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Niger’s President makes himself indispensable to the Sahel region

MEMO attended the 31st African Union Summit held in Nouakchott, Mauritania and talked with Niger's president, Mahamadou Issoufou
Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger's president [Wikipedia]
Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger's president [Wikipedia]

Is Africa becoming the new deployment ground of Western forces? The question first arises with regard to the French presence through the Barkhane force in Mali. Other bases or battalions scattered are Djibouti, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, or in Central African Republic (CAR) where the Sangaris force lasted officially until 2016.

Since the beginning of the year, France has been witnessing with concern the installation of Russian special forces in the CAR, which is traditionally considered to be part of  France’s “corner” of influence in Africa and a bridge between East and Central Africa.

The United States is also present with AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, which was created by the US Department of Defence in 2007 and has been operating since 2008. AFRICOM coordinates all US military and security activities on the continent. While the United States admits the presence of its military bases in Djibouti and in Niger, the Washington Post revealed in 2016 the existence of a military base in Tunisia in order to easily carrying out missions in neighbouring Libya.

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Furthermore, according to an investigation by Vice, the United States also has 13 “secondary” bases, according to the latest report from AFRICOM to the American Congress, as well as about 30 more modest ones. There are also more discreet bases, which can take the form of a simple shed.

Niger hosts an American UAV base and also belongs to the common force of the G5 Sahel. This joint force is supposed to, in the long run, take over from the Barkhane forces. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Niger has found itself at the nerve centre of the Sahel region, already considered an unstable and sensitive region, the epicentre of arms smuggling and human trafficking. It is on the migrant route to Europe and above all the breeding ground of various terrorist groups. The country is also bordered by two high-risk countries which puts it at risk of instability – Mali on its Western flank, which has various rebel movements such as the Tuareg in the north and the Fulani in the centre. On its northern border is Libya, a country subject to fragmentation and institutional uncertainty.

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During the AU summit, which took place from 30 June 1 July, a meeting was held between the heads of the G5 Sahel States (Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. The programme included a visit to the G5 Sahel Defence College. This school will welcome in September the first class of officers and executives of this multinational force created under the aegis of France.

G5 Sahel force

G5 Sahel force

Also on the agenda were discussions on the goals of the Barkhane force, given the highly sensitive security context which escalated with the attacks against the G5 Sahel HQ in Sévaré (Mali) on 29 June and against the Barkhane force in Gao (Mali) on 1 July. The Nigerian president Mahamadou Issoufou told MEMO during the AU summit that these terrorist attacks “will not weaken our determination. On the contrary, it strengthens it. We will continue the fight against terrorism throughout the Sahel. Not only against terrorism but also against other threats such as the threat of criminal organisations and drug trafficking. We have put in place the joint force to address these threats in a coordinated manner by pooling our operational and intelligence capabilities.”

“There are operations that have already been undertaken at the joint force level,” he continued, “particularly in the Gourma region. This region is common to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. These operations were solely financed by the G5 Sahel States since we are still waiting for the promised fundings for these operations of the G5 Sahel to be put at our disposal.”

War needs money. And war against terrorism in this immense Sahel region is no exception. Of course, €414 million was raised at the donors’ conference last February in Brussels, to which Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the European Union contributed. But the five countries are now pleading for “sustainable” financing: “We are particularly seeking help from multilateral sources such as the United Nations. That is why we will continue to advocate on this subject so that the joint force is put under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.”

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“The fight against terrorism is not just military. It is also a development issue, especially in border areas that remain under the threat of terrorism. To this end we have planned a priority investment programme for these fragile areas. This programme will be the subject of a round table next December in Nouakchott,” Issoufou added.

Yet things are changing rapidly within the G5 force. Mauritania’s Deputy Chief of Staff General Hanena Ould Sidi has just been appointed Joint Force Commander of the G5 Sahel. He succeeds Malian General Didier Dacko.  Hanena Ould Sidi will be assisted by Chadian General Oumar Bikimo, who replaces his Burkinabe deputy, Colonel Major Yaya Séré. The appointment follows a jihadist attack on 29 June against the joint force headquarters in Sévaré, central Mali. The attack took place three days before a summit of the G5 – a regional organisation bringing together Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – on 2 July in Nouakchott, on the side lines of the African Union (AU) summit and in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron. This nomination indicates the underground struggle for the leadership of this “task force” created under the aegis of France whose goal it is to pacify the immense Sahel region, prey to drugs, human and arms trafficking, and a hotspot for many undefined terrorist groups in a region that is easy to undermine.

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Of the five countries that make up the joint force, two are the ‘strong men’: Chad and Mauritania. One country is the ‘sick man’ of the Sahel – Mali – a country in fragile institutional remission and prey to internal rebellions. Yet it is in Mali that the headquarters of the joint force is located. This new Mauritanian-Chadian military ticket at the head of the G5 Sahel thus sounds like a disavowal of the original Malian command but also as a position at the forefront of Mauritania which intends to highlight its know-how in the fight against terrorism. Mauritania already had two management posts in the Sévaré CP: training and operations and civil-military action. It remains to be seen how operations will be coordinated between this joint force, the Barkhane forces which it is supposed to replace, and the Sabre task force, the unit of French special forces deployed since 2009 in the Sahel.

The migrant crisis in the Sahara - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The migrant crisis in the Sahara – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Another problem that worries European and also African countries is migration flows towards the north. Niger has become a transit zone to Algeria and Libya. For the Nigerien president, “Algeria and Niger have everything under control”. He says there is good communication between the Nigerien services and the Algerian services. Niger has a plan to combat illegal migration, whether to the Maghreb or to Europe:

“This plan has two aspects: one security and the other development. The security plan involves repressing smugglers, and the other offers them alternatives, opportunities to convert to other activities. This plan, which has been implemented since 2016, is effective – from 150,000 migrants transiting the country in 2015, the flow is now 5,000. This fight against migration is safe because smugglers who go to Libya with migrants return with weapons. This is unacceptable. This puts our safety at risk. Then I cannot tolerate young Africans going to die in the desert or in the Mediterranean.”

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