The West African nation of Niger shares borders with the crisis-ridden states of Mali and Nigeria, in which the population is being terrorized by jihadist groups, such as Boko Haram. Fighting between Islamists and the army also erupted earlier this year in Libya, which is also one of Niger's neighbors.
So far Niger has able to fend off infiltration by jihadists, but is hampered by the weakness of its state institutions and high youth unemployment. Niger has been struggling with these and other problems for some time. The last military coup in 2010 was followed by presidential elections a year later, in a bid to return the country to democracy. Mahamadou Issoufou was declared the winner of the poll. He has promised wide-ranging reforms, not all of which have been enacted.
Deutsche Welle reports on events in Niger in the Hausa language, and the station's Hausa language service is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. In Niger's capital Niamey, the event is being marked by panel discussions about the role of the international media in education and development.
Ahead of the celebrations, Deutsche Welle spoke to President Issoufou about the challenges Niger faces.
DW: Niger has not yet achieved all eight UN Millennium Development Goals. There are deficiencies in schooling and in the treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS or malaria. Are you satisfied with your polices?
Mahamadou Issoufou. We have achieved two goals. We have reduced poverty and the number of people suffering from hunger. Infant mortality has also been brought down. So there are still six further goals which we will have to achieve within the next two years. There are some things that won't get done by 2015, so we must start thinking right away about where to set our priorities. At stake is not merely the necessity to reduce poverty – that would not be ambitious enough - but to stamp it out entirely. We need mechanisms that reduce inequality. We need to create the right conditions for the emergence of a middle class. We must also face up to new challenges, such as the threat to internal security. Such problems did not exist when the Millennium Development Goals were being drawn up.
Security at home – internal security – is being threatened from abroad. Are you concerned that conflicts in neighboring countries could spill over into Niger?
Very much so. Niger is surrounded by countries with security problems. That applies to Mali, Nigeria and Libya. So far Niger has been able to keep such threats at bay. Our country is an island of peace and security in a very troubled region. We will carry on implementing measures to keep our borders and our country secure. But we can't do this on our own. That is why we are trying to join forces with our neighbors and other countries as well, including members of the European Union. We share with our partners in the EU the view that there is a link between security and development. The short term response to threats is to tighten internal security. The long term answer is to be found in economic and social development.
Your country faces huge challenges. Not so long ago it made headline news when a group of migrants from Niger died of thirst in the Sahara desert while on their way to Europe. Their trucks broke down. How do you intend to stop such things happening again in the future?
We must intensify our efforts to improve our infrastructure through investment. Improvements are needed in agriculture, education, health care and to the water supply for the population. This is the way to create favorable conditions for strong and sustained economic growth. That would also boost opportunities for young people seeking work and help prevent those tragedies the like of which we have witnessed far too often recently – whether off the coast of Lampedusa at the beginning of October or the deaths of 92 of our compatriots in the Sahara.
The European Union wants to negotiate so-called Economic Partnership Agreements with countries that belong to the ACP Group (African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States) The aim is to open up African markets to European products so they are no longer protected. How do you view this?
If we are referring here to sectors in which our countries are not more competitive than the Europeans, then we will be witnessing even more shipwrecks involving migrants. These agreements are an obstacle to industrialization and to the creation of jobs for our young people. The Economic Partnership Agreements should not be allowed to jeopardize the industrialization of the ACP states. Otherwise the ACP states might be tempted to start a debate about opening up the European labor market. A fair compromise between the EU and the ACP states is essential.
Mahamadou Issoufou, 61, has been President of Niger since 2011 and is a member of the Hausa, the largest ethnic group in West Africa. Since 1993, he has run for president four times, winning both rounds of the poll in 2011. He studied mathematics in Niger and mining engineering in St Etienne, France.
Interview: Katia Bitsch