The rise of ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram has turned Niger from a backwater into a key U.S. counterterrorism partner. So why is it becoming more authoritarian?
- By Belinda O’DonnellBelinda O’Donnell is a Washington-based writer and researcher focusing on U.S.-Africa ties in the context of politics and security. Follow her on Twitter: @brjodonnell, Ryan Lenora BrownRyan Lenora Brown is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, where she covers southern Africa for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications.
JOHANNESBURG and WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Feb. 9, authorities in Niger arrested a woman they claimed was a threat to national security.
She wasn’t a military officer plotting a coup, a populist leader inciting unrest, or even an opposition politician challenging the president. Far from it, Hamsou Garba is one of Niger’s better-known singers, a vivacious pop star with an affinity for glamorous jackets, synchronized choreography, and reflective lyrics. And yet she was charged with inciting civil disobedience and briefly put behind bars.
“Hama Amadou is a second Mandela,” Garba had sung in a popular single released before the first round of Niger’s presidential elections on Feb. 21, referring to the country’s leading opposition candidate. “Hama Amadou is Niger’s Mandela.”
In the wake of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s landslide re-election victory last month, when he capitalized on an opposition boycott to capture 92 percent of the vote, the saga of Garba’s arrest seems bizarre and overblown — the heavy-handed flailing of a paranoid president who has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent. But the case was sadly consistent with the election itself, which was marred by flagrant irregularities, including the jailing of Amadou on bizarre human trafficking charges and the intentional smearing of Adal Rhoubeid, another opposition candidate who was briefly imprisoned in neighboring Burkina Faso after being mistaken for a terrorist.
By almost any democratic standard, the vote was a travesty. And yet, afterward, the U.S. State Department issued a sunny press release congratulating Issoufou and reaffirming the United States’ commitment to “our partnership with Niger on security, development, and democratic governance.”
That press release is almost a parody of anodyne diplomacy. But it’s also a key to understanding Issoufou’s disputed re-election and the dramatic turn toward authoritarianism in Niger that preceded it. Wedged between Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, the Islamic State in neighboring Libya, and various al Qaeda affiliates in Mali, Niger is quietly becoming one of the United States’ most important counterterrorism allies in West Africa. (The U.S. delegation that attended Issoufou’s inauguration on April 2 was led not by the ambassador or another high-ranking diplomat, but by Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. Africa Command.)
The Nigerien president has benefited from that relationship, most visibly in the significant upgrading of his country’s armed forces. But he is no doubt aware of the conditions attached to Washington’s offer of friendship — above all, the maintenance of political stability in the Alaska-sized desert nation. And Issoufou has been nothing if not determined to deliver that stability, regardless of the cost for his people.
“Niger in the last few years since the Mali coup has been a really important strategic partner in combating terrorism in the Sahel, [and] that has created a lot of good will” internationally, said Dorina Bekoe, an associate professor at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, which is affiliated with the U.S. Defense Department. “Internally though, Issoufou has increasingly wielded a more authoritarian hand, and I think that may continue or even get worse.”
The two trends are not unrelated. Niger’s rising star as a bastion of regional security has gone hand in hand with the erosion of democracy there. Following a 2010 military coup that paved the way for elections a year later, Issoufou’s transition from longtime opposition candidate to president was supposed to be a significant step forward in the consolidation of the country’s democracy, even though his brief stint as prime minister in 1993 and 1994 was defined by political deadlock.
Issoufou campaigned on an ambitious domestic agenda whose dramatic name — the “Renaissance Program” — spoke to the president’s outsized ambitions to boost quality of life in a country that currently sits in last place on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index. His plan promised, among other things, massive job creation, improved sanitation and health facilities, upgrades to rickety infrastructure, and a crackdown on corruption.
But once in office, Issoufou ditched his development agenda in favor of tackling the regional jihadi threat — beefing up the country’s security apparatus and courting military assistance from the West. In 2011, when Issoufou took office, Niger’s annual military spending was a modest $50 million; by 2013, it had more than doubled to $127 million. In 2016, Niger’s total security expenditures are expected to reach $300 million.
This upward trend in security spending, coupled with the lack of progress on fighting poverty, has disappointed many Nigeriens. But rather than allow them to vent their dissatisfaction through democratic channels, the president cracked down hard on dissent. Activists, intellectuals, and members of the opposition have all found themselves in the crosshairs of his government, which receives more financial assistance from Western democracies today than ever before.
