SEATTLE — Niger is the second least developed country in the world, according to a 2016 U.N. report. Of the 19.8 million people in Niger, 49 percent live in poverty, 81 percent live in rural areas where food insecurity is high and 20 percent lack sufficient levels of food. Niger has a 3.9 percent annual growth rate–one of the highest in the world–and is prone to political instability and food insecurity. There are many contributing factors to poverty and instability in Niger. However, a major source compounding the situation is Boko Haram, a terrorist group originating in Nigeria.
The Rise of Boko Haram
Founded in 2002 by the cleric Mohammad Yusuf, Boko Haram began as an organization intending to teach Wahhabism, a fundamentalist Islamic ideology focused on purely monotheistic worship. The organization’s name has become loosely translated to “Western education is forbidden.” This translation ties into the group’s primary belief: all aspects of Western culture are prohibited due to Boko Haram’s belief that Western teaching has contributed to the severe poverty that Nigeria faces today.
Following the end of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1903, British colonial missionaries came to power in Nigeria. Christianity and Western education were imposed on the indigenous populations, fostering suspicion and mistrust. Yosuf and his followers believed that the Western Christian education, introduced by the British colonialists, “was responsible for entrenching the status quo in a country in which 60 percent of the population live in dire poverty on less than $1 a day,” according to The Independent. Furthermore, the majority of Nigeria’s wealth resides with the Christian populations in the south.
To say that a terrorist organization such as Boko Haram has emerged solely due to poverty–or any one cause–would be an inaccurate oversimplification of complex political, economic and cultural issues. That said, poverty has had a hand in exacerbating tensions and potentially contributing to a much greater problem.
Boko Haram emerged in the poorest part of Nigeria, where more than 50 percent of the population is malnourished and 71.5 percent live in extreme poverty. The emergence of Boko Haram, and its subsequent violent extremism, has spilled over the border into Niger, heightening poverty and instability in Niger.
Poverty in Niger
Niger has been relatively peaceful over the last few years, though conflict from violent extremist groups outside its borders, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, have caused an increase in people seeking refuge, a strain on national resources and further instability in Niger.
In 2017, the political climate of Niger was stable, though the arrival of Boko Haram in Niger caused security disruptions along the border of the Diffa region. Jihadist attacks and drug smuggling in the Tillaberi and North Tahou regions encouraged the Niger government to bolster defense and security forces and to launch new military operations.
The G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger and Mauritania) launched Operation Barkhane and MINUSMA in 2014 and 2013, respectively, to combat terrorism in these regions. In Bamako in July 2017, a new military operation is estimated to cost €423 million, plunging Niger into a public debt of 37 percent of its GDP in 2018.
The devastation caused by Boko Haram has amplified instability in Niger: food insecurity has increased, governmental debt has skyrocketed and a humanitarian crisis is underway, due to the 300,000 refugees and displaced persons in Niger. Due to the military operations, the government has closed markets, restricted access to land for farming and banned fishing. The incomes of the people of eastern Niger have been reduced to a tenth of what they had been before Boko Haram invaded Niger.
The emergency measures are severely limiting people’s access to food, markets, money and supplies, contributing to increased food insecurity and reliance on humanitarian aid. The increased spending on security and Niger’s hosting of refugees is estimated to cost 1 percent of Niger’s annual GDP. To cope with the humanitarian needs of local Nigeriens and the refugees from Nigeria, the Niger government has requested assistance from developmental partners and implemented a $40 million emergency plan.
Solutions to Instability in Niger
Despite the high rates of poverty and instability in Niger exacerbated by violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram, there are many organizations working to reduce poverty.
Save the Children has made progress in Niger by integrating health, protection and nutrition programs. Additionally, they are working to increase children’s access to education, deliver lifesaving medications and alleviate suffering among child refugees, internally displaced children and returnees.
Concern Worldwide, an international agency, has been integrating food security, health and education programs in Niger since 2005. These programs are designed to strengthen the healthcare system by providing additional support and training, food, medicine and equipment. Additionally, Concern Worldwide distributes seeds to Niger’s farmers and trains them on better farming techniques to help improve their crop yields and food production.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee both provide protection, assistance and emergency support in Niger and Nigeria for victims fleeing Boko Haram attacks. The International Rescue Committee is working with local primary care facilities to improve sanitation and reduce malnutrition in Niger.
Though instability in Niger is severe and influenced by a variety of factors, one of which is Boko Haram, there are many organizations working in Niger to lessen the devastating impact of poverty.
– Kara Roberts