Niger finds itself in the crosshairs of regional violent conflict and global migration challenges. Meanwhile, the country struggles with its own political, social, economic, and ecological fragilities, which are rooted in a history of colonial exploitation and exacerbated by climate change. Amid inconsistent partnerships, the rise of populism, and changing global governance driven by national self-interest, Niger faces immense hurdles when it comes to fighting infectious diseases, improving the country’s security, responding to its migration crisis, and combating the adverse effects of climate change.
The European Union’s (EU’s) policies and approaches have succeeded in mitigating the Sahel’s security, development, and migration crises in general, but problems continue to expand into new areas. All the while, popular frustration with the Nigerien government and its allies is growing. Understanding how the EU is perceived in Niger could provide guidance to correct the union’s policies and public diplomacy in the region and contribute to framing expectations of the EU as a global power.
This chapter offers a contextual perspective on Europe and the EU’s internal and external policies by highlighting how elites and public opinion in Niger read the EU’s approaches and their implications for disease prevention, security, and development cooperation. The chapter draws on fieldwork carried out in January and May 2021 consisting of interviews and focus group discussions with government representatives and agencies, political parties, social scientists, and the general public. The study involved a total of 278 participants. To facilitate the discussions, each group was composed of people from the same background and social situation.
Current Perceptions of the EU
External perceptions of the EU depend on many parameters, such as colonial history, economic and political capacity, media coverage, demographics, and geography.1 In Niger, only a few interviewees from the general public differentiated between the roles of the EU and France. Even among the elites and social scientists, the perception was that although the EU is different from France, the union always supports the French position. In general, participants acknowledged the EU as an actor but also remarked that the union does not seem concerned about the lack of transparency in the management of Niger’s national resources, such as uranium and oil, where French industries are heavily represented. Indeed, interviewees generally perceived France as an exploiting entity in the extraction of resources, weakening Niger’s efforts to benefit from such resources and reduce poverty.
Economy and Trade
Political elites, social scientists, and the general public in Niger consider the EU to be a relevant actor for development aid but a difficult trading partner because of a lack of opportunities. This perception is unsurprising because EU aid is the only issue linking the union and Niger that appears in the Nigerien national media. Trading difficulties are linked to a lack of local industries capable of transforming natural resources. When interviewed, representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) argued that all aid provided by the EU and its member states is for the benefit of a self-serving interest rather than for its own sake. Interviewees reported that aid to Niger is accompanied by strict conditions—such as steps to implement family planning, keep migrants at bay, or locate kidnaped Europeans—and many participants perceive aid as a weapon of neocolonialism.
The EU has gained relevance in African debates because of recent changes in the union’s trade policy that have intensified the EU’s relationships with African states. In 2018, the EU announced its formal support for the African Continental Free Trade Area and launched the Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs. Two years later, the EU issued a communication on a comprehensive strategy with Africa, which promised technical and financial support as top priorities.
Despite these steps, CSOs argued that trade between EU member states and Niger is based on a continuity of colonial history, with commercial ties focused on the exchange of traditional goods: uranium from Niger and arms from Europe. Interviewees reported that reliance on traditional trade in raw materials is due to a lack of diversification and industrial opportunities in Niger. The general public classed EU countries as the best partners to trade with for secondhand clothes and cars.
Niger faces numerous terrorist threats and worrying cross-border crime—trafficking of arms, ammunition, explosives, and people—with enormous political, religious, and economic impacts. The government has struggled for years against criminal and militant groups, including from neighboring states. Interviewees reported insufficient security for people and their goods not only because of Niger’s porous borders but also because of a lack of human, material, and technological resources to effectively control criminal movements. Going forward, security conditions in the country will remain extremely poor because of a combination of bad governance, lagging socioeconomic development, and environmental challenges.
Political elites, social scientists, and even the public consistently referred to the EU as a security power. In particular, the elites perceived the union as a steady and trusted partner. However, opinions differed as to how the EU can help address Niger’s security concerns. While most members of the public believed that the EU is not willing to help Niger deal with its security challenges, the elites supported the view that without EU aid—specifically, the EU’s training of Nigerien security forces and development activities—the country would collapse. Some argued that EU member states are not listening to Niger’s national leaders and experts, making it difficult to achieve peace.
