On Oct. 1, Niger launched its “Strategy for Development and Security” (SDS), a $2.5 billion, five-year initiative targeting six of the country’s eight regions. The project is part of Niger’s ongoing efforts to prevent the kind of chaos that has gripped its neighbor Mali, where a Tuareg uprising in January touched off a domino effect that included a coup in the south and the seizure of northern Mali by armed Islamists. As regional and international actors plan a military intervention in Mali -- a move Niger’s government has strongly advocated -- Niger is hoping that financial and political outreach will maintain peace inside its own borders. The success or failure of Niger’s efforts has implications for Mali, which will ultimately need its own long-term development and security strategy for the north, even if reintegration is achieved by force in the short term.
The creation of the SDS indicates how nervous Niger’s leaders are about potential unrest in the country’s north. Niger, like Mali, has a significant Tuareg population, estimated at 11 percent of the country’s inhabitants. Rebellions have broken out periodically in the northern parts of both countries, sometimes simultaneously, as happened between 2007 and 2009. When Mali’s latest rebellion began, observers wondered if violence might spill over into Niger, which was already confronting a host of problems: widespread hunger and drought, refugee flows from Libya and Mali and the presence of militants and kidnappers linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Observers questioned whether the administration of President Mahamadou Issoufou, who was inaugurated in April 2011 after Niger transitioned out of a 14-month period of military rule, would be seasoned enough to deal with the confluence of these problems and the threat of spillover from Mali.
As it turned out, it was Mali’s internationally celebrated two-term president, former Gen. Amadou Toumani Toure, who stumbled, not Issoufou. Pervasive corruption in Toure’s administration and half measures toward resolving northern grievances left Mali’s government ill-prepared to meet the Tuareg insurrection. In March, mutinous soldiers turned putschists toppled Toure with relative ease. By contrast, Issoufou made serious overtures to northern communities from the beginning of his tenure, selecting the Tuareg leader Brigi Raffini as his prime minister and promising to address Tuareg complaints. The SDS initiative represents an acknowledgment that words and gestures must be followed by major action if the government is to maintain goodwill in the north.