With Eye on Mali, Niger Adopts New Strategy for Tuareg North

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Oct 10th, 2012

Fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA, pictured on Aug. 7, 2012. The U.S. is considering drone strikes against a similar terrorist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, after four Americans were killed in a Libya attack last month.

By Alex Thurston,

On Oct. 1, Niger launched its “Strategy for Development and Security” (SDS), a $2.5 billion, five-year initiative targeting six of the country’s eight regions. The project is part of Niger’s ongoing efforts to prevent the kind of chaos that has gripped its neighbor Mali, where a Tuareg uprising in January touched off a domino effect that included a coup in the south and the seizure of northern Mali by armed Islamists. As regional and international actors plan a military intervention in Mali — a move Niger’s government has strongly advocated — Niger is hoping that financial and political outreach will maintain peace inside its own borders. The success or failure of Niger’s efforts has implications for Mali, which will ultimately need its own long-term development and security strategy for the north, even if reintegration is achieved by force in the short term.

The creation of the SDS indicates how nervous Niger’s leaders are about potential unrest in the country’s north. Niger, like Mali, has a significant Tuareg population, estimated at 11 percent of the country’s inhabitants. Rebellions have broken out periodically in the northern parts of both countries, sometimes simultaneously, as happened between 2007 and 2009. When Mali’s latest rebellion began, observers wondered if violence might spill over into Niger, which was already confronting a host of problems: widespread hunger and drought, refugee flows from Libya and Mali and the presence of militants and kidnappers linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Observers questioned whether the administration of President Mahamadou Issoufou, who was inaugurated in April 2011 after Niger transitioned out of a 14-month period of military rule, would be seasoned enough to deal with the confluence of these problems and the threat of spillover from Mali.

As it turned out, it was Mali’s internationally celebrated two-term president, former Gen. Amadou Toumani Toure, who stumbled, not Issoufou. Pervasive corruption in Toure’s administration and half measures toward resolving northern grievances left Mali’s government ill-prepared to meet the Tuareg insurrection. In March, mutinous soldiers turned putschists toppled Toure with relative ease. By contrast, Issoufou made serious overtures to northern communities from the beginning of his tenure, selecting the Tuareg leader Brigi Raffini as his prime minister and promising to address Tuareg complaints. The SDS initiative represents an acknowledgment that words and gestures must be followed by major action if the government is to maintain goodwill in the north.

As its name indicates, the SDS prioritizes both security and development. The security aspect, as Raffini and others explained at the launch event, includes border control, the maintenance of public order, the rule of law and the elimination of “threats,” which presumably means AQIM, kidnappers and drug traffickers. The development aspect will focus on improving infrastructure and strengthening social services, particularly in health, education, water sanitation and transportation. Increasing employment, especially for youth, is another priority for the program. The central government, in other words, aims to show the population its capacity to rule, to make life better for ordinary people and to remove the economic incentives young northerners have for participating in drug smuggling and kidnapping.

While the program’s goals are clear, details of its funding structure remain somewhat vague. As Reuters notes, beyond the $118 million that the European Union has pledged and indications that the government will finance “at least half” of the program, “it was not immediately clear where the rest of the money would come from.” Niger’s total budget for 2013, adopted in September, is $2.53 billion, meaning that, on average, yearly funding for the SDS would represent the equivalent of roughly one-fifth of the country’s annual budget. To fulfill its ambitions for the SDS, the government of Niger will need to find more donors, borrow funds from China and elsewhere, funnel profits from uranium mining into the program or piece together a combination of all three. A gap between ambitions and funds could put the program’s goals at risk.

The question of funding touches on the particularly sensitive issue of economic grievances in the north. While uranium mining may help fund the program, poor working conditions and a sense that profits are bypassing local communities have driven strikes and unrest in northern mining areas. The SDS may assuage local grievances by reinvesting some mining profits into development, but if the program does not address working conditions, anger may remain.

Niger’s government undoubtedly hopes to avoid the fate of Toure’s “Special Program for Peace, Security and Development in North Mali” or PSPSDN, launched in August 2011 with a budget of $69 million. Like the SDS, PSPSDN aimed to boost the military’s presence in the north while creating new schools, food banks and health clinics. The Malian initiative, like others before it, seemed to make little difference in the five months between its launch and the Tuareg uprising. The SDS’ budget dwarfs that of PSPSDN, but the Malian example provides a cautionary tale about how the rhetoric of security and development can fade into inaction.

As Niger’s government moves forward with the SDS in the hopes of keeping the country intact through effective policy, Mali looks to restore its territorial integrity by force. In any scenario where the Malian army and external forces were able to retake the north quickly and decisively, Mali would also need to pursue a serious security and development initiative to establish political unity. The recurrence of Tuareg rebellions, the presence of an array of armed dissident factions, the economic hardship and food insecurity that northerners face and the poor reputation in the north of the Malian central government all point to the need for sustained investment in health, jobs, agriculture, education and other sectors, as well as efforts at genuine political reconciliation. If Malian leaders cannot develop a long-term vision for the north’s future, military gains there may ultimately prove fleeting. And in both countries, turning rhetoric into reality will require a commitment to effective implementation.

Alex Thurston is a doctoral student at Northwestern University, where he studies Islam and politics in Africa. He writes at Sahel Blog.

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