The United States and France, in particular, have been eager suppliers of that assistance. From the perspective of both Washington and Paris, Niger is an ideal partner for rapidly expanding security operations in the region. It is mostly peaceful, centrally located, and led by a president who is enthusiastic about the alliance. In January 2013, the United States began flying surveillance drones from the runway at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, and it has since expanded the operation to include a second drone base in the desert city of Agadez. The French are now flying drones as well and using Niger as one of several bases for Operation Barkhane, a 3,500-troop counterterrorism initiative covering the broader Sahel region.
For Niger, these partnerships have yielded tangible benefits. Over the course of Issoufou’s first term, U.S. security assistance to Niger has climbed from just under $400,000 in 2011 to $41 million in 2016, according to Seth Binder, a specialist on U.S. military aid at the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor, which tracks the funding streams that accompany the projection of U.S. military power abroad. Meanwhile, Niger’s participation in the Multinational Joint Task Force, a five-nation regional coalition battling Boko Haram, has made additional foreign military training and assistance possible.
“Issoufou’s government has invested heavily in security, upgraded the army, reinforced the intelligence service, organized daily patrols in the risky regions, and proceeded with massive arrests of people suspected of linkages with jihadist organizations,” said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a Sahel specialist at the University of Florida. “This has certainly increased the deterring capacity of the Nigerien army and perhaps dissuaded dormant cells of jihadists from becoming active.”
But if Issoufou’s cozy relationship with the West has helped keep the foreign jihadi threat at bay, it has also left him politically vulnerable at home. After the January 2015 terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the Nigerien president traveled to Paris in a dramatic display of solidarity, telling Radio France, “We are all Charlie.” The statement might have played well among his benefactors in the Élysée, but his own countrymen were not impressed. And when Charlie Hebdo published an issue the following week depicting a weeping Prophet Mohammed clutching a placard that read “Je Suis Charlie,” deadly riots erupted in Niamey and other Nigerien cities.
Issoufou quickly backpedaled, explaining that while he opposed terrorism, he also shared the disgust of Muslims offended by the prophet’s portrayal. But the demonstrations were about more than Issoufou’s public support for a divisive satirical magazine; they symbolized growing popular discontent over the president’s deepening ties with the West, myopic focus on terrorism, and perceived abandonment of Niger’s crippling socioeconomic woes.
“It was a mixture of religious anger, economic and social frustration, and anti-French feeling,” said Hamza Cherbib, a research assistant focused on Niger at the International Crisis Group. And after the violent protests, Cherbib said, Issoufou began cracking down on dissenters. “He blamed the opposition for being behind the riots,” hastening the “deterioration of the relationship between the government and the opposition.”
Nigeriens took note as political space for the opposition began to constrict: Between 2011 and early 2015, the number of Nigeriens who believed that the government was silencing opposition parties nearly doubled, according to survey data from Afrobarometer, a research project that measures public attitudes in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is not difficult to explain Issoufou’s behavior. Niger’s strategic importance stems from its status as an island of calm in a sea of political instability. Allow democracy to take root, and its often messy growing pains could plunge the country into chaos — and scuttle its lucrative military partnerships in the process. This is the same short-term calculation that other top recipients of Western military assistance have made: Chad, Djibouti, and Uganda have all cashed in on the “war on terror” as their autocratic leaders have grown increasingly entrenched.
But authoritarian drift can be risky in security partnerships. Just ask Burkina Faso’s former president, Blaise Compaoré, who steered his country into a profitable security partnership with the United States — only to be ousted by popular protests after he tried to extend his 27-year stint in power by scrapping presidential term limits. The United States did little to aid Compaoré in his hour of need, recalling the fate of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was abandoned during the Arab Spring despite being a trusted U.S. ally.
“If your government collapses, fails, changes, etc., you would have to occupy a completely irreplaceable position for the U.S. to rush to your aid,” Joseph Trevithick, a journalist focused on U.S security operations in Africa, said. “So far, we haven’t seen that happen in Africa.”
Although regime change doesn’t yet appear to be in the cards for Niger, the country’s opposition is so embittered that, according to Ibrahim, it considers Issoufou’s government “illegitimate after April 2,” the last day of the president’s first term. That puts Issoufou’s second term on startlingly shaky ground, despite his resounding victory at the polls. The political rifts that opened up during the campaign are unlikely to heal themselves, and they could easily boil over into more popular unrest if the president continues to erode the country’s democratic institutions. That doesn’t bode well for those still hoping to see Issoufou approach the country’s economic problems with the same intensity he has approached its security challenges.
Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images