Meet America's new ally in Africa. With 16 million people, a per capita income of $360 (PPP),52,875 refugees, and dysfunctional neighbors, Niger seems less than the ideal partner in the growing U.S. strategic footprint in Africa, but its geographic location places it at the frontlines. Landlocked between the hotbed of Mali and the oil basin in the Gulf of Guinea, Niger represents a new crossroads of American foreign policy.lt is quickly becoming a buffer between uncertainty and instability in the north of Africa and uncertainty and dependency in the Gulf of Guinea. Thisstrategic hedgerow intends to separate radical Islam from the void created in Nigeria by the autonomous, yet mostly inward looking Boko Haram.
While the new drone base at Diori Hamani International Airport is meant for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the AfPak and Yemen stigma of such bases remains strong. For a country that has experienced an attemptedcoup, protracted famine, andmultiple rebellions over the past twenty years, it is not surprising that Niger would align with the U.S. and agree to provide facilities for drones. With the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb marauding in the north and the Nigerian separatist movement Boko Haram just south of the Niger-Nigerian border, the regime's discount rate is high, valuing present security and an economic boon over future consequence. The cost-benefit analysis of the policy is rightfullybiased towards generating social, economic, and political stability today.However, the political consequences for the Mahamadoulssoufou regime remain uncertain. Does the new status of forces agreement and the aid that will certainly follow provide the legitimacy (albeit external legitimacy) that a fledgling regime requires? Or, does it further undermine political development and the internal legitimacy that is required as a basis for economic development?
The answer is both. The impact is temporal.In the short term, aid inflows and increased U.S. interest in the uncontrolled hinterlands of northwesternNiger, the site of the Taureg Rebellions from 1990-1995 and 2007-2009, provide a smoothing effect. The increased aid will serve to alleviate the persistent Nigerian and Malian refugee problem and provide a valuable supply of food within a volatile agrarian landscape (11.5% arable land). While the U.S. footprint will be small, increased intelligence resources will provide the Nigerien army with the capability to secure the Malian frontiers and most importantly the supply chain for Niger's principalexport: uranium. Equitable distribution of the food and physical security dividend will determine the short-term advantages of the U.S.-Niger linkage.
In the long term, the effects of this political linkage could be damning for a fledgling democracy such as Niger. The question remains whether the spillovers from Nigeria and Mali are existential threats to the Nigeriens. Time will be the determinant. In the interim, electoral democracy has been inadequately institutionalized, regions remain marginalized, and the economic foundation is weak with subsistence agriculture predominating. While the 2011 election could mark a water-shed in political reform, it is too early to tell. A fine line exists between self-determination and externally imposed mandates for political reform. If the net impact of this evolving relationship is to be positive, the consolidation of democratic norms must be demanded first by the Nigerien citizenry and then reinforced in U.S. bilateral agreements. At present, security is of a higher U.S. priority than democratic norms. If past regional relationshipsforeshadow the path followed by U.S. host nations and partners, the Nigerien electorate should be wary of external legitimacy generated by linkage politics with the United States.This is especially true with respect to drone bases. Escalation to force and violations of sovereign borders, condoned via a status of forces agreement, may jeopardize regional relationships. …