Niger had already been grappling with insecurity and poverty, not it has been dealt severe blows stemming by the coronavirus. Primarily, Niger is one of the poorest nations in the world. Many Nigeriens live in dire poverty. The obstruction of trade in major cities burdens an already fragile economic system. People often live hand to mouth, working as subsistence farmers or herders—the inability to go to markets or move herds strains their way of life. According to the IMF, coronavirus prevention measures have also impacted much needed foreign investment and cross-border trade with Nigeria. Fiscal resources are already strained by insecurity, low economic growth, and corruption. Niger must now secure medical supplies and food stores to ensure social order.
Secondly, the security situation is very fragile. The country has had an ongoing security struggle, dealing with jihadists, militias, and criminal gangs. Even with the G5 Sahel Joint Force and French support, it seems there has been little progress. Attacks against civilians and armed forces have increased and become more deadly. Nigeriens are frustrated with their government’s inability to provide stability. Government officials are increasingly frustrated with the presence of French troops as well. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, residents in the capital, Niamey, protested the French presence. People feel that the French presence has not created any substantial change. It seems to have had the opposite effect. Except for Mauritania, it seems attacks by Islamist groups are on the rise in the Sahel.
Relations between G5 Sahel leaders and French politicians have been tense lately, especially after the G5 Summit in March. The African leaders seemed to begrudgingly accept French help, while the French made false threats of withdrawal. Even as an outsider, it does seem that both sides are dissolution with each other, yet see the relationship as necessary. Currently, G5 leaders, including Issoufou, worry about the loss of French aid. France is also dealing with coronavirus, and there are fears that they may recall troops and reduce funding, as conditions worsen at home. For Nigeriens in the streets, they resent the French presence and feel it has strong neocolonial tones.
It gets worse! The president of Chad has made claims that Chadian Armed forces will no longer send troops outside of their country. Deadly attacks against soldiers and frustration with coalition partners prompted these statements. The Chadian military is well respected and praised for its effectiveness in the region. Chadian armed forces lend their aid to G5 coalition partners as well as other West African countries. Naturally, the rest of the G5 and France rushed to reassure them, and for now, France claims that Chad will continue to lend troops. The loss of their help would be a severe setback.
The coronavirus has also occurred on the cusp of the holy month of Ramadan. The government of Niger did act quickly, limiting movement and large gatherings back in March. In the capital Niamey and other large cities, the government can attempt to limit or prohibit social gatherings. The Niger Islamic Council and the government instructed mosques to suspend service and advised followers to remain home. However, Nigerien society is highly Islamic, and for many, this is unacceptable. Some mosques and imams refuse these mandates. Police disperse crowds and interrupt prayers to prevent gatherings. Yet in smaller communities, nomadic populations, and desert towns, the government lacks the same control. Imams in these places forgo prevention measures as well. Despite government efforts, public gatherings have actually increased. Nigerien citizens have little faith in the government, and the measures are seen as infringing on their religious beliefs. People have taken to rioting to voice their displeasure. There are looming fears that jihadists will appropriate this issue to give themselves more legitimacy.
In the past, President Mahamadou Issoufou used insecurity as a time to grab power; this time, coronavirus has impeded his efforts. People are wary of the government and feel that politicians are trying to control their religious lives. Could this be the final straw? As crisisgroup.org points out, the level of protests and riots has actually increased. These are definitely symptoms of democratic erosion, as people try to resist and hold their government accountable. I believe Issoufou is trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but his administration has a bad track record, and the measures are unpopular. Given that Nigerien politics are often volatile and Niger has experienced quite a few coups, I think it is likely we will see another coup attempt.
– Agence France Presse, A. F. P. (2020, April 17). France Says Chad Remains Committed To G5 Sahel Anti-jihadist Force. Retrieved from https://www.barrons.com/news/france-says-chad-remains-committed-to-g5-sahel-anti-jihadist-force-01587144604
FRANCE 24. (2019, December 22). ‘We are at a turning point in war’ against jihadism: French President Macron in Niger. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/20191222-we-are-at-a-turning-point-in-war-against-jihadism-french-president-macron-in-niger
FRANCE 24. (2019, December 16). Macron, Sahel G5 leaders to meet in France in January. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/20191216-macron-sahel-g5-leaders-meet-pau-france-january-13-operation-barkhane
France 24. (2020, February 27). France slams unacceptable claims against troops by Mali. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/20200227-france-slams-unacceptable-claims-against-troops-by-mali
International Crisis Group. (2020, April 23). Covid-19 au Niger : réduire les tensions entre Etat et croyants pour mieux contenir le virus. Retrieved from https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/niger/covid-19-au-niger-reduire-les-tensions-entre-etat-et-croyants-pour-mieux-contenir-le-virus
International Monetary Fund. African Dept.23. (2020, April 23). Niger : Requests for Disbursement Under the Rapid Credit Facility and for Rephasing of Access Under the Extended Credit Facility -Press Release; Staff Report; and Statement by the Executive Director for Niger. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2020/04/22/Niger-Requests-for-Disbursement-Under-the-Rapid-Credit-Facility-and-for-Rephasing-of-Access-49360
Maclean, R. (2020, January 12). France Summons African Leaders, Threatening Troop Pullout. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/12/world/africa/france-sahel-summit.html
Perelman, M. (2020, April 3). The Interview – Exclusive: Niger’s Issoufou echoes warning that coronavirus could kill millions in Africa. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20200403-interview-exclusive-coronavirus-could-kill-millions-in-africa-niger-s-president-warns
The North Africa Journal. (2020, April 22). Sahel: Niger faces escalating riots in coming days. Retrieved from http://north-africa.com/2020/04/sahel-niger-faces-escalating-riots-in-coming-days/