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Niger Brings the Voice of the Sahel Into the UN Security Council


Abdou Abbary, Niger’s envoy to the UN, assumes the Security Council presidency for September 2020. It is the first time the nation has been in the Council for almost 40 years. JOHN PENNEY 

Niger hasn’t been a member of the Security Council for almost 40 years, and now that it has a voice on one of the world’s most visible platforms, it intends to use it to build more alliances with influential world powers while furthering a regional agenda.

September will require Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, to handle pressures related to the Council’s big-powers’ fight over the attempt by the United States to trigger the snapback mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal; the UN General Assembly’s annual opening session; and the country’s relationship with France and its long-lasting presence in the Sahel region.

Will Niger stay aligned with the majority of the Security Council members in rejecting the US move to reimpose UN sanctions against Iran in September?

“The US is a great partner of Niger. If we are a stable country today, it is thanks to the help of the US,” Abdou Abarry, Niger’s permanent representative to the UN, told PassBlue. “They are helping us on the military field in training by giving us some equipment. On the issue of Iran, Iran is not our priority. It is an international fight; the JCPOA took certain years of negotiations among the P5 and other international actors. Yes, we’ve met with the US, but they didn’t ask us specifically to do something.” (The JCPOA stands for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the Iran nuclear deal; the P5 are the permanent members of the Council.)

Niger is a relative anomaly in a region marked by violence and instability, Michael Shurkin, a West African expert at the Rand Corporation, a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., told PassBlue.

“Niger is a country that basically is encamped in the middle of a minefield in the sense that there are so many dangers, so many problems,” Shurkin said in a phone interview. “Niger somehow manages to survive, or maybe I should say muddle through, relatively well. It’s always sort of a wonder and people scratch their heads about this. Like, why is Niger doing as well as it is, relatively speaking; it’s simply doing better than Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.”

Even if Niger is doing better than some of its neighbors, challenges remain. Niger is a member of the G5 Sahel joint force, a security partnership in West Africa, along with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania. It was created in 2014 to address the rising instability in the Sahel, including the increased presence of terrorist organizations linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Security Council supports the operation on paper, but the UN does not provide direct funding because the US refused to approve any financial backing.

In early August, a terrorist attack occurred in Kouré, a town located 37 miles east of Niamey, the capital, and that shares a border with Mali and Burkina Faso. The attack took the lives of eight people: six humanitarian-aid workers from France and two from Niger. It was another blow to an area already suffering from insecurity.

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“Because you have tourists that are visiting, generating some financial resources that are helping the population on the ground; then, after this attack, Niger was put in red,” Ambassador Abarry said. “Red means that all of Niger, nearly 1,206,700 square kilometers, because of what happened 60 kilometers away from Niamey, is now a whole country painted red. It is not really justified to be put in this situation because it will have an economic impact not only on the region of Kouré but also on the whole country.”

For September, Niger will continue to hold Council meetings by videoconference, but some sessions will be held in the UN. On Sept. 8, Niger is organizing a Council debate on the cooperation between the UN and regional and subregional groups and the International Organization of La Francophonie. The Agency of Cultural and Technical Cooperation — which became La Francophonie — was founded in Niamey in 1970. On Sept. 24, Niger will hold a debate during the General Assembly high-level week on global governance in the post-Covid-19 context. Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, will be attending the meeting virtually from Africa, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres is also expected to speak.

The Council will also debate the humanitarian effects of environmental degradation and peace and security on Sept. 17. Climate change is a main priority of Niger’s two-year term on the Council. Regular agenda items will be interspersed throughout the month, including on Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. (The program of work is here, and the ambassador’s Sept. 1 media briefing is above.)

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more about Niger’s goals in September, with insights from Michael Shurkin, the Rand analyst, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series on SoundCloud or Patreon. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)

Ambassador to the UN: Abdou Abarry, 61
Since: 2019
Languages: French, English, Hausa, Djerma
Education: M.A. in international relations from Ecole Supérieure d’Administration et des Carrières juridicus, Lomé, Togo; diploma, International Relations Institute, Cameroon.

His story, briefly: Ambassador Abarry started his diplomatic career in New York City as a counselor to Niger’s mission to the UN from 1992 to 1997. The circumstances were far different than they are now, he says, since it was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Now, we are facing a totally new environment in New York. For us, the main problems that we are facing in Niger and in the Sahel region is a terrorist threat, and our priority is to mobilize the international community to help us get rid of this phenomenon.”

After New York City, Abarry held top diplomatic jobs in Africa and in Europe. Between 1999-2003, he served as diplomatic adviser to Niger’s president at the time, Mamadou Tandja. From 2003-2011, Abarry was Niger’s ambassador to Belgium, serving concurrently in other European countries such as Greece, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. One diplomatic trip that Abarry recalled vividly was four days in Iceland. For a person who grew up in the sunny, hot and clear climate of the Sahel, the cold darkness of Iceland was a shock.

