- Landlocked nation has made security spending a priority
- Government seen as key ally of west in volatile Sahel region
Harouna Lamido never thought the Islamist militant group Boko Haram would be capable of bringing its war across the border in Nigeria into his native Niger. Then young men in his area started to disappear.
“Two, sometimes three young people in one family were going to Nigeria, and then they came back to get the others,” said Lamido, a lawmaker for the opposition MNSD Nassara party, who represents the border region of Diffa. “They think that once they are recruited, they’ll get a weapon, a house, a motorbike, and later even a wife.”
Such expectations are appealing to young people in the world’s least developed nation, where about half of men from the age of 15 to 24 are illiterate and annual per capita income is $410, according to the World Bank. Their prospects haven’t improved much during the five years that President Mahamadou Issoufou has been in power in the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium. Facing militant groups on three of Niger’s seven borders, from Boko Haram to Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the government has made security its priority.
Issoufou is expected to win a second term in a presidential election run-off due Sunday. The opposition has vowed to boycott the final round because opposition leader Hama Amadou was jailed in November and hasn’t been able to campaign. Amadou was arrested upon returning from self-imposed exile in France amid a government probe into alleged trafficking of newborns. Amadou has said the probe is politically motivated. He was flown to France on Wednesday for medical treatment after falling ill in prison.
“Issoufou promised development and said he would address youth issues. There’s been very little of that,” said Emilio Manfredi, a Senegal-based researcher specialized in the Sahel, the semi-arid region below the Sahara desert. “When you ask young people with nothing to do in Niamey about their opportunities, those who have money will tell you they want to emigrate, and those who don’t, want to get a gun to make some money.”
Military spending currently absorbs about 200 billion CFA francs ($332 million) annually, about 10 percent of the annual budget, and will stay at that level for years to come, Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said in an interview in the capital, Niamey.
“For any country, that’s huge, but even more so for Niger, which has so many needs,” Massaoudou said. “The fight for security and the fight for development are inseparable; if there is no security, we couldn’t have done anything at all.”
Critics including the Brussels-based International Crisis Group say the administration’s focus on security has meant that Issoufou hasn’t been able to create jobs for young people, a pledge he made after assuming power in 2011. Increased defense spending has led to cuts in health and education outlays, while the nation even reimbursed development aid it didn’t use, the group said in a report last year.
Aid comes with “conditions, procedures,” government spokesman Amadou Marou said by phone. “You need administrative staff capable of understanding these procedures and we can’t deny that that can be an obstacle.”
So far, Niger has been spared the high-profile shootings and bombings that have rocked Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, and on March 13 spread to Ivory Coast, where a popular beach came under fire from militants. When Boko Haram did cross into Niger in February last year, the government reacted swiftly by deploying 10,000 soldiers to Diffa and declaring a state of emergency.
“With the way it’s invested itself in security, Niger has done very well,” Filip De Ceuninck, head of a European Union security training project, said in an interview. “Niger is considered a stable factor. If Niger falls apart, it can cause chaos in the Sahel -- and the Sahel is a gateway to Europe.”
France and the U.S. have also chosen Niger as a base for intelligence-gathering troops to counter the growing militant threat.
It would be a “tremendous problem” for regional efforts against Islamist groups if Niger was drawn into the conflict, as happened in neighboring Mali, said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on North Africa and the Sahel.
“The government of Niger has been careful to position itself as a key ally that cannot be allowed to fall, which has helped insure Western support for the current government,” Lebovich said.
For Lamido, the lawmaker from Diffa, poverty and deprivation, not ideology, push unemployed young men to join groups like Boko Haram.
“Boko Haram has infiltrated our population by recruiting our children and sending them to the front-line,” he said. “The government says we’re holding strong, but the house can come crashing down anytime.”