Niger: After Gaddafi, where now?

Democratising Libya to the north, rapid development south in Nigeria, and political uncertainty west in Mali, what course for poor, landlocked Niger?

Rarely discussed in the international media, Niger shot into the limelight as Gaddafi cohorts were spotted speeding into its capital Niamey. Now the country faces a triple challenge as on three key borders change is underway. But with untapped oil, gold, coal, and other mineral resources Niger itself could envisage a bright future. Or, could it?

Everything in Niger appears to depend on IMF Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) and international community non-humanitarian aid relief. As fast as drought hits, agencies respond. Yet now two of the three three biggest export markets for Niger's uranium ore, livestock, cowpeas (beans) and onions, Nigeria (68.3% of exports) and Ghana (9.8%) are developing rapidly. And there's so much more under the ground to exploit.

Mamadou Tandja, for eleven years until February 2010 Niger's autocratic President, was an obstacle to development. When a coup removed him Nigeriens got on with the business of reclaiming their state. Junta leader Salou Djibo organised free and fair elections which brought social democrat Mahamadou Issoufou to power in April 2011. So change is under way.

Yet China shot in quickly after the autocrat was overthrown, guaranteeing to persist with oil and uranium investments agreed during the Tandja era. "In the capital, the Chinese presence is still visible: groups of Chinese working on the new bridge, crowding the departure lounge at the airport, behind the normally closed gates of the sprawling Chinese economic mission downtown" reported the New York Times in April last year.

This country of some 16.5 million people concentrated in the southwest corner of its territory, with the rest laid waste to the blustering winds of the Sahara, is one of Africa's poorest. Not so surprising, therefore, that strapping youths ventured north as mercenaries in Gaddafi's Libya. Or that Niger should take a wait-and-see attitude to the political situation in that northern neighbour, allowing in fleeing Gaddafi family, close associates and others into its midst.

To its south, both Nigeria and - in particular - Ghana expand at fantastic rates, holding out hope to the stretched Nigerien economy. The majority of its people are ethnic Hausas, who would likely view their natural cultural centre as Kano in Nigeria. The next largest group are Djerma Sonrai who would lean inevitably towards Mali for cultural linkage. The romantic blue-men-of-the-desert Tuaregs come third in Niger. But Mali is experiencing a serious rift right now, with Tuaregs pressing others in Mali's east to secede.

Upheaval or development near surrounds struggling Niger, as Mahamadou Issoufou outwits assassination attempts at home. These are not easy days for this nascent democracy, and its retiscence to bow to international diplomatic pressure over the Gaddafi clans' fate might be understandable.

More international interest could be directed towards Niger to aid it in its attempts to reform and develop. There are big gains to be had from such engagement, as the Chinese appear to have worked out. It's a pity others have been slower to understand this huge country's strategic significance or economic potential. Perhaps now that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is gone, the Europeans, Americans and others will pour in development assistance to bolster this fragile democracy and raise the living standards of its people. 

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