However, some Nigerien political elites reported that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. In their view, they can either cooperate with the EU and appear as traitors in the court of public opinion or listen to the population by expelling EU troops, with the risk that some member states—notably France—will blackmail them or plot a coup against the regime. This dilemma results in a problem of legitimacy and suggests the need for a better balance of interventions at the national and communal levels: communities are more likely to trust local leaders than national representatives, who are seen as corrupt puppets.
As for other global actors, Niger’s elites perceive the United States as a powerful country but one that is very difficult to mobilize and convince of the gravity of Nigerien security issues. The elites see the United States as more practical than the EU in providing solutions but find it hard to attract Washington’s attention. Meanwhile, the elites regard China as providing only small-scale equipment, such as military ambulances, but having a greater economic presence. Thus, Nigeriens see the EU as far more helpful than China because the EU member states invest in training the Nigerien national army, while China does not.
The elites see Russia as a strong country willing to help Niger with no reservations, but Russia is not fully involved in Nigerien security operations. Turkey is viewed as relatively strong because it is conducting military operations in Syria and Libya. For the elites, Turkey can also be a good economic partner and is investing in Niger. While the EU is much more powerful, Turkey can be more helpful because it has fewer administrative requirements when it comes to providing assistance. As for potential support from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the G5 Sahel, of which Niger is a member, the country’s elites believe a military agenda is unrealistic because it would be financially unfeasible.
Independent civil society’s perception of the EU is categorical. In the words of one interviewee, “The EU and its member states are part of Niger’s security problems.”2 This respondent argued that EU members had brought in high-tech equipment such as drones to combat Niger’s insecurity but that the security situation had kept worsening. In short, Niger’s civil society perceives the EU as the reason for the country’s mess and the creator of terrorism in the Sahel. Civil society representatives argued that terrorism in the region can be traced back to the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya, in which France played a leading role. According to these interviewees, the Sahel has long been facing a climate crisis, intercommunal violence, conflict between farmers and herders, and group rebellion—but never terrorism in its current form before 2011. Viewing the situation through the prism of France, CSOs in Niger do not appreciate the EU having a security agenda in the region.
For civil society, while the EU is more visible in the region, the United States could be more effective. In the words of one interviewee, “With its strong army, the United States could deal with the Sahel’s security problem in a month. But Washington does not have the will to do so because Niger cannot afford the Americans’ price.”3 Meanwhile, CSOs perceive China as unable to help on security matters because for now, the country’s involvement is purely commercial.
As for Russia, Nigerien civil society sees the country as tomorrow’s military hope in the world. Russia is more powerful than the EU and, for Niger’s CSOs, could be more effective. By contrast, Turkey under its current president is gaining credibility in Nigerien public opinion, particularly on security. If it has the will, Turkey can become more influential than individual EU member states. Finally, civil society representatives dismissed ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel as unions of presidents unable to help on security matters.
Niger’s migration crisis is multidimensional and comprises a massive influx of Malian and Nigerian refugees fleeing insecurity in their respective countries; returns and repatriations of Nigeriens and others from Algeria, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Saudi Arabia; and ongoing internal (forcibly displaced people) and circular migration.
Interviews with Niger’s political elites showed that the EU is considered the only serious organization capable of providing what is needed for the country to manage its migration crisis—namely, technical support and funding for monitoring. At the regional level, interlocutors argued that ECOWAS policies on migration function well despite some shortcomings, such as the regular collection of bribes from people crossing ECOWAS borders. Thus, in different ways, Nigeriens see both the EU and ECOWAS as useful partners for Niger to respond to migration concerns. However, respondents noted that EU financing to help Niger control migration flows means that the country is acting against ECOWAS policies of regional free movement.
Meanwhile, the broader public, civil society representatives, and social scientists stated that the EU is investing a lot of money in dealing with Niger’s migration crisis because the EU is directly affected by it. As for other actors, such as the United States, China, Russia, and Turkey, elites and members of the public pointed out that to the best of their knowledge, these countries have no specific programs with Niger to address migration issues. As a result, they believe that these states are not helping Niger at all on this subject.
