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Western powers must strengthen supply of intelligence and military hardware to governments in the Sahel following France’s decision halve the deployment of anti-terrorist troops in the region, the president of Niger told the Financial Times.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, finds itself at the forefront of the fight against increasingly active jihadist insurgency that is sweeping across its porous borders.
Without more equipment, especially aircraft, Mohamed Bazoum, the newly elected president of Niger, said his country would struggle to tackle the growing insurgency.
‘What we really need are more planes, which we can not afford, given our financial constraints. This is our major shortcoming, ”he said. “We have a large area and face challenges in several places.”
Niger is more than twice the size of France and borders seven countries, including Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali and Nigeria, where Islamic fighters are based.
Consider fairly well managed by its European allies in an unstable region, Niger became more central in the fight against militant jihadism after death in April Idriss Deby, the strongman leader of Chad who was regarded by Paris as a decisive ally.
Niamey, the capital of Niger, will house the headquarters of a new task force to replace France’s operation Barkhane while the French withdraw from the bases in northern Mali. The French force, which President Emmanuel Macron said last month would be cut in half by 5,100, will work with European troops in the region.
“There are reasons for France to reduce its presence, and it is not bad that he is doing so,” said Bazoum, 61. Large-scale deployment of foreign ground forces was not the best way to combat a ruthless enemy that was moving frequently. on motorcycles and could quickly flee from conventional troops, he added.
Bazoum, a former interior and foreign affairs minister, took over in April after an election that was the first democratic transfer of power in the country of 24 million people. At least a month before taking office 137 people died in the Tahoua region of Niger, near the border with Mali, by armed men on motorcycles in the worst jihadist attack on Nigerian soil.
In addition to more aircraft, Bazoum said Niger needed top-quality intelligence, including the U.S. drone base near Agadez in the center of the country, over the location and actions of militants.
The president conceded that Nigerian forces were not fully equipped to fight militants, although he said they were in a much better condition than before.
“Niger’s army is now completely different from Niger’s army five years ago in numbers, equipment, technical skills and morale,” he said, referring to improvements under his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou and training from France and other European countries. including Germany.
“We have invested heavily and we have benefited from the training of special forces by our Western partners,” he said.
In response, he said militants are increasingly going for soft targets. Eighteen people died in Niger last week, and 14 people who “worked peacefully in the field” the week before. “Because they can not attack our army, they are attacking civilians who are far from our security bases. So, as you can see, even when we solve one problem, a new one emerges. ”
Bazoum said the fight against militancy is exacerbated by poverty. “Uncertainty stems from the life problems these young people who join terrorist groups face,” he said, referring to organizations such as al-Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin and Boko Haram. “If they were well trained and prosperous, they would not have joined terrorist organizations,” he said.
The president said the threat of inter-municipal violence in Niger was increasing with climate change. “Desert progress is a physical phenomenon that is pushing pastoral populations from north to south and exacerbating the conflict over natural resources such as grazing, fields and water.”
Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group, said such problems could be exacerbated. “There is an imminent communitarianization of the conflict as local communities form vigilance groups to protect themselves from jihadist violence,” he said. “The risk of people committing inter-municipal violence is real.”
Niger is still one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of about $ 600 per year and a birth rate of slightly less than seven children per woman, the highest in the world. Bazoum said one of his priorities as president was to keep girls at school longer so that they could later marry and have fewer children.
Bazoum is from the same political party as his predecessor Issoufou, who won the $ 5 million Ibrahim Leadership Award in Africa and resigned after 10 years in office. Bazoum survived a devastating coup attempt shortly before his inauguration.
Additional reporting by Neil Munshi