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Crisis in the Sahel: Niger Envoy Warns of Desperation, Instability

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Niger used to be the poorest country on Earth. Now it's the second poorest — but that's only because the Democratic Republic of Congo took a turn for the worse.

In its latest Human Development Index, the United Nations Development Program ranked Niger 186th out of 187th in the world. Annual per-capita income in this long-suffering West African nation comes to $381, with 40 percent of its 16 million people scraping by on less than $1.25 a day.

Other numbers are equally depressing. Niger has the world's highest fertility rate (7.2 births per woman) as well as its highest infant mortality rate, according to Save the Children. Income disparity is also among the widest on the planet, and aid experts estimate that 800,000 inhabitants — nearly 8 percent of all Nigeriens — are enslaved.

With worsening drought conditions in the Sahel and the late March overthrow of the democratically elected government in neighboring Mali, things will only get worse for the Republic of Niger — unless massive assistance from abroad arrives quickly.

That's the dire warning from Maman S. Sidikou, Niger's eloquent new ambassador to the United States.

"We're very worried about what's going on in Mali. It's not only the Tuareg rebellion. Now you have other actors involved, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)," he said. "If you guys don't provide support to help us get rid of this scourge, I'm pretty sure we'll all come to regret it — and we'll be pulled into another war."

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Photo: Larry Luxner

Sidikou has been on the job for just over three months. He spoke to The Washington Diplomat on April 3, the day after the historic city of Timbuktu fell to Tuareg rebels and the day before the separatist group declared independence from Mali's central government in Bamako.

The coup — which unfolded only weeks before Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure was scheduled to step down for elections — took the world by surprise, although problems had been festering for months as Mali's army tried to tamp down a Tuareg insurgency swelled by fighters (and arms) returning from the conflict in Libya.

The military toppled Mali's civilian government, citing its mishandling of the rebellion, but shortly after the internationally condemned mutiny, the Tuareg-led uprising known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took advantage of the chaos to seize the northern half of the country, proclaiming the new state of Azawad. That in turn has led to widespread fears that the splintered nation, once a pillar of democratic stability in the region, will become a haven for the rebels' Islamist allies, who aim to impose Sharia law over cities and towns in the area.

The coup technically came to an end about three weeks later with the installation of Dioncounda Traore, the former parliamentary speaker, as interim president. But whether Traore will be able to organize elections within the mandated 40-day window remains to be seen, and details of the military-civilian transition remain murky, as does the fate of the renegade officers who sparked the crisis.

Sidikou barely hides his contempt for those who plunged Mali into chaos in Africa's newest power grab.

"The young soldiers who illegally took control in Mali just messed things up. It's going to affect Niger in two ways. One, the suffering of the Malian people will compound our problems with food security. And secondly, we know that what's behind it is more than just a Tuareg rebellion," he told The Diplomat. "Another agenda is being imposed on us, and that's the Islamist agenda. When Boko Haram started putting bombs all over Nigeria, I said this is not only a Nigerian issue, but a regional one. Our country is 95 percent Muslim, but we practice a very tolerant Islam. This is not Islam, but something else."

J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, says he's equally concerned because "the coup d'état by junior army officers not only overthrew an elected government but also threatened to undo a decade's worth of patient effort by the United States and its European allies while creating a significant opening for al-Qaeda's regional affiliate and other extremists," he wrote in the analysis "The Mess in Mali."

"In less than two weeks, the West African nation of Mali has gone from being a rare oasis of democracy and stability to a near failed state whose troubles threaten to ripple across the Sahel where the security situation, always delicate even in the best of times, is especially stressed in the wake of the flow of refugees, fighters, and arms from the Libyan conflict last year," he said.

On that note, Pham told us that, "What happens in one place is very important to Niger next door, and although the borders are official, national boundaries don't mean anything. For most of the people who live there, it's a continual space."

In fact, the United Nations estimates the fighting in Mali has uprooted more than 200,000 people since January, with the majority seeking shelter in neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger that can barely care for their own people. This refugee influx has only exacerbated the suffering along a swath of desert long wracked by rebellion, Islamists, kidnappings, drug trafficking and drought.

Indeed, while the bloody uprising in Mali has made a few headlines in the West, it's actually just the latest calamity to hit the Sahel region — itself in the grip of a brutal drought that endangers the lives of 15 million people, of whom 5.4 million live in Niger, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The rest live in Chad (3.6 million), Mali (3 million) and Burkina Faso (1.7 million), with hundreds of thousands more in the Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania.

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Credit: UN Photo / WFP / Phil Behan
Prices at Niger's food markets began spiking late last year in the aftermath of a patchy harvest, made worse by a drought that threatens the lives of 15 million people in the Sahel, according to the United Nations.

"Everybody saw the warning signs before this situation came about," Sidikou told us. "During the drought, we had failed crops, dying livestock and soaring food prices because of the global market. But we also had the influence of displaced people coming from Libya and Mali — people who are desperate for help. I've worked with UNICEF and Save the Children, so I know that the first victims are always the children. They're not getting enough to eat."