On the topic of climate change, interviews with social scientists and political elites echoed the findings of many previous researchers.4 For example, interlocutors argued that the EU is an international leader and can be trusted on climate change initiatives. The EU’s role in climate negotiations is considered the most proactive and ambitious of all global actors. However, interviewees mostly associated the EU’s leadership role in this policy field with the abdication of U.S. leadership on the 2015 Paris Agreement and, before that, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Members of the public argued that neither the United States, China, nor Russia comes close to the EU on helping Niger to combat climate change. That is because EU countries have funded many scholarships and research exchanges on climate change and related issues, helping to increase Niger’s capacity for mitigation and adaptation.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Like many African countries, Niger experiences regular outbreaks of endemic infectious diseases, particularly malaria, cholera, meningitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and measles. The responses to these epidemics have generally entailed collaboration among the Ministry of Public Health, the World Health Organization, and other international partners, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Médecins Sans Frontières, the United Nations Population Fund, and the Red Cross. These partners provide technical and financial support for field investigations and support existing facilities through temporary treatment.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the Nigerien government implemented restrictive measures, including curfews, school closures, and bans on public gatherings and travel between urban areas. Political and social scientists acknowledged that many organizations, including the EU, had provided equipment to control the pandemic in Niger—although political representatives expressed the view that they do not consider COVID-19 to be as serious as other diseases. The EU helped Niger with crisis management and modified many of its development projects to redirect funding to support Niger’s national strategy to fight the coronavirus.
CSO representatives, meanwhile, argued that the Nigerien government used the coronavirus outbreak to justify political repression, particularly against CSOs, and suspend the rights to freedom of expression and protest. Neither the EU nor any international human rights organization condemned the oppression. CSOs fear that the precedent created by the response to the coronavirus in terms of restrictions on political freedoms could frame future state-led responses to epidemics, especially of new or unfamiliar diseases.
Norms and Values
To lead as an international actor, one has to be recognized by others as powerful in economic, military, political, and ideational terms as well as credible, legitimate, and able to propose norms that others follow.5 Interviewees from all categories argued that the EU’s values were not representative of their own. Most interlocutors felt that the EU did not have a positive reputation because it dictates its values over local people’s ways of doing things on issues from democracy to family planning to human rights. For example, political elites argued that they had received clear and direct instructions from EU member states—specifically France—on how to lead their country, protect human rights, accept LGBTQ people, and manage the opposition and CSO leaders. Meanwhile, interviewees mentioned Russia, Turkey, China, and the United States—in that order—as countries with positive reputations because they push their values less visibly.
The promotion of the rule of law and good governance presupposes the existence of an efficient administration with the institutional capacity to define strategic orientations and develop and implement appropriate policies. Indeed, good governance involves far more than state power or political will: it requires an integrated, long-term strategy built on cooperation between the government and citizens.6 Nigeriens reported that the EU has this institutional capacity, which is made up of a combination of human, financial, and logistical resources.
However, interlocutors perceived the EU’s internal and external policies as incoherent. Some elites and civil society representatives reported that even the EU’s internal dynamics are controlled by the United States. For instance, they argued that although Brexit did not originate in the United States, it was encouraged by former U.S. president Donald Trump. In addition, there was a sense among interviewees that the EU’s functioning is based on Germany’s economic power and France’s “bad” lobbying power. Other EU countries are considered observers and are known to Nigeriens only for their footballers or tennis champions. Participants also noted an internal incoherence during the Greek government debt crisis that started in 2009, when EU leaders imposed tough measures that had a severe impact on the Greek people, even though they were not responsible for the causes of the crisis.
Niger’s elites claimed that the EU’s credibility and legitimacy were negatively affected because the union operates with double standards. For instance, when China, Russia, or Turkey implements security or antiterrorism policies that are inconsistent with the EU’s values, the union struggles to reach agreement to condemn them or take measures against them; but when it comes to imposing sanctions on Niger or other Sahelian countries by withholding aid or cooperation, consensus is automatic.
Finally, among members of the public, given the low level of knowledge about the EU or Europe, questions were mostly answered with reference to France. Nigeriens’ main argument on EU internal policies was that they are coherent because, in the words of one interviewee, “white people from Europe always defend each other, even when they are on the wrong path.”7
Future Priorities for EU-Niger Relations
Looking ahead, many interviewees argued that for the EU to be a genuine partner for Niger, it has to stop acting through France, particularly on key issues. More broadly, Nigeriens pointed to migration, security, climate change, healthcare, and trade as topics where the EU could focus its cooperation more closely on Niger’s current and future needs.
