An Interview with U.S. Ambassador to Niger Bisa Williams

by Forum Staff

Ambassador Bisa Williams is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. She currently serves as the Ambassador to Niger. In Washington, she has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Coordinator for Cuban Affairs. Other stateside assignments include Director for International Organizations at the National Security Council, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, Advisor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, Special Assistant to the Coordinator of Assistance to the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union, Country Director for Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, and Deputy Country Director for Liberia. She served overseas in Mauritius, France, Panama, and Guinea (Conakry). Ambassador Williams is a graduate of the National War College of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., the University of California, Los Angeles, and Yale College.

In an interview with The Fletcher Forum, Ambassador Williams discusses the U.S. approach to counterterrorism, security challenges in the Sahel, and the strategic importance of stability in Niger.

FLETCHER FORUM: Niger straddles the border between West and Central Africa. It is in a unique strategic position right now, sandwiched between Islamic extremists AQIM to the northwest in Mali and Boko Haram to the south in northern Nigeria. How important is Niger’s stability, and what steps have the international community and regional actors taken to ensure Niger’s continued stability?

Niger’s stability is very important, not only for Nigeriens but for the region and for our continued partnership. Even more than its “stability,” Niger’s democracy is important to us. U.S. counterterrorism strategy in West Africa is designed to strengthen both the civilian and military capabilities of countries to respond. U.S. counterterrorism assistance—through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP)—has proven valuable in improving the capacities of several key countries in the Sahel, particularly Niger. Similarly, the United States has supported the Nigerien Government’s efforts to protect its borders and interdict terrorists attempting transit through its territory.

For example, U.S. military exercises like FLINTLOCK have built vital relationships among the countries in the Sahel that are now central to the deployment of an African force to Mali to confront al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its associates.  This focus on partnership is absolutely critical to establish sustainable cooperative efforts against the threat posed by AQIM and its associates.

Several TSCTP programs have worked to counter the pull of violent extremism on youth. These programs have included extensive youth employment and outreach programs, as well as community development and media activities in Niger. Terrorists are drawn to locations where they can take advantage of political and economic vulnerabilities to safeguard their operations, cross borders with impunity, and attract recruits. They benefit when security forces and border guards lack the necessary training, equipment, intelligence, and mobility to disrupt their activities. We work with the Nigerien Government to address those specific needs. Our counter-terrorism approach also reflects our recognition of the importance of promoting good governance and development in Niger. Military solutions alone are insufficient.

FLETCHER FORUM: As the French intervention in Mali drives out the remnants of the militant forces that once controlled major towns in the north, what is the risk of spillover of increased extremist groups from neighboring countries into Niger, and what is being done to prevent this?

WILLIAMS: So far, we have seen little spillover in Niger but, of course, the risk remains. The best antidote to the cancerous growth of extremism in Niger must come from Nigeriens themselves. Fortunately, the people and Government of Niger are aware of this. Throughout the country, the Government of Niger, working with traditional leaders and locally elected representatives, organizes town halls and “reconciliation” events. I’ve observed several of these gatherings and the theme is always “how to preserve peace and promote development” in Niger. Nigeriens suffered through two rebellions already in the first part of this century. There does not seem to be much hunger for war, and there is a concerted effort on the part of the Nigerien Government to address the development requirements of all of the regions of the country. That’s where the work has to start: with the host government demonstrating its commitment to all of its people. The international community can support that effort with a few programs, but ultimately, people have to have confidence that their government will protect them, will represent them, and will provide expected services. The United States does have added value when it comes to reinforcing the capacities of local security and border control services. We can provide training, equipment, and information about what we know about bad actors in the region, and we are doing that.

FLETCHER FORUM: As Tuareg rebels flow from Mali into Niger, what is President Issoufou doing to head off the possibility of a Tuareg-led uprising in Niger?

WILLIAMS: Niger ranks at the bottom of the UNDP’s Human Development Index, and the infrastructure to support basic services does not yet exist throughout most of the country. But Nigeriens—including the Tuareg—have embraced the electoral process and have elected local representatives and representatives to the National Assembly. They elect mayors, councilmen and women, and deputies. The first “Tuareg rebellion” in Niger was fought to demand greater services from central government, but that no longer seems to be a rallying cry. What people do want is employment. Kidnappings in the Sahel have led to a dramatic drop in tourism, a mainstay for many Tuareg in the Agadez region. However, Tuareg jewelers have been able to create a niche market for themselves in Europe and in the U.S. Employment remains, however, a major challenge. For his part, President Issoufou, in conjunction with his Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, has been promoting regional and national reconciliation fora at which Tuareg discuss the challenges facing their communities. President Issoufou believes that the he can secure the peace in Niger through a robust investment in development. He raised over $5 billion in Europe last year toward that end. It is also important to note that since the unfolding of events in Mali, Nigerien Tuareg have disassociated themselves from the stated aspirations of the Malian rebel leaders. Nigerien Tuareg identify as Nigerien.

FLETCHER FORUM: With France planning to pull its troops out of Mali, the operation will almost certainly be turned over to ECOWAS. Niger has offered ECOWAS 20 percent of its military to join the operation in Mali, depleting the country’s already weak army. What is the risk to Niger’s internal stability of deploying its troops to Mali? 

WILLIAMS: My sense is that the Government and people of Niger feel so strongly about addressing the problem in Mali that they consider the Nigerien contribution of soldiers to the AFISMA force to be blood and treasure well invested. There’s no immediate risk to Niger’s internal stability. The National Assembly voted almost unanimously to send troops to Mali. The Nigerien people also supported the deployment of troops.

