Meet America’s new ally in Africa. With 16 million people, a per capita income of $360 (PPP),52,875 refugees, and dysfunctional neighbors, Niger seems less than the ideal partner in the growing U.S. strategic footprint in Africa, but its geographic location places it at the frontlines.Landlocked between the hotbed of Mali and the oil basin in the Gulf of Guinea, Niger represents a new crossroads of American foreign policy.It is quickly becoming a buffer between uncertainty and instability in the north of Africa and uncertainty and dependency in the Gulf of Guinea. Thisstrategic hedgerow intends to separate radical Islam from the void created in Nigeria by the autonomous, yet mostly inward looking Boko Haram.
While the new drone base at DioriHamani International Airport is meant for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the AfPak and Yemenstigma of such bases remains strong. For a country that has experienced an attemptedcoup, protracted famine, andmultiple rebellions over the past twenty years, it is not surprising that Niger would align with the U.S. and agree to provide facilities for drones. With the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb marauding in the north and the Nigerian separatist movement Boko Haram just south of the Niger-Nigerian border, the regime’s discount rate is high, valuing present security and an economic boon over future consequence. The cost-benefit analysis of the policy is rightfullybiased towards generating social, economic, and political stability today.However, the political consequences for the MahamadouIssoufou regime remain uncertain.Does the new status of forces agreement and the aid that will certainly follow provide the legitimacy (albeit external legitimacy) that a fledgling regime requires? Or, does it further undermine political development and the internal legitimacy that is required as a basis for economic development?
The answer is both. The impact is temporal.In the short term, aid inflows and increased U.S. interest in the uncontrolled hinterlands of northwesternNiger, the site of the Taureg Rebellions from 1990-1995 and 2007-2009, provide a smoothing effect. The increased aid will serve to alleviate the persistent Nigerian and Malian refugee problem and provide a valuable supply of food within a volatile agrarian landscape (11.5% arable land). While the U.S. footprint will be small, increased intelligence resources will provide the Nigerien army with the capability to secure the Malian frontiers and most importantly the supply chain for Niger’s principalexport: uranium. Equitable distribution of the food and physical security dividend will determine the short-term advantages of the U.S.-Niger linkage.
In the long term, the effects of this political linkage could be damning for a fledgling democracy such as Niger. The question remains whether the spillovers from Nigeria and Mali are existential threats to the Nigeriens. Time will be the determinant. In the interim, electoral democracy has been inadequately institutionalized, regions remain marginalized, and the economic foundation is weak with subsistence agriculture predominating. While the 2011 election could mark a water-shed in political reform, it is too early to tell. A fine line exists between self-determination and externally imposed mandates for political reform. If the net impact of this evolving relationship is to be positive, the consolidation of democratic norms must be demanded first by the Nigerien citizenry and then reinforced in U.S. bilateral agreements. At present, security is of a higher U.S. priority than democratic norms. If past regional relationshipsforeshadow the path followed by U.S. host nations and partners, the Nigerien electorate should be wary of external legitimacy generated by linkage politics with the United States.This is especially true with respect to drone bases. Escalation to force and violations of sovereign borders, condoned via a status of forces agreement, may jeopardize regional relationships. Furthermore, the U.S. may not always be interested as the security landscape changes.
As the U.S. presence grows in West Africa, the experience in East Africa over the last two decadesdemonstrates the domestic policy consequences of security-aid exchanges. The fear of spillovers from Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Lord’s Republican Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda, and the new Republic of South Sudan has led to a strategic hedgerow of U.S. foreign aid in exchange for new surveillance and drone bases.
It is no coincidence that the top African recipients of U.S. foreign aid are also the home bases of U.S. military and intelligence activities. The quid-pro-quo, security-aidexchange is rich in tradition.Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda are among the top-15 recipients of U.S. foreign aid in the world, yet their democratic record is wanting. Since Bill Clinton’s declaration of hope in a “new generation of African leaders” and near simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998, this “new generation” has been able to secure external legitimacy by exchanging status of forces agreements for additional aid dollars without any preconditions for democratic reform.
A survey across thesethree major African recipients is enlightening as it demonstrates disregard for internal democratic norms in favor of an “any-cost” security agenda:
In 2010, former Ethiopian Prime Minister MelesZenawiand his EPRDF received 91% of the parliamentary vote and Ethiopia was declared “not free” by Freedom House International. Today, Arba Minch Airport bases MQ-9 Reapers that execute strikes in neighboring Somalia. In 2011, Ethiopia received 607 million dollars in U.S. foreign aid.
In 2005, President YoweriMuseveni of Uganda and the NRM amended the constitution to eliminate term limits. Museveni has been in power since 1986.Hehas made it a habit of harassing and prosecuting opposition figures, including the arrest of his principal opponent, KizzaBesigye, in the days preceding the 2006 election. Since the late 2000’s, the U.S. has been providing aerial intelligence out of Entebbe, Uganda, in the search for Joseph Kony. 2011, U.S. forces were deployed to serve as advisors in the prosecution of the Ugandan counter-insurgency against the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the same year, Uganda received 469.90 million dollars in U.S. foreign aid.
In 2007, the last presidential election in Kenya was marred by ethnic conflict and bloodshed: 1,300 people were killed and half a million people displaced. On March 4, Uhuru Kenyatta, the accused catalyst of the violence and a presidential frontrunner stands for election.He has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Today, the U.S. shares a base with the Kenyan militaryat Manda Bay. Geographically, its proximity to Somalia makes it an ideal location for either drone or special operations activities against al-Shabaab. In 2011, Kenya received 1.03 billion dollars in U.S. foreign aid.
The creation of the new strategic hedgerow in Niger and Burkina Faso is a consequence of two factors. First, the Mali experience demonstrated the ability of radical Islamic groups to fill the political void created by indigenous separatist groups. The obvious fear is that Niger, who is dealing with its own issues, would serve a medium for the transmission of AQIM into the Nigerian insurgency. Second, the experience in Somalia demonstrates the effectiveness of containing the contagion, al-Shabaab, and prosecuting the would-be creator of a political void, the Lord’s Resistance Army.
As demonstrated in East Africa, the strategic hedgerow has negative democratic externalities. As the U.S. enters the anti-terrorism game in West Africa, partner and host nations should be careful not to follow the East African political precedent. The a-priori characterization of a regime as progressive provides future flexibility in consolidating democratic norms, for better or worse. Niger and Burkina Faso, most importantly their respective citizenries, must learn from the past decade of U.S.-host relations. With the U.S.’s narrow security-oriented focus, demand for democratic reform must come from within. Poor countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso must consolidate democratic norms in order to be future recipients of foreign aid when the U.S. security interest in them dissipates.In essence, they must take the aid-security windfall and hedge against future losses through democratization. By following the lead of Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant in the future. They can’t afford not to play the democratic game.
John Miller (USA) is a Masters of Philosophy Candidate in Economic and Social History at Clare College, University of Cambridge, where he has also completed a Masters of Philosophy in Development Studies. Upon completion of study, he will return to the U.S. Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer. He can be reached at JM797@cam.ac.uk.
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.