June 12, 2012 4:43 pm
Niger leader urges action on Mali
©Shaun CurryAn alliance of Islamist insurgents, al-Qaeda militants, mercenaries and drug gangs threatens to turn swaths of west Africa into a new Afghanistan after it seized control of northern Mali, the president of neighbouring Niger has warned.
Mahamadou Issoufou called on the UN to mandate west Africa’s regional bloc to use military force in Mali, should mediation efforts fail to quell a crisis that has cast a long shadow over the fragile nations of the Sahel region fringing the Sahara.
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Mr Issoufou has won plaudits internationally since his victory a year ago in polls that marked a return to democracy after the 2010 coup that ended the authoritarian Mamadou Tandja’s decade in power, overseeing what he forecasts will be economic growth of 15 per cent this year.
The IMF forecasts growth of 13.4 per cent this year. But his strategy to transform the fortunes of one of the world’s poorest nations has been complicated by the unrest in Mali.
Malian troops who took power in a March coup before standing aside under regional pressure have failed to contain the northern insurrection by Tuareg separatists and Islamist insurgents with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“If AQIM establish a territory in Mali, they will try to claim territory across the whole of west Africa and they will try to reach into Europe,” said Mr Issoufou. “It is the ‘Afghanisation’ of the Sahel.”
While Niger has so far avoided a resurgence of armed separatism among northern Niger’s Tuaregs, their Malian cousins, backed by mercenaries who returned from Libya after the fall of Col Muammer Gaddafi, declared an independent state, only to be outmuscled by jihadists.
Mr Issoufou said Afghan and Pakistani militants were training Malian jihadists, who had been joined by fighters from Boko Haram, the Islamist group that is staging a bloody campaign of bombings and gun attacks in Nigeria.
The rebels had found common cause with the formidable drug gangs that move South American cocaine through west Africa to Europe, Mr Issoufou added, and established ties with Somalia’s al Shabaab Islamists.
If AQIM establish a territory in Mali, they will try to claim territory across the whole of west Africa and they will try to reach into Europe- Mahamadou Issoufou
Even as he warned of the risks of Mali’s crisis spreading discord beyond its borders, he offered an alternative vision of economic integration as an antidote to conflict.
Visiting Paris and London to court investment, Mr Issoufou said talks were under way with potential investors on extending to landlocked Niger the railways that connect the region’s big ports to the interior.
He said the new routes would be needed once a vast new mine at Imouraren more than doubled Niger’s uranium output to 9,000 tonnes a year making it the world’s second-biggest producer of the nuclear fuel, behind Kazakhstan.
The president said that François Hollande, his French counterpart, had assured him that the mine, operated by French nuclear group Areva, would come into production in 2014 as planned.
Chinese-led oil production, which began in November, was expected to reach 500,000 b/d over the next five years, placing Niger among the continent’s mid-ranking producers, Mr Issoufou added.
Oil and uranium will account for much of the 15 per cent growth Niger expects. But the president is also seeking a remedy to the region’s other affliction: a dependency on natural resource exports that stifles the broader economy and foments instability.
“We are in the process of breaking that [dependency],” Mr Issoufou said. His $12bn investment programme over five years is designed to build infrastructure, promote education and support his flagship project: to use irrigation and farming technology to bolster agriculture in an arid country of 16m people perennially stalked by famine.
“In Great Britain, France, Europe, development happened through agricultural surpluses that allowed the financing of industry,” Mr Issoufou said. “We are going to do that in reverse: it is with revenues from the mining industry that we will finance agriculture.”