American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 2001

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The people of Niger are more than 90% Muslim, for the most part fervently so. Islam is a vital part of their daily lives, in a way that Christianity used to be in the West but is no longer for most people. While the Government of Niger is constitutionally secular, and small animist and Christian minorities are well tolerated, Niger is a very Islamic country, to an even greater degree than the countries of Europe and America were effectively if not officially Christian in the mid-19th Century.

Moreover, the people of Niger are wretchedly poor, in a way that is quite literally unimaginable for most Americans. As measured by the United Nations Development Program, this is the second poorest country in the world, ahead only of war-ravaged Sierra Leone and well behind countries such as Afghanistan. Worse, the standard of living for most Nigeriens, according to the World Bank, has been in decline for more than three decades. This is because of rapid population growth, continuing desertification, recurrent bouts of political instability that have undermined development efforts and international support, and a host of other factors.

And finally, Niger is located in a very tough global neighborhood. Four of the seven states on its borders -- Algeria, Libya, Chad and Nigeria -- are poster countries for various sorts of terrorism, anti-Americanism, political and religious extremism, and bloody ethnic warfare. And those borders are highly porous.

Doesn't all this make Niger a hotbed for international terrorism and a very dangerous place for Americans to be these days?

No, it does not.

Since September 11, some 400 Americans -- Peace Corps Volunteers, Embassy staff, non-governmental organization employees (CARE, CRS, etc.), and missionaries -- have continued to live and work throughout the country without serious incident or threat. There have been no anti-American demonstrations and no hostile media campaigns. Many Nigeriens, from President Tandja to ordinary villagers, have expressed their condolences and have spoken out against terrorism and Islamic extremism. Within its limited means, the Government has been exemplary in responding to our security concerns and in pro-actively discouraging anti-American manifestations or any type of violence.

I believe that Peace Corps Volunteers living in Nigerien villages are at least as safe from terrorism as they would be in the US, and probably safer.

Why is this the case?First, the Government and the vast majority of the people, while very religious in outlook, are not Islamic extremists. They are proud of Niger's record of religious tolerance and tend to see Osama bin Laden and his followers as perverting Islam. Moreover, unlike most of its neighbors, Niger does not have a tradition of terrorism or serious religious or ethnic conflict, and even its political turbulence has not involved widespread violence. The Sahara Desert provides considerable (though not total) isolation from the turmoil in Algeria, Libya and Chad. The Islamic extremism and communal violence in northern Nigeria are far closer to Niger's populated heartland; but thus far spillover has been minimal. And Nigerien leaders generally want a closer and more cooperative relationship with the US (especially including increased aid and investment), not confrontation. They are concerned about conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but correctly see them as having little to do with Niger.

A typical Nigerien "bush taxi," the only alternative to walking for most Nigeriens, and often for Peace Corps Volunteers as well.

Another reason for Niger's relative tranquility in the current storm, I'm convinced, is that 39 years of continuous Peace Corps presence here has built a reservoir of good will toward America and Americans that makes Nigeriens less susceptible than they might otherwise be to the anti-American message of the extremists. It is far easier to induce people to hate an abstraction, an ugly American stereotype, than to hate the friendly young man who lives in your village or the dedicated young woman who taught you English. In addition to those whose lives are touched by the current Volunteers, I'm constantly meeting senior-level Nigeriens who say, "Oh, Peace Corps! Do you know X?" (who turns out to be a Volunteer from many years ago who lived in their village or taught in their school). This effect can't be quantified, but it's real.

All this being said, we must continue to watch the situation closely. There are a few Islamic extremists in Niger, and their number may well be growing. Moreover, stability in such a poor country as this is inherently fragile. Ethnically, culturally and economically, eastern Niger is essentially an extension of northern Nigeria, and a spillover of the burgeoning Islamic extremism and communal violence that plague that region is a real possibility. We must remain vigilant, keep a low profile, and take measures to reduce our risks. The situation could change rapidly.

For now, however, I'm comfortable with continuing the Peace Corps program in Niger, and even expanding it if Washington will provide the additional resources I've been requesting.

American Aid and the War on Terrorism
Many pundits and academics have been saying that military action against terrorism, while perhaps justified in response to the 9/11 attacks, fails to address its "root causes," which are usually identified as poverty and the alienation and rage it produces. Therefore, the argument goes, we should greatly increase our foreign aid program to fight terrorism.

Kids pounding millet. This principal staple grain of the Nigerien diet must normally be pounded by hand to separate the chaff, since grist mills are rare.
From my perspective in Niger, this reasoning is largely nonsense, even if the conclusion has considerable merit. If poverty causes terrorism, Niger would surely be an ideal incubator for its production. And yet, there is no terrorism here, and not a single Nigerien has been identified as a member of Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.

Neither the millionaire Osama bin Laden and his middle-class lieutenants nor most of their agents (including the 19 suicide bombers of 9/11) are products of poverty. They are driven primarily by religious zealotry, of the same sort that launched crusades, conducted inquisitions and burned witches. They are evil, and they are unlikely to be dissuaded from their evil ways by increases in US aid programs or changes in US policies short of our becoming an Islamic republic. As Charles Krauthammer aptly put it, "This kind of fury and fanaticism is unappeasable. It knows no social, economic or political solution."

Since we can't change their beliefs and intent, we must destroy the terrorists' capacity to do us harm. The quickest, most direct way of accomplishing that is to destroy them and those that harbor them by military action.

Nonetheless, it is also true that terrorists and the religious and other extremists who support them thrive best in failed and failing states where poverty and chaos reign. They feed on poverty and exploit it for their own ends. Thus, it is certainly in our interest, and it should be an important element in the war on terrorism, to prevent other countries from becoming future Afghanistans. A substantial increase in American aid, especially to poor Islamic countries such as Niger (where the USAID mission was closed five years ago), would be an important tool to help achieve that objective.

A new village school, built with the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer, along with the remains of the millet stalk structure it replaced.
With the end of the Cold War, foreign aid as an instrument of US foreign policy diminished rapidly, and has now almost disappeared. During the time of the Marshall Plan, we spent more than two percent of our GDP on foreign aid, and continued spending decreasing but still very substantial amounts until the 1980s. In view of our victory in the Cold War, to which this aid contributed significantly, few would argue that this was a bad investment. Yet today, we spend less than one-tenth of one percent of our GDP on foreign aid, and most of that goes to just two countries, Israel and Egypt.

Sharing a portion of our great wealth with the world's poorest people has been and remains an important American value, and we should surely give at least some foreign aid on moral grounds alone. However, as my former boss Henry Kissinger has eloquently argued, American engagements abroad can be effective and sustained only if they are consistent with both our values and our interests. Thus, it is not surprising that foreign aid withered after the USSR's collapse made containing the global communist threat no longer relevant.

Now, with the global terrorist threat, we once again have a strategic interest in providing foreign aid as well as the charitable impulse to do so. The Agency for International Development should be given a new mandate, consistent with the war on terrorism, and substantially increased resources. We would then be able not only to provide increased assistance to countries like Niger but also to leverage this renewed US leadership in aiding poor countries to achieve major increases in European and Japanese contributions as well. The resulting long-term reduction in the poverty and instability on which terrorism and extremism feed would be an important contribution to victory.

Bullington's other articles in American Diplomacy include:

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