Neighboring Niger already suffers terrorist attacks from another jihadist group – Boko Haram – on its southern border with Nigeria. Many hotel patrons — Westerners and locals alike — in Niger’s capital city, Niamey, worry they could be AQIM’s next target.
In Niamey, guards at hotel and restaurant entrances occasionally glance into handbags or pass mirrors underneath cars to check for bombs, but security is perfunctory at best. Although Niger’s leaders have beefed up patrols in the borderlands and evacuated citizens from the most dangerous zones, terrorists can easily move across countries where national boundaries drawn during French colonial rule remain vague.
The number of foreigners traveling in Niamey and Niger more broadly will see a small uptick in advance of elections scheduled for Feb. 21. Many of them will be election observers. In the bars of upscale hotels frequented by expatriates, these international election observers will find a small but significant population of their compatriots who live and work in Niger as entrepreneurs, humanitarian workers and soldiers.
Over the last three years, Western countries have increased their military presence in Niger. Since 2013, the United States has been operating a drone base in Niamey to monitor AQIM and other terrorist activity. In July 2014, French President François Hollande committed 3,000 soldiers to the anti-terrorist Operation Barkhane. But neither of these efforts offers a sense of protection to Nigeriens, as neighboring countries Burkina Faso and Mali received plenty of ineffective counterterrorism assistance prior to recent attacks.
Military aid is a sensitive topic in Niger. Nigeriens have criticized President Mahamadou Issoufou for allying with the West. Issoufou’s opponents rioted and nicknamed him “Charlie” when he joined a solidarity march in Paris last year commemorating the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks. So although Niger needs military aid, Issoufou has to delicately balance that need against the potential that aid will be perceived as neocolonial or otherwise violating Niger’s sovereignty.
President Issoufou’s actions during this period of heightened uncertainty will undoubtedly be shaped by the national elections in February. Already, there have been numerous electoral irregularities and scandals, which are complicated by terrorist threats.
Issoufou, who is running for a second term, sacked nine military officers in December for a suspected coup plot. A main opposition candidate has been imprisoned for months for his alleged role in a baby-smuggling ring, prompting a lawyers’ strike. Another of the 15 presidential candidates, the physician Adal Ag Roubeid, was hailed last week for tending to wounded victims while he was on vacation at the Splendid Hotel in Ougadougou; he is now being investigated as a suspect in the attacks.
Questionable arrests and electoral fraud are arguably more threatening to Niger’s democracy than religious fundamentalism. Niger is not Mali or Burkina Faso. The country has its own domestic challenges to contend with, not least among them corruption, drug trafficking and chronic food shortages. A comprehensive international policy toward Niger would take all of those problems, and not just terrorism, into account.
Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College writing from Niamey, Niger, where she is conducting research on civic engagement, border policy and the February 2016 elections.