The escalation of the war in Mali is dragging the region into the conflict. Therefore it might be worthwhile to take a look at Mali’s neighbours and try to analyse their vulnerability to the spread of the conflict. The short analysis is meant to contribute to an overall picture of the region and the countries place in the conflict in Mali. To be clear: I am not suggesting that the conflict will certainly spill over to the country described.
Niger is the 22nd biggest country in the world and has twice the size of France. It is comparable to Mali in many ways. It has almost the same shape, it’s borders are less straight lined than Mali’s. The northern and eastern parts of Niger are part of the Sahara, the rest of the country is sub-Saharan except for the far south-western point which is tropical. Just like Mali, the southern part of the country is where most of the population lives.
16 million inhabitants. The Hausa represent the majority of the population (55%) followed by Zarma-Songhai (21%) and Tuareg (9%).
Islam 93%, Animalism 6%, Other 1%. The form of Islam practised is tolerant to other beliefs and not very strict, head covering is not mandatory and alcohol isn’t prohibited for instance. However, there are elements within the population that would like to see the introduction of Sharia law in Niger and there are tensions.
There are tensions with the Tuareg in the north, who revolted in 2007-2009. Their “Nigerien Movement for Justice” (MNJ) battles for a bigger share of the governmental uranium wealth to be invested in their region and protection of their lands against further expansion of uranium mines. This conflict is still going, but there are no big confrontations with government troops. The government closed the northern part of Niger, putting it under military law and installing a curfew. No journalists are allowed in this part of the country.
Also, as noted above, there are problems with the interpretation of Islam which resulted in religious riots in the 1990’s.
As a former colony of France, Niger has a special relationship with the French government. Also, Niger has a good relationship with other NATO countries and it’s West African neighbours (although there are territorial disputes with Libya, Benin, Nigeria and Chad). Niger has a moderate foreign policy and has friendly relations in both East and West.
Niger and the Malian conflict
Niger has send 500 troops to Mali as a contribution to the intervention and it’s being used as a springboard for Chadian troops for their invasion of Mali. The conflict in Mali can spill over to neighbouring Niger quite easily. The northern part of Niger is, just like the northern part of Mali, hard to control for the government and has a Tuareg population that isn’t quite happy with the authorities. Add to this a movement that would like to see Sharia law installed in the country and we have an almost perfect copy of the early 2012 situation in Mali. Northern Niger could be a perfect territory for AQIM to conduct it’s operations and maybe even try to repeat their Malian strategy. Having a good relationship with France, NATO and other Western powers doesn’t improve the status of Niger in the eyes of AQIM and the direct contribution of troops to the war in Mali is an absolute casus belli for them.