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There was much back-patting and smiling for the cameras in Tripoli yesterday, as nine North African nations adopted the “Tripoli Plan” to better secure their borders. According to Reuters, the plan is an effort to clamp down on militia clashes and weapons smuggling in the wake of the Arab Spring, and includes sharing intelligence and developing border towns.
“Security alone is not enough in keeping our borders safe,” said Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib. “We must develop and increase the resources of towns near the borders.”
Whilst this plan represents a clear effort by the new Libyan government to foster closer relations with its regional neighbours, the mood was surely soured by the latest snub from one neighbour with whom the Libyans are having particular difficulty: Niger.
Although the Nigerian government joined many other North African states in recognising the National Transitional Council (NTC) as Libya’s ruling authority around the time of the fall of Tripoli on 23 August 2011, that is about the only positive thing they have done, in the eyes of the NTC.
In early September 2011, the Nigerians allowed a large convoy of Libyan military vehicles across its border, which the NTC said included stockpiles of gold bullion belonging to the Libyan treasury, not to mention several members of the Gaddafi regime.
A few days later, insult was added to injury when it was announced that one of Gaddafi’s sons, the playboy and football fanatic Saadi, had arrived in the country, where he was later granted official asylum.
By the end of the month, the government in Niamey officially acknowledged having received 32 prominent Gaddafi family members and loyalists into the country, including a trio of generals. The Nigeriens maintained that they accepted these loyalists, including Saadi, on “humanitarian grounds”, and would not be handing them over to the NTC for fear they could be executed.
On 8 March 2012, however, the Nigerians went one further, announcing the appointment of Gaddafi’s former chief of staff, Bashir Saleh Bashir, as an advisor to Nigerian president Mahamadou Issoufou, complete with diplomatic passport.
In truth, relations between Niger and Libya were always going to be difficult, particularly after it emerged that Nigeriens were amongst the mercenaries flown in by the late Colonel Gaddafi to suppress last year’s pro-democracy uprising.
In addition to that, however, there is the problem of ongoing refugee flows. For years, migrant workers from Niger, a poverty-stricken country that faces near-annual food shortages, have sought employment in oil-producing Libya.
Following the outbreak of conflict, however, some 300,000 Nigerien and Chadian migrant workers fled back to their countries of origin, many fearful of reprisals at the hands of Libyans targeting black Africans suspected of being pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. In addition to this, some 230,000 Libyan refugees sought asylum in Niger, some of whom reportedly fought alongside Gaddafi during the war.
In and of itself, this complex situation is a cause of major difficulties, but there is no doubt that through their actions, the Nigeriens are making what is already a tense situation worse. Watch this space; more is sure to follow soon.