Niger is helping Mali to battle Islamists and Tuareg rebels and contributing several hundred troops. Niger's own security is also expected to benefit.
The police are keeping watch and checking IDs even in front of the smaller hotels, tight security cordons are being drawn around the foreign embassies. In Niamey, the usually tranquil capital of Niger, vital, vulnerable parts of the city now resemble those in the capitals of other crisis zones. The authorities have become more vigilant in Niamey since the French intervened in neighboring Mali. From Niamey it's just 230 kilometers (143 miles) to the border with Mali and the north Malian town of Gao, which was under Islamist occupation for several months, is just 450 kilometers away.
The military coup in Mali in 2012 and the invasion of the north of the country by Tuareg rebels and Islamists caused much concern in Niger. It, too, has a long history of coups and Tuareg uprisings. The most recent peace agreement with Tuareg rebels is just three years old. The election of the current president Mahamadou Issoufou brought military rule to a close in Niger in April 2011.
"Our means are limited"
Niger's foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum believes the crisis erupted in neighboring Mali because the government in Bamako neglected the north of the country for far too long.
"There are huge swathes of land there where security couldn't be maintained and a criminal shadow economy was allowed to develop," he said. The politicians had stood by and watched; some had even actively encouraged the illegal trade in drugs and arms.
After the fall of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya, this criminal network began to pose a mounting threat to Niger's security, Bazoum explained. So far Niger has succeeded in upholding its territorial integrity and security despite such developments. "But our means are limited and our opponents are very strong," he added. That's why the government has asked partners in West Africa, Europe and North America for assistance. "We want to be able to sleep at night," Bazoum told DW.
Niger's opposition supports the government
Niger will be contributing up to 675 troops to the African-led intervention force MISMA, (International Mission for Mali Assistance). The country will also let the United States use land near Niamey as a base for drones.
France has sent soldiers to the north of Niger to secure the uranium mines operated by the French group Areva. The opposition in Niger backs the government's policy on Mali. Opposition leader Seini Oumarou said he is in constant dialogue with the president. "We have made a number of recommendations, the most important of which was keeping the population in Niger informed about the activities of our contingent in Mali," he added.
But there are critics of Niger's military involvement in Mali. Human rights activist and journalist Moussa Tchangari believes the government of Mali and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS should have put much more effort into securing a negotiated settlement. He fears the war could destabilize the region for many years to come. Now that the French have taken over command of the military intervention in Mali, the Africans have become accessories to a foreign agenda. "What I find particularly bad is that foreign troops have been brought into the country," says Tchangari.
Under the circumstances he could understand why troops are being deployed, "but to let foreign troops in and set up base here, that's very serious. It could turn us into a target for these armed groups."
This is a scenario which the German government in Berlin evidently considers realistic because it recently ordered a number of German development aid workers to leave Niamey.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum is convinced that the worst danger has passed. Military action against rebel hideouts in the mountains of northern Mali has improved security throughout the region. But Libya remains a potential risk factor; armed groups can still retreat there and stock up on weapons and supplies. "Once the problem of Mali has been solved, the international community must turn its attention to Libya, otherwise there will be yet another wave of destabilization," Bazoum maintained.
Niger's foreign minister believes his country has a more stable political system than Mali. Democracy in Niger has already enabled a genuine transition of power to take place.
Yet the only certainty in the region is the vulnerability of individual states. "This is what developments in Mali show. We must be modest and vigilant. We must strengthen cohesion and, above all, democracy," Bazoum said.
Opposition leader Seini Oumarou believes such vigilance entails maintaining a properly functioning army. One shouldn't have to wake up one morning – as happened in Mali – and be forced to realize that the army has essentially ceased to exist. He has conveyed this message to the president. "We have called on him to make sure the army is properly equipped and supplied so we do not have any unpleasant surprises," he said.