Since Niger gained independence on August 3, 1960, the chances of a coup have been high. It is one of the poorest countries on earth, has mineral resources of global concern and sits at a key point in migration flows. This time, however, the messages I received from several friends in African countries in the first hours after the news broke that President Bazoum had been retained were incredible. “Now? Here? The possibility of a hit is unlikely. More importantly, the security issue in the “three border areas” (referring to the area shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) is even more so, says He Se Segura calls it Ground Zero. Jihad in the Sahel. On Nigerian soil, fighting between and among jihadist groups has been settled for years.
There they explained to me that within hours WhatsApp groups of members of the army were checking movements in the capital. “It seems to be true! Since this morning, the president has been in the hands of the rebels and is being held in the presidential palace.” As more information about the mutiny came out, there was growing concern: Serious, and sometimes complicated: the army is divided.” A few hours later, the confirmation was complete. What started as a fear of a civil war turned into a fear that the civil war would turn into a war involving the entire region. Likewise, the speed of decision-making is astonishing. Almost immediately, the junta announced the closure of borders and the suspension of all institutions in the country. As I write these words, we are announcing that all French soldiers are required to leave the country within 30 days. Next, its neighbors also expressed their views. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a seven-day ultimatum to the coup leaders, demanding the restoration of constitutional order and the release of the president. That’s enough time for a week to discuss a final plan for military intervention. Burkina Faso and Mali, which also saw military coups between 2020 and 2022, are the main opponents of the ECOWAS initiative.
Another friend wrote me after several days of no coverage. “You know, away from the capital, life goes on, but we’re scared. People are getting ready for war.” For almost everyone, the fear of survival is so basic it’s insulting. Niger ranks third in the Human Development Index, behind Chad and South Sudan. Decades is the country with the lowest life expectancy (now 60 years) and the highest infant mortality rate or maternal death in childbirth. It’s hard to translate data into our context. The fragility of the family is reflected in the difficulties of survival. When I first went to Niger, the famine started. The head of a small pharmacy in the north of Agadez explained to us at the time that families have to decide whether to feed the animals or the children. The lives of the rest will depend on that decision, on the transcendent details of knowing how much to live with.
Obviously, this doesn’t happen every year, but with few doctors available, being sick is an added hardship (according to the CIA World Factbook, Spain has 444 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants, while Niger has only 4 doctors). When more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty line and barely eats every day, it is easy to get sick. Access to water is a luxury in almost the entire country, which means not only difficulty in drinking it, but also the inability to guarantee a minimum level of hygiene. This is the ideal habitat for malaria, typhoid, dengue, schistosomiasis, hepatitis A and bacterial diarrhea.
Millet and sorghum grow in the narrow fertile strip that runs along southern Niger, westward from the border with Burkina Faso to almost Lake Chad. There are onion and fruit trees. And Cooley’s giraffe. There are also large herds of Pororo cattle, with their strikingly large horns. But for decades, Niger has been interested in what lies in the desert that makes up 90 percent of its territory. Today, it is the seventh-largest producer of uranium in the world, and for decades it was the most important producer in the European Union. Then oil also appeared …
What uranium has Niger been using all these years? Mineral resources, mainly mined in the north, play little role. The most immediate example is that today, yes, by 2023, less than 20% of the population will have electricity at home. In recent days, it has been reported that Nigeria has cut off the electricity that its northern neighbor depends on for survival, but for the local people, this is actually their daily life. As a major producer of uranium, how is this possible? Clearly, no nuclear power plant can provide electricity to the people of Niger. Its uranium essentially powers France and other European countries. But thermal power plants in Niger serve mines, not pharmacies, schools or houses. This is an unfair reality that has not changed since independence on August 3, 1960. In an extremely fragile environment, with occasional rains and little water, and animals showing remarkable resistance, mines have also polluted large areas.
Does it at least help you improve your education and make you think the future will be better? Again, the data show that the system barely ranks among the world’s sixth-worst countries in terms of literacy rates, with women’s literacy rates 35% lower than men’s. And in the near future, it will continue to bear the pressure of projected population growth: it has the world’s youngest average age (14.5 years) and the world’s highest female fertility rate.
What is the point of France being the target of the military government’s first measures?
Until a few years ago, France dictated everything in the region. Like other countries in the region, its currency (the CFA franc) has a fixed exchange rate with the euro (inherited from the French franc), which limits much of the economic policy that Niger is trying to get out of. France is also responsible for the romantic image of its populace, which masks the poverty it suffers from. The idea involves the Tuareg nomads, the “men in blue” who ride camels across the harshest deserts in the world, ignoring the diversity of the Songhai, Perl or Kanuri. The main trading partners in 2019 were the United Arab Emirates, which accounted for 54% of its merchandise exports, and China, which accounted for 25%. The junta’s measures against France have undoubtedly been welcomed by coup supporters, as evidenced by student demonstrations in the capital, but the reality is that, from a business perspective, France already represented just 7% of Niger’s exports in 2019.
The processes that take place today are not spontaneous. For the past two decades, every time I have traveled through Niger, from Niamey to the north of the country, via Taoua to Agadez, to Arlit, and then to Adbesinat, Tanout, Zinder, Maradi…, year after year, nothing seems to change. These are priceless little details to someone who doesn’t live there, but matter to someone who lives there. The Spanish missionary José Collado, who spent his life there, had already warned him. And my friend Nicholas Ayouba. Many people I know are because of them. A new mosque was built in every town along the way, and the fervent and moderate Islam we knew was gradually replaced by radical versions by new religious leaders. What happened in the Sahel without respecting borders, the dispersal of Islamists leaving Algeria coupled with Wahhabi funding encouraged this change that eventually lasted. As a result, security concerns have arisen in the west along the border with Mali, with migrants fleeing northern Nigeria under pressure from Boko Haram, who have settled in Diffa in the southeast. Then attack Christian churches. Over the next few years, uniforms and military equipment of Chinese origin appeared. The convoy is also responsible for organizing the safety of personnel crossing the north-south axis. Under my observation, nothing has changed, but everything has changed drastically.
In many areas that are not as exposed as the three borders, security has improved, at least superficially, in recent years since Bazum became president. He puts a lot of resources into it, and people outside Niamey think so too. Another Nigerian friend sees it this way: “For Issoufou (the former president), the situation is tragic.” He pointed out that Issoufou himself may have been part of the conspiracy, and he never accepted leaving after the end of his term. The idea of power. And to do otherwise would be a clear betrayal of those who have been with him for 13 years.
The conversation again referred to the role played by the army, the fourth coup in 27 years: “After the National Assembly gave way to democracy and the first elections in 1993, the army never agreed to give up all power. It seems that they are in the background, but will Come back regularly”.
There are many articles and opinions today about the importance of the Sahel to our security, and the role of Russia (and Wagner), China, France or the United States. Regarding its geostrategic relevance. They talk about how the population of Niger will increase sixfold by the end of the century and how much it will affect us. But there is an underlying reality in Niger, extractive injustice, that allows any commodity to be traded as long as there is an economic interest, even if it brings no benefit to the people but irreparable damage. Niger is as beautiful as its people. But extreme poverty and injustice only lead to instability, violence and death.
Author: Tomás Pastor, Member of the Board of Directors of the NGO Acoger y Compartir.
Casa África: “Three Frontiers (‘Ground Zero’ of the Sahel Jihad)”, José Segura Clavell
ActuNiger: “Military cooperation: French national security plan and Niger-French military agreement”
Data for Spain and Niger are from the CIA World Factbook
World Nuclear Association’s World Uranium Mining Production Data