have the strongest counter-terrorism capabilities in the region. As a traditionally nomadic group with numerous “Kels” or confederacies throughout the Sahara, the Tuareg have roamed the desert and operated the trans-Sahara caravan trade for centuries. They could provide valuable intelligence on the movement of people and goods. They have demonstrated their value in the past: in 2003, Tuareg leaders helped secure the release of European tourists abducted by Islamist rebels.
The Tuaregs recognize that security and stability in the region are inextricably linked to their economic livelihood. U.S. policy should be aiming at partnerships on counter-terrorism initiatives not only with regional governments but also with the Tuareg. Regional governments must be persuaded that stability requires keeping Tuareg trade routes and grazing ranges open and secure.
The Way Forward
The security situation in Niger will only improve if the national government and the Tuaregs commit to negotiations and reach agreement on a national policy that, with the assistance of international donors, addresses the collapse of pastoral livelihoods in the North. With its growing interest in the Sahel and increasing resources at the disposal of policymakers dealing with the region, the U.S. government is in a position to play an important role in promoting lasting peace and security in Niger. The logic of TSCTP — promoting stability through development, good governance, and regional cooperation — is sound, but the logic has yet to be implemented on the ground. To achieve its objectives in Niger, the Bush Administration should:
Bolster U.S. diplomatic capacity for supporting peace in Niger: add political officers at the U.S. Embassy in Niamey; direct the embassy to work with other donors, the UN, and the African Union to press President Tandja and the MNJ to come to the negotiating table; help fund this mediation.
Address the collapse of pastoral livelihoods in the Sahel: convene a high-level donor working group on pastoralists; in close consultation with pastoralist communities, NGOs, the UN, and experts on the Sahel region, devote significant U.S. resources to a multifaceted initiative aimed at sustaining pastoralist livelihoods.
Increase U.S. capacity to address development and humanitarian issues: open a USAID mission in Niamey (which surprisingly has not yet been done) in order to provide on-the-ground support for the TSCTP and other programs; working through this new USAID mission, improve program monitoring and develop a more effective response to food emergencies.
Counter growing perceptions of the militarization of U.S. foreign assistance: restrict the activities of U.S. military personnel on the ground to train and equip programs and implement all humanitarian and development projects through non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and private development firms. The Department of Defense brings welcome resources to the table, but there must be a clearly defined division of labor between civilian and military personnel.
Improve monitoring of extremist elements infiltrating northern Niger: conditional on a peaceful resolution to the conflict, consider collaboration with both the Nigerien army and the Tuaregs on a joint monitoring initiative.
Colin Thomas-Jensen is Policy Advisor at ENOUGH: The project to end genocide and crimes against humanity. Maggie Fick begins a Fulbright Fellowship in Niger this fall.
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