When four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last October, few back home knew they were even there. Niger, a Francophone and Muslim country that is bordered by Libya and Algeria to the north, Nigeria to the south, Chad to the east, and Burkina Faso and war-torn Mali to the west, rarely comes up in discussions of foreign policy. On the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education, and other vital statistics, Niger ranks 187th out of 188 countries. Its population is doubling every twenty years, as women have an average of 7.2 children.
Yet because of concerns about security and migration, Western governments are now investing huge sums in Niger. The European Union will disburse more than €1 billion in aid over the next few years, and policemen from the EU are training thousands of their Nigerien counterparts. Across the Sahel, the vast and arid swath of land between the Sahara and tropical Africa, €6 billion will be spent by foreign governments and development banks over the next five years. The US military is building an airbase in Agadez, Niger’s gateway to the Sahara, which will cost $110 million to construct and $15 million a year to maintain. The CIA is building another in the northern town of Dirkou. French Mirage jet fighters patrol the skies, German aircrews are here, and British military transport helicopters arrived in July to help the French. Italy is planning to send troops to Niger, and there are French and US bases scattered across the region.
With conflicts along Niger’s border with Mali and jihadists from Boko Haram spilling into the country from Nigeria in the southeast, defense takes up 17 percent of the country’s budget, of which 45 percent comes from foreign aid. Students I talked to at Niamey University in June said they did not know what foreign troops were doing in their country. “Maybe the French are there to protect the president from a coup d’état,” said Aliu, twenty-five, a math student. “We heard that our army is not allowed to go to the American base,” he added, referring to a base in Niamey, the capital, that is run by the US but officially Nigerien. Maybe the foreigners were there because they wanted the gold that is mined in Niger, he said.
When I asked a colonel in charge of information at Nigerien army headquarters what French troops were doing at Madama, an army base deep in the Sahara and close to the Libyan border, he picked up his phone and called someone: “What the fuck are the French doing up there? Are they still doing their patrols or what?” Even he did not know.
It is clear to Western strategists, at least,…
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