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Mar 8, 2013 | Commentary

In the western Sahel, limited resources, institutional resistance, and little political will for security sector reform (SSR) exacerbates the threat of a regional conflict, as French and African military forces push Mali’s Islamist rebels into surrounding countries. This is particularly true of Niger, where SSR is a relatively unknown concept and where there has been a long history of violence with the same groups that destabilized Mali.

Nestled along the borders of Algeria and Niger, the barren, sand-swept mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas in the far northeastern corner of Mali cover approximately 250,000 square kilometers.. This is familiar terrain for the Tuareg people and presents a formidable challenge for French and Chadian military forces that are there searching for the Islamist fighters that have been pushed out of Gao and Kidal. The vast and inhospitable region makes it difficult to find and pursue the rebels, while the porous borders with Algeria and Niger make it nearly impossible to contain their movements. As the rebels are slowly forced from their mountain camps and hideouts, they could flee to Algeria or Niger and bring their conflict to these countries more directly. The Algerian hostage crisis in January 2013, wherein 39 foreign workers were killed after being taken hostage by affiliates of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is an example of this possible eventuality. The leader of the attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reported killed by Chadian forces in the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains in March, further illustrating the multi-national dimensions of this conflict. Dealing with the inevitable regional impact of the Malian conflict must become a key focus of the international community.

Similarly, the impact of this violence on innocents is a major concern.Médecins Sans Frontiéres estimates that nearly 10,000 Malian refugees have settled in the already fragile Tillabéry region of northwestern Niger. Their arrival puts significant pressure on the Nigerien government and non-government organizations (NGOs), who are already trying to secure basic necessities, and illustrates the inability of the Nigerien government to secure its territory. Security governance is a major issue in Niger, as it has neither the resources, nor the political will to pursue reforms that would provide for more effective security institutions. Refugee migration is only one aspect of this, as criminal organizations and rebellious insurrectionist actively operate in Niger, bringing fighters and supplies across the border into Mali. These failures are indicative of the poor state of the security sector within the country.

Like Mali, Niger is “home” to a large number of the Tuareg people, where they suffer from ongoing discrimination and political exclusion because of their nomadic lifestyle. This has led to repeated rebellions, with the most recent ending in 2009. It has also created a sense of disillusionment with the central government, and a loyalty to tribal counterparts which supersedes national considerations. The socio-political situations in Mali and Niger are often linked, with prospects for peace rising and waning in step with one another as Tuareg tribes in one country affect the attitudes and actions in the other.

Logistically, the Nigerien security apparatus simply lacks the resources necessary to do its job effectively. Even without the organizational failures that plague it, the country remains one of the poorest in Africa and cannot provide the adequate training, equipment, oversight or control necessary to turn the countries security forces into an effective means of protecting its interests. The deployment of French military forces to protect uranium mines owned by French energy giant Areva, along with American surveillance drones and troops being sent to Niamey, illustrate their respective countries concerns that Mali’s conflict will expand into Niger, and possibly engulf the Sahel region as a whole.

The organization of the Nigerien security forces also leads to an abundance of power held in the hands of the Forces Armées Nigeriennes (FAN). The Gendarmerie Nationale, which operates under the command of the FAN is responsible for law enforcement and protection duties in the rural regions of the country, where the Tuareg people are most abundant.  The inherent mismatch between community policing roles and militaristic security enforcement inevitably leads to abuses of power in these regions, and engenders further resentment. The position of the military in Nigerien society is also deeply concerning, as it has fostered a distinct distaste for civilian oversight and has a history of overthrowing the government when it feels the regime is failing to protect either its interests or the states. The most recent of these coups was in 2010, when the military removed President Mamadou Tandja from office after he attempted to remain in power longer than the two year constitutional limits. This has occurred three times in the last 15 years.

Though the military views its role in Nigerien society as protecting the country from “weaknesses” of the democratic system, it is an intensely politicized organization that is resistant to reforms that may undermine its own political influence. Likewise, the military’s influence in the political system is valuable to an executive who is willing and able to utilize it for political gain, or as an extension of the executive office. Frequent clashes with Tuareg rebels and militia groups have also led to a deeply seated distrust of the Tuareg people, despite attempts by the central government in Niamey to include them in decision making processes and concessions that have thus far been successful in averting further rebellions.  These characteristics make reforms of the Nigerien security apparatus almost taboo, with few civil society organizations or governmental bodies willing to pursue it.

Mali’s conflict will not end when France leaves. The resilience of rebel groups, like AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), is well known. They will undoubtedly be routed by the current combination of Western and African forces, but keeping them from regrouping and launching further attacks will be difficult without ongoing western support. American drone policing, combined with ECOWAS efforts on the ground, are unlikely to permanently “solve” the problem without dramatic reforms to the security sectors in western African nations.


Sean Jellow is a Research and Communications Intern at the Security Governance Group.