NIGER says an unstable Libya is a bigger threat for countries in West Africa’s Sahel region than the Boko Haram Islamist militant group, which is close to being defeated.
The government of the landlocked West African nation will spend 10% of its annual budget on defense through the next five years to protect itself from militants, Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said in an interview on Wednesday in the capital, Niamey.
The world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium, shares borders with seven nations including Libya, where Islamic State has gained a foothold amid a power vacuum caused by a breakdown in central authority.
“As long as Libya isn’t stabilised, it’s obvious that there will be a permanent threat throughout the Sahel,” Massaoudou said. “Boko Haram is the immediate threat we deal with everyday. But the long-term threat, the main one for the region is Libya, because all the other threats at the border with Mali or with Nigeria are fueled by Libya.”
While Niger managed to prevent a separatist insurgency in Mali from spilling into its own territory in 2012, since last year it has faced countless attacks on villages from Boko Haram militants based in Nigeria’s northeast. Boko Haram has killed thousands and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes in the past five years.
After the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, weapons and ammunition from his stockpiles were smuggled into Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, worsening an already fragile security situation.
Ethnic Tuareg fighters who’d served in the Libyan army staged an uprising in northern Mali only to be outnumbered by Islamist rebels who tried to impose Islamic law. In 2013, France intervened to push them out. The French military has kept 3,500 elite troops across the Sahel to fight militants, including 400 in Niamey.
Massaoudou said that Niger is benefiting from French and U.S. intelligence, with U.S. officers using drones in the Sahel and training special forces. Nigerien soldiers are constantly patrolling the vast country, which is about twice the size of Texas.
In Niamey, security has been reinforced at hotels and restaurants in the wake of two separate attacks on places popular with foreigners in Mali and Burkina Faso in November and January.
Both attacks were claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is based in northern Mali.
Lawlessness in Mali’s north may spawn fresh militant attacks in West African cities, but the threat isn’t new, at least not to Niger, Massaoudou said.
“We’ve always been threatened, that’s why we anticipate these attacks,” he said.
The last incident involving foreigners in Niger was in 2011, when two Frenchmen were abducted from a restaurant in the city centre. They died the following day in a failed French rescue operation.
That’s why spending on defense has ballooned in the past five years. Defence and security spending currently accounts for 10% of the budget, absorbing about 200 billion CFA francs ($332 million) annually on a budget of almost 2 trillion francs, Massaoudou said.
“It’s huge for us,” he said. “For any country, that’s huge, but even more so for Niger, which has so many needs in other sectors such as education, health, and infrastructure.”
Niger has the worst score worldwide on the United Nations Human Development Index, ranking 188th out of 188 countries, below Chad, Eritrea and war-torn Central African Republic.
Niger’s government is confident that it doesn’t have home- grown insurgent groups.
“The threat isn’t inside Niger,” Massaoudou said, adding that the military is increasingly successful in securing the border. “We’ve done a lot of arrests, we’ve seized many weapons, we’ve destroyed vehicles trying to cross the border. Our prisons are full with people from Boko Haram and those who have tried to cross the Libyan border.”