A single light and a lot of shadows: Niger, the country that in 2020 had the lowest Human Development Index in the world, remains extremely unstable and crossed by several terrorist attacks in a lot of its areas, especially at the borders. There is, however, one extremely bright spot: Niger experienced its first change of mandate that took place in a democratic way since its origins (namely since 1960). On April 2nd, 2021, Mohamed Bazoum, former Minister of State for the Interior, has been elected President with an election that has been considered reliable by international auditors. The overall scenario, however, is still negative and the trail of blood and deaths is still long.
Two of the most recent infamous events: on 21 March 2021, a raid of jihadists with motorcycles devastated some villages at the border with Mali and killed 137 civilians, making it the worst attack of recent years. Then, between the 1st and the 2nd of May, 16 soldiers of the Nigerian army were assassinated in an ambush in the southwestern part of the country, in Tahoua’s area.
The terrorist raids at the borders with Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria generated an unmatched wave of refugees: at the end of April 2021 the UNHCR counted 584,021 refugees, of which 51% are Nigerian: double the number of the previous year of citizens that left their houses and are now internally displaced. The others are people from adjacent countries, mostly Malians and Burkinabé in Tillabery’s area, Nigerians in Maradi and in Diffa, not far from Lake Chad. The UNHCR promotes actions of protection for the most vulnerable civilians, also by collaborating with NGOs, and is building hundreds of dwellings in areas that are deemed as safer. The Islamic fundamentalism is fought by the regional and international forces, which find support on the G5 Sahel cooperation agreement, established in 2014 and since 2021 led by Chadian President Idriss Deby. There are at least 5,000 foreign soldiers in Niger: most of them are French, as they remain involved in the Barkane Operation, but they are flanked by German, American, Emirati and Italian (from 2018) troops for the Misin mission, dedicated to the training of local troops. Alongside the Sahara desert and especially at the border with Libya, the smuggling that by now has become endemic makes the area highly unstable; the risk of kidnapping, both in those territories and in other rural areas (the Italian priest Maccalli was set free in September 2020 after 2 years of detention), led the Nigerian Government to extend the night curfew in all the country.
What is being fought for
Of the 163 countries analysed by the Global Peace Index of Reliefweb, in 2020 Niger was at 138th place, losing 11 positions from the previous year, with a remarkable decrease of safety along the entire southwestern border of the county. The attacks for the control of the area led by Boko Haram in Nigeria and astride the border, by the Malian jihadist groups and in Burkina Faso are basically the main scenario of the current conflicts, that neither the national armed forces nor the international troops are able to effectively contrast.
What is shocking about such attacks is the violence against the innocent civil population, which is forced to run away from the attackers that steal everything they find, including farm animals. In the North, despite a decrease in gunfights against human traffickers after the deployment of troops in the northern area of Agadez, together with a decrease on the number of people who transiting, what is still flourishing is the smuggling of weapons, gold and drugs that never decreased.
This smuggling involves the entire Niger, as is confirmed by the discovery, made by the Interpol, of 17 tons of cannabis in storage in the capital city of Niamey on the last 17 of May: starting from Lebanon and Togo, the cargo was meant to arrive in Libya, and from there it would have reached different areas of the world, including Europe.Eventually, Niger’s raw materials, especially uranium, keep being of interest to several different actors in the country.
Last in the Human Development Index (HDI) 2020 among 189 analysed countries, Niger cannot recover from its harsh difficulties linked to poverty (49% of the population is destitute); morover, today, it has to face the raising plague of Islamic fundamentalism, which is spreading terror and misery in large tracts of what it may paradoxically be the most fertile area of the country, being so different from the vast desert area of the Sahara in the North. The independence from French colonisation, reached in 1960, didn’t lead to the birth of a State that could guarantee a worthy life to the majority of its inhabitants. The numbers and indexes, often among the lowest of the entire world, speak clearly: in a country where the average age is 15,4 years and the life expectancy is less than 54 years, the tragic datum about infant mortality emerges: the percentage is around 25%, meaning one out of four newborns die within the first 5 years of its life. Despite this, the demographic data are on a rise because of the high birth rate: every woman gives birth averagely to 7,5 children, and the number rises to 8 if we consider non-registered children. Furthermore, information about illiteracy is also tragic, involving more than 80% of the population, while the access to adequate health services concerns only 10% of the population and drinkable water is available for 60% of it.
The climate of Niger, a central State in Sahel, is mostly scorching and reaches extremely high temperatures during the summer, with the inevitable advancement of the Sahara desert that takes over the fields. In addition to this, is also the Haboob, a terrible desert sand storm that can obscure the sun from Algeria to Niger and cause disruptive famines, which raise every year the number of Nigerien children affected by malnutrition problems. Today, there are 4,8 million children with such problems.
