Monday, April 05, 2010

What the Nigerien Coup d’Etat Means to the United States

Niger has a tumultuous record of dictatorship, human rights’ abuses, corruption and nepotism for the past fifty years. It has experienced four coup d’etats, two rebellions, various protests and strikes from youth organizations in the major cities and two large famines in the 1970s and 1980s. On the surface it appears that its problems stem from self-contained rivalries between different ethnic groups but such a view fails to see the larger geopolitical view that is changing and becoming more difficult for Niger’s political elite to manage.

Two weeks ago the world learned that a group of soldiers calling themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy seized power from Mohammedou Tandia, the president-elect for Niger from 1999-2009. By Nigerien law, Tandia was expected to step down from power in December but as the election approached, he dissolved parliament and created a referendum that allowed him to remain the head of state until 2012. UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon condemned Tandia’s actions last year, but also came out against the recent coup d’etat, which leaves the world to contemplate if Niger is moving in a healthy political direction.

As people who are cognizant of the Niger’s situation debate the direction the country will take, one fact remains clear. Niger remains an unknown to many Americans. Most would be hard pressed to find it on a map. A few Americans who are familiar with it have served there for Peace Corps or with missionary work. American companies have little or no presence here with notable exceptions of Non Governmental Organizations like World Vision and Save the Children. On average, ten percent of Niger’s annual revenue is aid assistance. Regionally its biggest trading partner is Nigeria with food and livestock flowing out and electricity and consumable goods flowing in.

American eyebrows rise when mention is made at the largest revenue maker for the country. Uranium is mined in the North. President George Bush, Jr. in 2003 used this as political chip to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein was purchasing Nigerien uranium to develop weapons of mass destruction. Those who were aware of Nigerien uranium operations knew better, however. The French Company, Areva, has had a hold over the production, transport and processing of this resource for over twenty years. For Saddam Hussein to have any part of this production was ludicrous.

It did not matter. As mentioned, Niger was in 2003 and is today not known by Americans. Its anonymity will remain an option for American foreign policy makers to play if needed. Furthermore, Niger’s national leaders use their geopolitical position to attract military aid. Since Niger shares borders with Algeria, Libya, and has 85% Muslim population, the government received and seeks more assistance and training from AFRICOM, the US Military’s presence in the Sahara and Sahel in the Global War on Terror. The threat of Al Qaeda Maghreb, a small group of extremists from Algeria who patrol the Sahara, gives Niger political leverage in appropriating funds and munitions from AFRICOM, though people who have worked and lived in the Sahara are aware this group is more hype than a threat.

What is the greater tragedy of American ignorance about Niger is the consequence of this military training, equipment, and funding has on Nigerien citizens. Niger, like many geographical unknowns across the globe, uses it to subjugate their own populations. Mohammedou Tandia for the past three years has fought a dirty little war against a group calling themselves, Nigerien Movement for Justice (in French, Mouvement des nigériens pour la justice). The rebel group’s numbers are primarily Tuareg, the ethnic group that inhabits the North where uranium is mined. And similar with other resource conflicts across the globe the Tuareg are infuriated with the lack of local development and denial of local participation in the management of this resource. The Tuareg and neighboring Arab populations in northern Niger have little allegiance to Al Qaeda Maghreb, but how long will it take before Tuareg leadership connects the geopolitical dots and resents the West for providing military support to Niger? They already know but for some reason keep their targets confined to the Nigerien military and uranium operations. How long this tolerance of ‘outsiders’ will continue is anybody’s guess.

The recent coup d’etat was not the maneuver by the Tuareg rebel group but instead the plot of junior military officers who were disinterested with Mohammedou Tandia’s rule. Tandia attracted not enough assistance from AFRICOM to suppress the Tuareg rebels, squandered the uranium revenues on the war in the North, came under criticism by other groups in the South for neglecting development, and seized power illegally. The Nigerien president is limited to two terms under the laws of the constitution. The only aspect surprising about the coup was that it did not happen sooner. Perhaps Mohammedou Tandia expected it sooner more than later as well.

The new leadership could possibly go forward with constitutional reform and free and fair elections. But whether Niger receives a popularly elected president or stays a military dictatorship does not matter. The new leadership will likely fall into the same geopolitical trap that Tandia did. They will need to attract money through the exploitation of natural resources and through eminent domain seize local peoples’ land to earn those revenues. The conflicts that arise from this will require military assistance from the US and European Union. The vicious circle will continue. Niger will implode and its obscurity and richness in uranium will keep it a card that Western politicians can use to promote their agendas. Welcome to the third world. Expect more injustices soon.