Recently elected President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, is a soft speaking man with a big problem not of his doing. He was in Paris Wednesday to speak to French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, about the problem: NATO’s war on Libya.
Two-hundred-and-ten-thousand Niger citizens have returned to their home country to flee the fighting in Libya. People like Mallam Abdou who worked as a garbage-man in Ourba and sent 300 dinar (175 euros) back home every month. Multiply that by the number of Niger workers who have come back, and you get the scale of the disaster France, the UK and the US have imposed on the countries of the Sahel.
Niger is a country where two-thirds of the 15 million people live on less than a euro a day! “I came back with nothing,” Abdou says. “Not a penny.” Today Abdou sits with other refugees under a tree in Niamey wondering how they will feed their families.
President Issoufou now finds himself with an army of unemployed to feed in a country which is suffering from drought and food insecurity so bad international organizations last year warned of impending famine.
Beyond the massive influx of refugees and the money no longer being sent home, NATO’s war on Libya has hurt the state coffers. “There are no longer any exchanges between Niger and Libya since the crisis started.” Issoufou said. “And that has an effect on government tax revenue.” Niamey announced in May they are reducing their meagre budget by seven percent. You can be sure there are more cuts to come as Libya descends into anarchy.
The 800 kilometer highway through the desert to land-locked Niger Libya was to finance is abandoned. The road would have linked Niamey to Libyan ports and reduced transport costs.
Niger is a fragile Democracy. Issoufou was elected in March following a coup d’etat and transition which put an end to the ten year rule of military strongman Mamadou Tandja. The people were hoping things could finally improve, and then came the war.
Mahamadou Issoufou also told Sarkozy what he already knows: many arms which fall into the rebel hands in Libya end up in the hands of terrorists. “There is the spread of weapons throughout the Sahel region, even heavy- weapons,” the president said.
Over the past couple of weeks there has been fighting in Mauritania and Mali with Islamic guerrillas benefiting from the chaos in Libya.
Niger stopped a truck load of arms and explosives from Libya in mid-June destined for Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. How much has already got through to this Uranium rich nation? A diplomat in Niamey told AFP that now “You find more AK-47s than millet in the country.”
France gets practically all its uranium from Niger and given that 80% of French energy comes from nuclear reactors, you can bet Issoufou has Sarkozy’s short-sighted attention. Last September, al Qaeda kidnapped four French nationals (along with five other non-French foreigners) working for Areva, the French nuclear giant.
Although Issoufou reiterated that there is no question of French troops being sent to his country he may not get the final word if the situation spins out of (French) control. Just ask President Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire.
Mahamadou Issoufou relayed the position of the African Union drawn up in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, last week: the bombing must stop, a ceasefire put into effect and talks opened among the Libyan factions. The result of the AU declaration was a sharp increase in French bombing this week with the launching of rebel offensives on all fronts.