In the South, instead, the latest rainy season caused intense flood episodes, especially of the Niger river, so that the life of more than 600,000 people was put in danger, many of which inhabited the surroundings of the capital city Niamey. Regarding the diseases, after the flood a surge in malaria was reported, thus adding to a series of endemic diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis and meningitis. It is reported also that cholera affects rural areas, alongside AIDS hitting among the youth population, especially in the urban settings.
Covid-19 was not responsible for major damages, with slightly more than 5,000 registered infections and less than 200 deaths from the beginning of the pandemic, probably because of a mix of factors such as the high temperatures, the low average age and the poor national and international mobility. However, the Nigerian Government has established a series of interventions aimed to contain the spread of the virus where it would have appeared acutely. Only 30% of the 22.7 million inhabitants have electricity, 80% live in the countryside and slightly more than 2 out of 10 Nigeriens has access to the Internet.
Niger is one of those African countries in which there’s an abundance of subsoil’s resources (uranium, chalk, salt, coal and gold), but the widespread corruption and the profits kept by the mining companies prevent the population from benefiting from these resources and let the country depend on international aid. Other than uranium, other exports are farm animals, onions and legumes for a total of 1.8 billion dollars per year, but the external public debt remains really high, more than 3 billion euro. Apart from the production of wood in the most southern areas, the most common activity remains agriculture, with subsistence crops such as millet and beans, together with sugarcane, vegetables and tobacco. Farming (cattle, caprine animals and sheep) is also pretty common in the country. Despite the several factors that make Niger one of the worst countries in the world for the quality of life, it is remarkable its welcoming attitude in giving shelter to those populations that were forced to leave the adjacent territories: it currently is the sub-Saharan country that hosts most refugees, and it has been chosen as a headquarter for programs of relocation in Europe of vulnerable people, including the humanitarian corridors or the Libyan evacuations organised under the control of the UN with the collaboration of humanitarian bodies and other States like Italy, Canada, Norway, Germany, UK and France. Most of the people that found shelter in Niger come from adjacent countries or central African countries, such as Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.
Key figure or organization: The Sultan of Agadez
Oumarou Ibrahim Oumarou is the current Sultan of Agadez (or Aïr), a small but powerful Sultanate born around the year 1400 as a place to solve the disputes between Tuareg’s populations. Its role is still pretty important especially in Agadez’s region, where it has a socio-political task in the community’s decisions and as a cultural benchmark. Oumarou has also gained the respect of UNHCR itself, when in 2018 and 2019 he managed to de-escalate the rising protests of the local population against the refugees accommodated in the country, through messages about dialogue and tolerance towards those people that have to leave their place because of force majeure.
His residence is on the side of a famous minaret, which in 2013 has been listed together with the historical part of the city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: also in this case the Sultan had an active role in the assigning of this acknowledgement.
FOCUS 1 – The Italian NGOs in Niger
For the Italian NGOs, being in Niger represents a daily challenge. Schooling despite the emergency, offering mental and basic health, nutrition, jobs’ introduction: these are some examples of the fields in which COOPI’s projects intervene. Even in those areas that are unstable because of terrorism, the organisations keep doing their job thanks to the local personnel. It is the case of CISV, that among its activities supports farming cooperatives and young micro-enterprises. All the Italian NGOs that are in Niger work on a lot of projects, that are funded, among the others, by the EU, UNHCR, AICS (“Italian Agency for Cooperation in Development”), WHO and UNICEF.
Different actions deal with psycho-social support for the internally displaced people and refugees, also in the area of Agadez: here work INTERSOS, Medu – doctors for human rights and COOPI itself. Furthermore, COSPE works for women’s empowerment, Acra and Africa ‘70 have a current joint project related to the milk and honey industries, MLAL-Progetto Mondo deals with food safety and CISP works also for the access to basic services and urban planning. Eventually, “Terre solidali” (solidarity lands) works for the protection of biodiversity, mostly in desert areas.
FOCUS 2 – The humanitarian corridors
23 June 2021: in Italy, a flight from Niger brings 40 refugees, including family units, that will find accommodation with Italian families through the mechanism of humanitarian corridors.
The refugees come from different States around Niger, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, which they had to leave because of terrorism and oppression. In 3 years, the project (that has been supported by UNHCR, the Italian Caritas and the association Gandhy Charity) allowed 1,050 people to end their journey of forced migration in a safe and legal way, letting them avoid the risks of a journey through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea while being hostages of human traffickers.