Niger is the largest and most-populous country in the Sahel and plays an essential role for stability throughout the region. A collapse of social and political order in Niger could have a major destabilizing effect on the region. The Nigerien government, aware of Niger’s role as a transit country, was the first in the Sahel to adopt legislation that strengthens the prosecution of human traffickers and describes migrants as victims of human rights violations.
However, the implementation of this legislation is hampered by weak capacity at both the national and the local level as well as by socioeconomic challenges. The EU and other regional actors should address the challenges of irregular migration through Niger with a comprehensive approach that includes political dialogue with local authorities and communities, long-term development aid, humanitarian assistance, and regional stabilization activities. Coordination on migration is also important within the norms of the African Union and ECOWAS to strengthen continental normative frameworks.
All interviewees argued that there is a need to fix security cooperation with the EU and its member states. They agreed that given Niger’s major structural challenges, the attention of partners, especially the EU, on security issues should not distract from major obstacles to development. These include Niger’s poor infrastructure, fragile governmental institutions, inadequate healthcare, low and declining area of arable land, high levels of malnutrition, extremely low education levels, and high gender inequalities. In addition, the country’s future is threatened by the effects of climate change.
Some interviewees expressed the view that for the EU to be a successful and accepted security power, the union must revoke France’s status as the EU’s de facto representative in Niger. Currently, France leads on all aspects of security in Niger and the Sahel, with all security meetings between EU and African leaders held in Paris or the southern French city of Pau, not in Germany or Italy.
The EU should also reinvent its approach to investment in Niger by becoming less tolerant of corruption in the country. Many political elites highlighted that the EU and its member states should prioritize Niger’s governance crisis by encouraging the Nigerien government to engage in dialogue not only with rural dwellers but also, potentially, with militants to provide basic social services and adopt development reforms. This is the only way in which military operations can be relevant and effective.
The Sahel is one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. Only 12 percent of Niger’s land area receives enough rainfall to support agriculture, and the country’s government predicts that little or none of this area will be left by 2100. Niger’s soil is poor in nutrients, badly managed, and overgrazed, and it loses up to 100 tons of arable land per hectare per year to erosion, according to the Nigerien Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The amount of firewood used for cooking—estimated at 2 million tons in 2019—is twice the natural rate of replacement.8 Subsistence farmers have weak links to domestic markets and even less access to imports of improved seeds and climate-friendly fertilizers. It is therefore very important for Niger to develop its market infrastructure to meet agropastoral needs.
The Nigerien public prioritizes dealing with environmental issues over security problems. The argument is that when terrorist activities first emerged, addressing climate issues was an ideological question, but now it is important for economic reasons. Some interlocutors reported that with crops and livestock becoming more scarce because of a variable climate, some actors in the agricultural sector use violent appropriation as a means of survival.
Political elites and social scientists suggested that environmental crises such as floods and droughts are weakening Nigerien institutions’ capacity to respond to basic needs and that people felt abandoned. The general perception is that climate crises fuel insecurity by damaging people’s livelihoods. Addressing this aspect of climate change should therefore be the priority for Niger and international partners, including the EU.
The coronavirus pandemic has created fear and generated disorganized responses across the world. In Niger, people mistrust governmental and external responses to the outbreak and are suspicious of targeted efforts to address this pandemic when so many other epidemics of diseases deadlier than COVID-19 have received no such attention.
Interviewees suggested that crisis responses from the EU should encompass support for other epidemics, such as malaria, cholera, meningitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and measles, as well as social and economic needs. Any interventions by foreign governments or the EU should be based on respectful dialogue that engages traditional and religious leaders and on processes of mutual learning that do not dismiss local concerns and beliefs. The Nigerien population’s current experience with the state and historic experiences of foreign powers—bad governance and colonialism, respectively—may spur resistance to emergency responses if these are seen to be led by the government or external actors.
