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Sunday, March 16, 2008

is Niger safe from Libyan Domination?

Niamey Journal; Wary Niger Wonders: Why Is Qaddafi Smiling?

Published: March 15, 1988

For over a decade, the United States and France quietly bolstered the defenses of this thinly populated desert land, hoping to block expansion by Libya, a northern neighbor of Niger.

  • The effort paid off last year, when Niger's neutrality gave neighboring Chad a free hand to expel a Libyan occupation army.
  • In contrast, Libya has become the prime arms supplier for the Sudan, on Chad's eastern flank.
  • The Sudan is now a major launching area for Libyan attacks on Chad. Last week, in the largest clash since Chad and Libya accepted a cease-fire last September, Chadian troops reportedly killed 20 Libyan soldiers who had entered Chad from the Sudan.
  • Western complaisance about Niger dissolved last Nov. 10 when Seyni Kountche, Niger's President for 13 years, died of a brain tumor in Paris. Over the years, President Kountche had compiled a long list of complaints against Libya's leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In the 1980's, Libya broadcast appeals in local languages, inciting Niger's Tuareg and Hausa tribesmen to revolt. At the time Abdoulaye Diori, the eldest son of a deposed President of Niger, lived in Tripoli where he reportedly headed a Libyan-financed exile group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Niger.

  • In 1985, Tuareg rebels affiliated with the group attacked a desert outpost of Niger, Tshin-Tabaradene.
  • Embassy Relations between the two countries withered and work stopped on the construction here of an imposing new Libyan People's Bureau, or embassy.
  • But seeing opportunity in the death of President Kountche, the Libyans mounted what one European diplomat here called ''a charm offensive.'' The Libyans sent their Foreign Minister to President Kountche's funeral, were host to Niger's Foreign Minister in Tripoli, and invited Niger's new President, Col. Ali Seybou, to visit.
  • In Niamey, construction resumed on the Libyan Embassy and the Libya-Niger Friendship Club was revived.
  • Today, Libyan cultural centers are ready for inauguration in Niger's two largest cities, Naimey and Zinder.
  • In Tripoli, the Libyans promised to disband the Niger rebel group and to pay a decade-old debt of $7.4 million owed for a shipment of uranium from Niger.

With this impoverished nation of six million people, the temptation is great to get along with its wealthy northern neighbor. According to the World Bank, Niger has the 10th-lowest recorded per capita income in the world - $200. On the other side of a 250-mile border lies Libya, which is rich in oil and which boasts Africa's highest per capita income - $7,500.

In the years before Colonel Qaddafi tried to undermine Niger's Government, Libya gave the country a Koranic school and a fleet of city buses, opened a trade bank, and built the central mosques in Niamey and Zinder.
''We are following a policy of good neighbors - and we didn't choose our neighbors,'' Niger's Foreign Minister, Mahamat Sani Bako, said in an interview about the improved relations with Libya.

To prevent Niger from following in the path of the Sudan, Western countries have woven close trading and supply links with the country's armed forces.

  • The United States and West Germany virtually created Niger's 100-man air force.
  • Drawing on ties dating back to the French colonial era, France supplies and trains Niger's 4,000-man army.
  • The most striking example of Western commitment to Niger was the United States' $3.2 million renovation of an airstrip at Dirkou, a Saharan oasis 180 miles west of Chad and 280 miles south of Tummo, a Libyan base on the border with Niger.
  • Inaugurated last December, the strip lacks radar and is reachable only by C-130 transport planes of the Niger Air Force when weather permits.
  • The United States gives Niger's air force C-130 spare parts, training for about 15 airmen a year in the United States and training in Niger for two parachute companies.
  • American military aid to Niger, totaling $18 million since 1982, has included parachutes, mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, radios, ambulances and X-ray machines.
  • But because of across-the-board budget cuts, American military aid dropped this year to $1 million from a recent annual high of $5 million.

In contrast, French military aid to Niger rose 25 percent this year, according to a French military officer here. He declined to give specific figures.

  • The French maintain a 57-member military mission here and each year they send about 50 officers from Niger to French officer schools.
  • For the present, Niger's strong historical ties to France and Libya's recent history of subversion here combined to make people here leery of the Libyan charm campaign.

''We want to live in peace, but we also know what is Qaddafi's philosophy, his instinct for domination,'' said Mr. Bako, the Foreign Minister.

The Rest @ The New York Times

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