“I had just gotten back from Niger, in the month of January or February,” he said. “In February in Niger, you have an average of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Then, in Brussels, I received a letter from Reykjavik saying that I needed to present my credentials, so I went from 40 degrees to minus 30 (-22 Fahrenheit). At 7 a.m., I get a call [in Reykjavik] saying a car is waiting for me, and I say, But it is still the night! I came out in the darkness, we entered the car, we went for the ceremony and we finished everything. Thank God, I survived this experience, but I haven’t gone back to Reykjavik since! It is a very, very nice country with very nice people.”

After Brussels, he returned to Africa to head the liaison office to the Economic Community for West African States (Ecowas), in Abuja, Nigeria. In 2014, Abarry became the special representative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abarry intends to prioritize the country’s issues while in the Council, and his time spent there is one of his proudest achievements: “We succeeded in organizing the first peaceful transfer of power in this country, and I think it is thanks to the African Union to have a quite stable DRC,” he said.

Abarry is married, has three children and lives in White Plains, N.Y. He talked to PassBlue on Aug. 28. His remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is your strategy on the US claim that it triggered the snapback provision in the Iran nuclear deal on Aug. 20? Did the US make an official request to you yet on what it wants from the Council in September? We’ve met with some US officials, but they didn’t ask us specifically to do something. The relations we have in the Security Council reflect the excellent relations we have in the bilateral field, and we will do whatever we can to help not only the US, because the Iran nuclear file is not an issue that is related only to the US. It is a concern for all 15 members of the Security Council. We have the same goal, but it is the paths we are taking that are sometimes different or even divergent. As an incoming president of the Council, I will respect the rules of the Security Council. As the president is not the only one to make a decision, we can help build a consensus in order for the Security Council to survive these turbulent seas to remain united, even with the Iranian fight. We will do our utmost to achieve this goal. I do not see it as a question that is concerning only the US on one side and the rest on another side; we have a collective responsibility. There is also the fear of some countries in the region of what they call the Iranian policy. I think it is a concern shared not only by the United States but by all the members of the Security Council. We do face some procedural issues here, some legal issues maybe, but I have confidence that with the wisdom of the P5 and the wisdom of the E10 [elected members] we will overcome this difficult situation.

How are you planning to raise the voice of the Sahel region in the Council? Unfortunately, we think that people are talking a lot about our problems. You have, let’s say, around 17 strategies for the Sahel, but if you look on the ground, at the impact of these realities, you do not have many. We endeavor to draw the attention of the Security Council, of the international community, in order to have sustainable financing of the G5 Sahel.

We expressed our political will, as the five countries of G5 Sahel, to put into place a 5,000-troop component to defend our countries, but we do not have the financial means and we do not have proper armament to deal with this threat. It is not just a threat against the Sahel, but it is a global threat, and we cannot face it alone because we are devoting, as of now, around 20 to 30 percent of our financial resources to fight terrorism. Unless we get help from our partners in the international community, it will be difficult for us to reverse this trend. We are thankful to some partners, like France with Barkhane; the International Coalition for the Sahel, including such partners as Germany, the US and Belgium. Also countries like China, which are trying to come on board to help us for the time being.

We are not really satisfied by what is going on because instead of having the situation getting better, it is worsening. I think you couldn’t ignore the impact of what is going on in Libya, and the overall situation in the Sahara. Unless you sort out the situation in Libya, it will be hypocritical to think that you can solve the situation in the Sahel. We thank those partners that are helping us, but we need more help, because the evolution is not in our favor. The insecurity is spreading all over this region. And we are fearing that even countries that are not touched by this violence may be concerned if we didn’t deal with the situation in the Sahel.

What countries do you want to work more closely with in the Security Council? I can assure you that we have excellent relations with the P5 [Britain, China, France, Russia and the US]. We have excellent relations among the elected 10. We are working in good coordination. We have another grouping, called A3+1, the African countries [Niger, South Africa and Tunisia] joined by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I think the mood in the Security Council is very nice and very constructive. Sometimes we do face divergences of views on issues. We are benefiting from the friendship and the support of the 14 other members. We have the same goal, we have the same objective, and we are really working as a family.

Country Profile

Head of State: President Mahamadou Issoufou

Foreign Affairs Minister: Kalla Ankourao

Type of Government: Semipresidential representative democratic republic

Year Niger Joined the UN: 1960

Years on the Security Council: 1980-1981; 2020-2021

Population: 22.4 million


This article was updated to reflect that President Issoufou will attend a UN Security Council meeting on Sept. 24 virtually, not physically.

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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