Sidikou is right. John Ging, operations director at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, noted that more than 200,000 children in the region died of malnutrition last year, and that about 1.5 million face severe acute malnutrition right now.

His colleague Anthony Lake, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), also pleaded for more international resources to help the region's children. "We are appealing, all of us, for an end to global indifference that we have found so far," Lake said at a recent news conference in Geneva.

"I know that there is a certain fatigue. I have read comments in blogs and elsewhere that, 'Here we go again; once more a famine; once more African children are dying; once more there is an appeal for help.'

"By acting vigorously and properly now, we can head off future crises ... by building now in this crisis, health systems, community nutrition center, more water bore holes," he urged. "We can build capacity for the future."

For his part, Sidikou is in a unique position to offer advice, thanks to his long career as an international aid and development expert.

"The ambassador struck me from the very beginning as well informed," said Pham, who's also vice president of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. "He's a seasoned statesman who's already served as foreign minister. Unlike many of his colleagues, he hit the ground running — despite his country's modest resources. I'm very favorably impressed with him."

Fluent in English, Spanish and French in addition to two native languages — Hausa and Zarma-Songhai — the ambassador studied journalism in Senegal and at one time was director of national television for the Ministry of Information's Office de Radiodiffusion et Télévision du Niger.

After earning a master's in communication from the University of Texas in Austin and a Ph.D. in education from Florida State University in Tallahassee, he spent a year with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Niger. He then joined UNICEF in neighboring Nigeria — the country with which Niger is frequently confused — and served as Niger's foreign minister for a few years.

But when President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara was killed in a 1999 military coup, Sidikou became chief of staff for the interim government. He then returned to the aid development world, serving as team leader for UNICEF's back-to-school campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan. Subsequent assignments brought him to Washington, D.C. (as a senior education specialist with the World Bank); Amman, Jordan (coordinator for education and culture with UNICEF's Iraq program); and Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (country director for Save the Children UK).

"I was in Kinshasa when the new president asked me to be our new ambassador in Washington," said Sidikou, who's spent time in orphanages and worked with street children throughout Central Africa.

The ambassador said his unique background has helped him move beyond the "U.N.-ese" jargon that diplomats generally adopt when discussing humanitarian crises.

"It helps you bring to the fore concerns that people in classical diplomacy don't always have — concerns for humanitarian work in critical areas like health and education," he told us.

"Let's make sure that the terrible situation in the Sahel, particularly in Mali, doesn't distract government and public opinion from the food crisis we're going through. Women and children are suffering. Malnutrition will affect them for life," he pointed out.

Landlocked Niger covers an area nearly three times the size of California. A French colony until independence in 1960, the country has been plagued by droughts and famines for most of its history. Approximately 85 percent of it is desert; the 15 percent of Niger's land that is arable is found mainly along the country's 1,000-kilometer-long southern border with Nigeria.

More than 80 percent of the population derives its livelihood from the agriculture and livestock sectors, so when the rains don't come, all of them suffer. Normally, the ambassador said, Niger's "hunger season" doesn't start until April or May, but because rainfall has been so scarce, this year it started much earlier.

"It's getting worse," he lamented. "When I was a small boy, we used to have these issues once every five or 10 years. Now we have it every year."

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Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri
Maman S. Sidikou, Niger's new ambassador to the United States

Sidikou said he's reasonably sure that climate change is the culprit behind Niger's worsening droughts — but there's only so much his country can do about it.

"Our president said we cannot rely just on rainfall to feed our people. This cannot go on and on every year," Sidikou said. "So he's embarked on an ambitious, massive program of building a dam on the River Niger to irrigate approximately 140,000 hectares."

To that end, President Mahamadou Issoufou has launched his 3N "Nigeriens Nourishing Nigeriens" program — an ambitious initiative that aims to protect Niger's people from famine by boosting food production; developing irrigation and livestock breeding; increasing yields of rain-fed crops in potentially well-suited regions; and constructing rural infrastructure to supply urban and rural markets.

"The idea behind 3N is to ensure that the population has the capacity to cope when bad times come, and to ensure that food is available on the market at an affordable price," Sidikou explained.

The government plans to allocate roughly $2 billion over the next four years to finance the 3N initiative. The money will come from an astounding 14.1 percent projected increase in Niger's GDP, fueled by enormous investments in the oil and mining sectors. Niger is already the world's sixth-largest uranium producer but expects to be the second largest by 2015. Some 72 percent of the country's foreign earnings come from uranium exports.

"Since November 2011, Niger is also an oil producer," said Sidikou, estimating that his country will soon be producing 40,000 barrels of petroleum a day, thanks to substantial investments by the Chinese in the Agadem region; the Chinese also built a refinery in the remote town of Zinder that recently began producing gasoline.

"An agreement has been signed with Chad to get oil through the pipeline, and of course we are inviting U.S. oil companies to come," he said, noting that the International Monetary Fund predicts a three-fold increase in oil and mining exports between 2011 and 2016. As a result, government revenues should jump from $887 million to $1.9 billion over that period.