Economy and Trade
In view of the limited trade between EU countries and Niger, elites articulated the wish to build up an exchange of environmentally friendly agricultural seeds and materials, given that the country’s economy depends mainly on agriculture. Elites also expressed the view that cooperation should focus on technology transfers and industrial investments to create jobs and keep the youth from being tempted by migration or violence.
As for the wider public, the main priority is a more general boost in trade. Some interviewees argued that Niger’s biggest problem is poverty due to a lack of opportunities, exacerbated by bad governance and bad implementation of EU foreign policies. Most interlocutors believed that in response, there should be more trade and investment from the EU and less French-led security cooperation with the bloc.
Drawing a clear conclusion about Niger’s perceptions of the EU and its policies is difficult because a large number of Nigeriens are unfamiliar with the union and its institutions. Indeed, as far as the wider public and even some political elites are concerned, the EU equates to France. Although each person’s level of understanding of the EU and the way it operates depends on their education, it is clear that the union’s policies are poorly understood in general and are confused with perceptions of France.
Nevertheless, Nigeriens revealed diverse opinions of the EU’s global leadership; policies on migration, security, climate change, and development aid; values; policy coherence; and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The most striking views from the general public were the EU’s double standards and the bloc’s unwillingness to solve issues unless it bears the direct costs of not doing so. For those who made a clear distinction between the EU and its member states, perceptions also diverged, particularly on security and values. For this group, the EU is considered a genuine partner on climate change and the pandemic response but internally and externally incoherent. Members of this group see the EU as having great potential for economic leadership but very patronizing.
In terms of future cooperation, Nigeriens identify four priority areas. The first is development aid, which should be delivered more effectively to reduce inequalities among citizens. The second is climate change expertise, which is needed not only for environmental but also for security reasons. Third, Niger seeks help to fight ongoing epidemics such as malaria, meningitis, measles, and cholera, which are seen as more serious than COVID-19. Finally, on security, Nigeriens hope to see a greater role for the EU as an entity in itself and not as represented by France or other individual member states.
Future studies on perceptions of the EU should be conducted using large-scale surveys in Niger or the Sahel. Such an approach could provide additional explanations of the variations in perceptions revealed by smaller-scale surveys.
Mamane Bello Garba Hima is a researcher at the Laboratory of Studies and Research on Economic Emergence at the University of Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger.
The author would like to thank the individuals who contributed to or reviewed this chapter, including Marta Martinelli, Rosa Balfour, and the Southern Mirror Advisory Board members, for their suggestions.
1 Natalia Chaban, Ole Elgström, Serena Kelly, and Lai Suet Yi, “Images of the EU Beyond Its Borders: Issue-Specific and Regional Perceptions of European Union Power and Leadership,” Journal of Common Market Studies 51, no. 3 (2013): 433–451, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcms.12004; David L. Rousseau and Rocio Garcia-Retamero, “Identity, Power, and Threat Perception: A Cross-National Experimental Study,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 5 (2007): 744–771, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002707304813.
2 Interview with an anonymous civil society representative in Niamey, February 2021.
3 Interview with an anonymous civil society representative in Niamey, January 2021.
4 Joyeeta Gupta and Michael Grubb, Climate Change and European Leadership: A Sustainable Role for Europe? (Dordrecht: Springer, 2000), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-1049-7; Sebastian Oberthür and Claire Roche Kelly, “EU Leadership in International Climate Policy: Achievements and Challenges,” International Spectator 43, no. 3 (2008): 35–50, https://doi.org/10.1080/03932720802280594; Louise Van Schaik and Simon Schunz, “Explaining EU Activism and Impact in Global Climate Politics: Is the Union a Norm- or Interest-Driven Actor?,” Journal of Common Market Studies 50, no. 1 (2012): 169–186, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5965.2011.02214.x.
5 Sonia Lucarelli, “Seen From the Outside: The State of the Art on the External Image of the EU,” Journal of European Integration 36, no. 1 (2014): 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1080/07036337.2012.761981.
6 Michael Johnston, “Good Governance: Rule of Law, Transparency, and Accountability,” Department of Political Science, Colgate University, 1993.
7 Interview with an anonymous member of a focus group discussion in Niamey, January 2021.
8 Rapport d’évaluation de la campagne agricole d’hivernage 2019 et Perspectives Alimentaires, Nigerien Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, 2019.