Tuesday, March 29, 2016

CAF to Niger? Background Information

Two weeks ago I published a post about the possibility of the Canadian Armed Forces heading to Africa with a list of possible destinations, for both UN or NATO missions. One of those regions was Niger.

Here is some background information on what is happening in Niger, and some recent visits by the CAF.

While the United Nations does not currently have a Peacekeeping force in Niger, many believe that Niger will be one of the next locations in Africa where the UN deploys next. Niger is located between two countries who are currently facing terrible violence; Mali and Nigeria. Boko Haram is also becoming a concern within Niger itself, as the terrorist group spreads from Nigeria.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is currently working in Niger with refugees from both Mali and Nigeria. Those fleeing Nigeria are fleeing Boko Haram

The main populations of concern in Niger in 2015 are: Malian refugees who have fled violence in their country since 2012 and are living in camps, refugee-hosting and urban areas; as well as refugees (Nigerian nationals) and returnees (Niger nationals who were living in Nigeria) who have fled violence in north-eastern Nigeria since May 2013, are dispersed in more than 100 villages, and are hosted by the local community.

In northern Mali, after a short period of calm, rising insecurity and tension have led to the arrival of approximately 4,200 new Malian refugees since May 2014. Meanwhile, since the beginning of 2014, more than 6,700 Malian refugees living in Niger have returned home. Niger is currently hosting approximately 37,000 Malian refugees. While conditions do not support massive returns home, UNHCR will, in consultation with host countries and Malian authorities, provide refugees willing to return home with information on the situation in areas of origin, as well as repatriation assistance.

The deteriorating security situation in north-eastern Nigeria has caused several population movements into Niger, including refugees from Nigeria and citizens of Niger who were living in Nigeria and have returned. New arrivals are spread across hundreds of towns and islands on Lake Chad on a vast territory with a poor road network. Accessing these populations poses significant operational and security challenges, and is costly.

When did the CAF first get involved? 

The first time the Canadian Armed Forces went to Niger was as part of Exercise Flintlock in 2013. The Harper Government announced that it would send the Canadian Special Operations Regiment to the region to help train the Niger military on counter-terrorist measures; as the country began to struggle with the conflicts in both Mali and Nigeria. 

CSOR training was provided because the soldiers from Niger receiving Canadian instruction may very well find themselves fighting the al-Qaeda-linked rebels of Mali in the near future. Niger is expected to be one of the three biggest troop-contributing nations, along with Nigeria and Burkina Faso, in a UN-sponsored West African military intervention in Mali.

The Canadian government, which is normally quick to trumpet overseas military efforts, was surprisingly silent on its West African training mission. Canada's deployment was supported by the US and other allies as part of Flintlock. The exercise, aimed at helped West African countries fight terrorism.

The annual Flintlock exercise takes place in different western African countries each year. Canada last participated in 2011. The 2012 exercise, which was supposed to take place in Mali, was cancelled because that country’s army was busy responding to attacks from Tuareg separatists.

The French military intervention on Friday, a dramatic shift from earlier plans for an African-led force, was a sign of the world’s growing fear that the Islamist rebels could topple Mali’s weakened government and turn the country into a haven for terrorists.

The CSOR returned to Niger for Flintlock in 2014 and again in 2015 - where their presence was more widely reported by CTV's W5 and when an attack by Boko Haram forced the CSOR to evacuate the area; which I reported here, in one of my posts in January, this year.

So what would a 2016 UN mission to Niger look like? No one is really sure. It could be an expanded training role; similar to Exercise Flintlock where the CSOR deployed from 2013-2015; or it could be a humanitarian role helping with the refugees; or both. Only time will tell. 

Information in this post came from the UNHCR's webpage about its mission in Niger, and the 2013 report by the Globe and Mail, "Canada's Contribution to the Fight in Mali