Niger’s ongoing terrorist problem defies simplistic solutions: Salim Mokaddem

Eleanor Sa-Carneiro

The terrorist threat faced in the Sahel cannot be resolved by simply by ejecting former colonial powers, according to a senior advisor to Niger’s former president.

Salim Mokaddem spoke to Qonversations as his country’s new military rulers face a new wave of deadly attacks. Six soldiers and 31 alleged jihadist terrorists were killed in an attack in western Niger, near Burkina Faso a week ago in the latest clash.

Mokaddem says the violence illustrates the fallacy in believing that the presence of French forces was to blame: “The problem of terrorism is not a Western problem, nor the problem of other countries… It’s also a problem of military power and sovereignty,” he said.

He also updated Qonversations on conditions faced by his former leader, you can watch that part of the interview here.

On September 24, France’s president Emmanuel Macron announced the gradual withdrawal of troops from Niger until the end of the year as demanded by the junta following months of deadlock. Nevertheless, Macron continues to request the immediate liberation of President Mohamed Bazoum. As 1500 French soldiers have begun to evacuate by land, the first convoy to arrive in Chad last week signalled the beginning of the end of French presence.

France’s influence in the region is declining, with a series of coups and diplomatic relations between France and francophone west African countries further destabilising the G5 Sahel countries’ fight against jihadist extremism. Neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, currently under military leadership, also opted to oust French military presence, and more recently kicked out the United Nations’ peacekeeping troops, MINUSMA, despite increased attacks by terrorist groups.

Niger was a bastion of hope for foreign military partners in an otherwise fragile region fraught with jihadist extremist groups which have been gaining ground and increasing the number of violent attacks over the last decade. As France withdraws, and the Unites States relocates, Russian influence – often delivered by the Wagner Group of mercenaries – is on the rise.

In terms of counterterrorism, Mokaddem asserts that Niger had a well-balanced system in place. “Foreign partners were reinforcements, there were discussions, security councils and there was no neo-colonial position at all. The Niger Army was sovereign and still had control and coordinated all partners, the French and the Americans…”

“Note that American military forces have been redeployed. They have left Niamey for Agadez. Africom, the largest military unit on the African continent, is based in Niamey, Niger, for observation and logistical reasons” Mokaddem says.

The recent clashes occurred in the western Tillabéri region, now a base for Sahelian armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the EIGS, situated within the notorious “three borders” zone connecting Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
In the last few weeks, this region of Niger has been plagued by a series of assaults, further exacerbating the ongoing destabilization caused by jihadists over recent years. The most devastating incident unfolded at the outset of October when 29 soldiers were killed by suspected jihadists in the northwest of Tabatol, a town adjacent to Mali. Towards the end of September, another attack claimed the lives of 16 soldiers in Kandadji, while in mid-August, at least 17 soldiers were killed near the Burkina border.
Countries that are led by putschists are in great difficulty and struggling to maintain their countries safe from extremist terrorism, Mokaddem believes. “Mali is in dire straits. More than half of its territory is back under its (terrorists) control. In Burkina Faso, we now have coups d’état once we’ve got rid of the so-called external enemy. But there’s still the enemy within, and so we’re going to have people waging war against each other, military factions grabbing power between them, because the only or sole objective is power.”

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