FLETCHER FORUM: Before the coup, Mali was often cited as one of the greatest examples of democratic success in West Africa. Now, many international observers are admitting what Malians claim to have known and felt all along: that while Amadou Toumani Toure’s regime may have played a good democratic game, governance institutions were weak and crumbled easily. How is the U.S. structuring its democracy and governance support in the region, particularly in Niger, to help new democracies build solid institutions and real governance structures so they are not vulnerable to the same fate as Mali?

WILLIAMS: The United States Government has decided to approach support for the young democracies in Africa through a strategy that harnesses itself to the democratic foundations of a country and tries to strengthen that democracy. We also understand that states need a vibrant economy, so we are working in multiple creative ways to promote trade with Africa and U.S. investment in Africa. We have programs dealing with security and counterterrorism, as well as a myriad of programs to address chronic food insecurity and to promote resiliency, especially in the Sahel. We also have programs that focus on opportunity—supporting private sector development and those activities and institutions that enable Africans to make the most of themselves. Helping governments respond responsibly to the needs of their people and helping people to safeguard their individual rights and engage in productive and constructive economic and political activity are how we help new democracies build solid institutions and good governance structures.

FLETCHER FORUM: Niger’s military is often seen as having strong professionalism and a commitment to democracy, as evidenced by the coups in 1999 and 2010, which successfully led to democratic elections. Is Niger’s military seen as a viable model for other West African militaries, and to what extent can they reach out to the Malian military to encourage them to move in this direction?

WILLIAMS: Right now, Niger’s military is reaching out to Mali’s in the best way it can: by helping the French and Malian armies through the AFISMA force root out the terrorist groups who have attempted to take-over the country. Demonstrating their commitment to Mali’s territorial integrity and demonstrating professional conduct in the battlefield will be good models. There is consensus in the region that the Malian Army will need to be reconstituted and retrained. I think the Nigerien Government will help in that regard, if asked to.

FLETCHER FORUM: Before the crisis in Mali, it appeared that the momentum in West Africa was towards more democracy and less military and autocratic rule (i.e. Guinea, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal). Is this an accurate impression, and to what extent is the situation in Mali destructive to that momentum? 

WILLIAMS: There are many success stories in West Africa and throughout the African continent. Democracy has won the day in Africa. What we’re witnessing now are the growing pains of democracy’s entrenchment, if you will.  The exceptions get the media attention.

FLETCHER FORUM: Niger recently cut education and health funding in order to increase funding for border security. What is the U.S. position on this type of funding exchange of long-term goals vs. necessary but short-term security needs, particularly in a country like Niger that has consistently ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index? What is the U.S. doing to ensure that Niger does not have to make these kinds of compromises, or at least limit their impact?

WILLIAMS: We do have education assistance programming in Niger, but the heart of your question goes to the policy decisions that a government must take when it is facing a crisis. The war next door is Niger’s crisis, and the Nigerien Government decided to divert precious national funds to ensure the security of the Nigerien people. Few Governments would argue with that reasoning or that measure. Aside from refugee flows, there has been very little violent spill-over from Mali. Sometimes compromises—and sacrifices—are necessary. The Nigeriens have decided their security and integrity are worth the temporary sacrifice of funding to address the situation in Mali. President Issoufou has already proposed measures to recover from last year’s divergence of funds, however, and is committed to investing in education and health.

Niger’s $23 million initial (2006) approved Threshold Program focused on reducing public corruption within the health and education sectors; streamlining the process of starting a business; reducing the time and costs associated with land ownership transfer, land valuation, building permitting and notarization; and bolstering girls’ education. In December 2009, MCC’s Board of Directors voted to suspend the program based on Government of Niger actions inconsistent with MCC policies.

Niger’s eligibility for Threshold assistance was reinstated, however, in June 2011. The new follow on program, resumed in early 2013, complements MCC’s earlier $17 million investment that built sixty-three school complexes in Niger, and is designed to support school-based strategies to improve academic performance and to increase girls’ enrollment, retention and completion. This new program, a four-year, $7.6 million Education and Community Strengthening Program is co-funded by USAID and MCC.

FLETCHER FORUM: Niger is a member of ECOWAS but it also faces unique challenges due to its climate, geography, and shared borders with non-West African neighbors. In the short and long term, how do you think Niger should balance its dual identity as a West African nation while managing its relationship with neighbors like Algeria and Libya, particularly given the security challenges in the region? What, if anything, can the U.S. do to help Niger manage its difficult regional position?

WILLIAMS: The most difficult aspect of Niger’s regional position is climate change. Global warming is having a deleterious effect on the Sahel. The Sahara is descending, pastoralists are finding it increasingly difficult to find pastures for their herds, and odd weather cycles are affecting crops, requiring the introduction of drought resistant and shorter harvest-span crops, and new technologies for farming. But, to the question of how to be at the crossroads of Africa—I’d say that Nigeriens are well suited to the task. They’ve been where they are for centuries, if not millennia. This is not a black or white “dual identity” issue for the Nigeriens. They are “all of the above.” The security challenges in Libya or Mali are not due to ethnic diversity; they are in large part due to the lack of accountable governance and economic opportunity for the millions of inhabitants of the region. U.S. policies in Africa are concentrating on those cornerstones.

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