By Mert Can Yazici
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst
Poverty, widespread illiteracy, lack of infrastructure, terrorism, food insecurity, environmental degradation… These are just a few of the problems Niger is facing today. The landlocked West African country consistently ranks at the bottom of the UN Human Development Indexes.[i] Recently, however, Niger has come to the fore not with these problems but with its geostrategic importance. So what lies behind the interest of international actors towards the country?
Niger is located in a highly turbulent and unstable region fraught with political and security threats. In the North, the ongoing Libyan crisis has increased the interest of international and regional powers in neighbouring Niger, making the country one of the focal points in the Sahel. The border it shares with Mali, where violence and instability have not subsided since 2012, has also drawn Niger into security and political problems.[ii] Moreover, the recent coups in Mali and Chad have created concerns among the actors with interests in the region that the coups will have a spillover effect in the region.[iii] On the other hand, Niger achieved its first-ever democratic transition of power since gaining its independence from France in 1960 with its February 2021 elections, despite terrorist attacks and a failed coup attempt. This reinforced the image of Niger as a less problematic partner for stabilising the region among international actors.[iv]
The fight against terrorism
Niger’s strategic location at a crossroads between North Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin, has made the country a key ally for regional and international efforts to combat terrorism and extremist organisations in the region. Although Niger does not have the resources to effectively fight terrorism in this challenging neighbourhood, it receives significant assistance from international actors as a worthy ally.[v] For example, a $110 million drone base built by the United States in the city of Agadez became operational in 2019. [vi] In addition, Niger’s role in this field is likely to increase as France ends Operation Barkhane, which it has been carrying out to combat terrorism since 2013, and turns to internationalise the military efforts. In this sense, Niger has been chosen to host the headquarters of the Takuba Task Force, which was formed with the contributions of 11 European countries under the leadership of France.[vii]
Niger has been a transit hub for Sub-Saharan migrants for generations. Recently, it has also served as a key transit country for migrants seeking to reach Europe as a final destination.[viii] The country’s place on the Central Mediterranean Route has placed Niger at the centre of the European Union’s policies to externalise migration control, in the context of the “migration crisis” in 2015. [ix] In line with the EU’s growing interest in building migration agreements with third countries, Niger has positioned itself as a reliable ally in the field of migration management. [x] The Nigerian government’s willingness to cooperate in fighting against migrant smuggling has been consistently praised by EU officials, making the country one of the largest recipients of EU development and security assistance.[xi] While this partnership has produced serious adverse consequences in terms of both Niger’s development and the rights of migrants, the EU’s interest in stopping irregular migration indicates that it will seek to continue to strengthen its partnership with Niger for the foreseeable future.
Lastly, Niger has become an important arena of geostrategic contestation for actors seeking to increase their influence in the region over the last few years. [xii] In addition to being an important ally for foreign actors in the fields of counterterrorism and migration management, Niger’s proximity to Libya and its rich natural resources encourages new actors to establish close relations with Niger. For example, Turkey, one of the countries aiming to increase its footprint in Africa, signed a security cooperation agreement with Niger in July 2020, while the Turkish foreign minister stated that his country wants to play a role in Niger’s development in areas such as transportation, construction, energy, mining, and agriculture. [xiii] Additionally, Middle Eastern actors such as the UAE and Egypt are trying to develop their relations with Niger within the framework of their toolbox in order to balance this increasing influence of Turkey. [xiv]
All things considered, it is clearly seen that Niger is increasingly attracting the attention of foreign actors. What is important here is that foreign interests must help the world’s poorest country develop, not further destabilise it. Although the recent democratic transition of power in the country is promising, Niger is currently going through a difficult situation, exacerbated by COVID-19 and the recent terrorist attacks. Therefore, any actor wishing to engage with the country has to consider the priorities of the Nigerian people.
[i] United Nations Development Programme. (2021). 2020 Human Development Index Ranking. Retrieved from: http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/latest-human-development-index-ranking
[ii] Askar, A. (2020, September 08). Niger’s Regional Role in the Sahel and Sahara Regions: Essentials, Challenges and Future. https://epc.ae/topic/nigers-regional-role-in-the-sahel-and-sahara-regions-essentials-challenges-and-future
[iii] “The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy”. (2018, June 12). International Crisis Group. https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/mali/261-frontiere-niger-mali-mettre-loutil-militaire-au-service-dune-approche-politique
[iv] Durmaz, M. (2021, July 21). As France’s army shifts gears in the Sahel, Niger takes a more central role. TRT World. https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/as-france-s-army-shifts-gears-in-the-sahel-niger-takes-a-more-central-role-48441
[v] Askar, A. (2020, September 08). Niger’s Regional Role in the Sahel and Sahara Regions: Essentials, Challenges and Future.
[vi] Babb, C. (2019, November 01). US-Constructed Air Base in Niger Begins Operations. https://www.voanews.com/a/africa_us-constructed-air-base-niger-begins-operations/6178666.html
[vii] Durmaz, M. (2021, July 21). As France’s army shifts gears in the Sahel, Niger takes a more central role. TRT World.
[viii]Tubiana, J., Warin C., Saeneen, G.M. (2018, September). Multilateral damage: The impact of EU migration policies on central Saharan routes. https://www.clingendael.org/pub/2018/multilateral-damage
[ix] “Niger: Overview”. (2021). Global Detention Project. https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/africa/niger
[x] Müller, M. (2018). Migration conflict in Niger: President Issoufou dares, the north loses. In Koch, A., Weber, A., & Werenfels, I. Profiteers of migration: Authoritarian states in Africa and European migration management. 34-44 SWP Research Paper, (July)
[xi] Howden, D., Zandonini, G. (2018, May 22). Niger: Europe’s Migration Laboratory. https://deeply.thenewhumanitarian.org/refugees/articles/2018/05/22/niger-europes-migration-laboratory
[xii] Ramani, S. (2021, May 21). Eye on Niamey: Middle East regional powers vie for influence in Niger. Middle East Institute. https://www.mei.edu/publications/eye-niamey-middle-east-regional-powers-vie-influence-niger
[xiii] Bir, B. (2020, July 21). Turkey wants to play role in Niger’s development. Anadolu Agency. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/turkey-wants-to-play-role-in-nigers-development/1917600
[xiv] Ramani, S. (2021, May 21). Eye on Niamey: Middle East regional powers vie for influence in Niger.