Also on the drawing board: a sugar refinery with the capacity to produce 100,000 tons of sugar annually, or half the country's needs; deregulation of Niger's burgeoning telecom sector; the building of a $2.3 billion, 3,000-kilometer railway that will connect Niger's capital city, Niamey, with cities in Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Benin; as well as a $200 million modernization for the Niamey Diori Hamani International Airport.

Yet all these grandiose projects are jeopardized by Niger's continuing famine sparked by drought in the Sahel — and by the continuing unrest in Mali.

"Right now, families are already down to just one meal a day. That means a porridge of watered-down millet with a little milk in it, when they have milk," said Sidikou, estimating his country's food shortfall this year at around 692,000 tons.

Ging of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put it in even blunter terms. "We are in a race against time and some of the harshest climatic conditions on the planet," he warned after returning from a weeklong mission to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. "This is already an appalling crisis in terms of the scale and degree of human suffering, and it will get worse unless the response plans are properly funded. It's a matter of life and death for millions who are on the brink."

The situation in Libya didn't help matters. The overthrow of Col. Muammar Qaddafi resulted in the expulsion of some 200,000 Nigerien laborers from oil-rich Libya — not to mention another 40,000 who returned from Côte d'Ivoire after political violence in that country as well.

"Each of them were supporting five to 10 people back home. That income was lost, and now they have become people to feed and care for," said Sidikou. "We got rid of a dictator, Qaddafi, but nothing was done to counter the spread of armaments all over the region. Now the whole region is at risk."

Michael Totten, an independent journalist who writes frequently on Arab and North African affairs, is among the many experts who say that when the Libyan strongman was ousted, his mercenaries had nowhere to go.

"Qaddafi counted on significant support from hired Tuaregs, an indigenous people of the Sahara who long predate the arrival of Arabs to North Africa more than a millennium ago. With the Qaddafi regime defunct, many of his well-armed and battle-hardened Tuareg fighters drove hard across the desert and into Mali where they joined or re-joined the insurgency there," he wrote.

"Mali was a success story of sorts," Totten continued. "It was one of the poorest countries on earth, but it nevertheless enjoyed a stable democratic system — until now. The conflict, coup and declared secession aren't part of the Arab Spring, but they do seem to be one of its aftershocks."

Niger too has endured its fair share of coups over the decades, the most recent one in 2010, but as Alex Thurston of the Sahel Blog notes, Niger's military coup was inspired by very different reasons than the putsch in Mali.

"Soldiers in Niger intervened to 'reset' the civilian democracy after President Mamadou Tandja manipulated the constitution to stay in power. There was no war in Niger at the time," Thurston wrote. "But in light of the coup in Niger, it is not surprising that the coup leaders in Mali have taken on the rhetoric of democracy, naming themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and saying, 'We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened.'"

As of press time, that promise remains unfulfilled. But next door, Niger had been making tentative political progress, installing a democratically elected president last April — gains that the Mali uprising threatens to unravel.

So it's not surprising that as ambassador, Sidikou spends much of his time on Capitol Hill pleading Niger's case with members of Congress. On May 25, in commemoration of Africa Day, the African Union plans to organize a panel at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At least two foreign ministers will discuss the ongoing Sahel drought, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and other threats to regional security.

On that last note, Sidikou is working to sound the alarm about radical Islamists gaining a foothold in Mali, but while he advocates for international assistance, he's not pushing for a Western military intervention, which may only inflame the conflict and inadvertently help al-Qaeda attract local sympathy.

"What's at stake right now is not just a small rebellion. It's fundamentalist Muslims who want to create chaos and ensure that our states remain fragile so they'll prosper. All these countries are joining forces in the fight against terrorism. This is why the region needs support from our partners. But we don't need anybody to fight for us; we just need normal cooperation in intelligence and logistics," he said.

"I believe that if the West in particular doesn't help us defend our territories, you may see al-Qaeda getting a real sanctuary now. What's at stake here is peace and security. What these people want is chaos, not independence," he added.

"We're now in a quandary," said Pham of the Atlantic Council. "It's very nice to say we shouldn't deal with coups. That's fine as a principle, but it means that until they restore a democratic government, it means we can't deal with the people in control of the southern half of Mali that hasn't been overrun by the Islamists. And the whole thrust of U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11 in Africa has been this preoccupation with ungoverned spaces. Well, now we have the ungoverned space that's just been taken over with not one but two, possibly three, different Islamist groups."

Elizabeth Blackney, an independent scholar specializing in genocide and ethnic cleansing issues, told The Diplomat that the United States and the European Union need to do more — far more than they've done so far — to help avert a humanitarian disaster in the Sahel.

"Given the food crisis and other extreme poverty issues, you have a vulnerability of indigenous people to corruption and graft, which increases exponentially when you add into that weapons, violence, drug trafficking and money laundering," she warned. "These are troubling signs we mustn't ignore. There needs to be intense diplomacy to help forestall yet another crisis in Africa."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 30, 2012

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