Mittwoch, 9. November 2011

The Sahel after the fall of the »Brother Leader«: Qadhafi`s legacy haunts Niger

Ein Gastbeitrag von Alex Thurston

Colonel Muammar Qadhafi is dead, but his friendships with Libya’s southern neighbors continue to complicate Sahelian politics. Niger in particular has keenly felt the impact of Libya’s civil war. 

An estimated 75,000 refugees – and counting – have fled Libya to Niger since April, creating a humanitarian emergency in the country’s north. Tuaregs who fought for Qadhafi are moving into Niger. They bring with them the threat of another rebellion such as Niger witnessed in 1990s and in the last decade, a conflict that ended only with Qadhafi’s mediation. Dozens of Qadhafi’s top lieutenants are in Niger, including three generals. Qadhafi’s son Saadi is also in the country. Another son, Saif al Islam, reportedly passed through Niger recently and is now rumored to be in Mali. Finally, Niger and its neighbors fear the spread of Libyan weapons throughout the region, especially the possibility of such weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In mid-September, Niger’s army clashed with a convoy of suspected AQIM members in the northern part of the country.

Qadhafi’s death has also resonated within Niger’s domestic politics. While it is hard to gauge popular opinion in Niger, some reports indicate strong sympathy among the population for the fallen Libyan leader; many Nigeriens, elites and ordinary citizens alike, remember the Colonel fondly because of his financial investments and political influence in their country. A group of Tuaregs in the north formally reiterated their support for Qadhafi in September. And after Niger’s rulers recognized the TNC in late August, a major opposition party condemned the decision, calling it a flip-flop that undermined African solidarity.

The continued links between Niger and the legacy of Colonel Qadhafi place the government of Niger in a difficult position vis-à-vis its own people, the international community, and Libya’s new rulers, the Transitional National Council (TNC). The government is therefore attempting to placate domestic constituencies, defuse tensions with the Tuaregs, placate their new peers in Libya, and avoid drawing the ire of bodies like the International Criminal Court, which is seeking Qadhafi’s sons.

This delicate balancing act is proving to be one of the largest challenges the regime of President Mahamadou Issoufou has yet faced. Issoufou is relatively new in his position, and he is the first civilian president since the military coup of February 2010. Although Niger’s elections earlier this year were a success, the stability of his position is not guaranteed. Issoufou can look back with trepidation over the last two decades of Nigerien politics, which saw three successful military coups. In addition to the fragility of its political system, Niger has enduring struggles with food security and poverty. Issoufou, in other words, carried major burdens even before the Libyan crisis escalated.

Resolving the tensions created by Qadhafi’s fall will take time. A TNC delegation visited Niger last week, possibly opening the door to warmer relations between Niger and Libya, but the continued presence of Qadhafi loyalists in Niger will remind both sides that the past is not past. Qadhafi’s ghost also haunts northern Niger, where refugees need care and Tuaregs contemplate their next move. Thus far, the Issoufou regime’s caution has served it well in negotiating the new political landscape, but Niger’s troubles are far from over.

Alex Thurston promoviert an der Northwestern University (Chicago) über Islam in Afrika. Thurston betreibt den Sahelblog, den größten englischsprachigen Fachblog über die Staaten der Sahel-Zone. Als Gastkommentator schreibt er u.a. für The Guardian und Foreign Policy.

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