When Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, started its term on the Security Council almost two years ago, Covid-19 was not an international crisis yet, Operation Barkhane, a French antiterrorist operation launched in 2014, was full-fledged in the Sahel region and Mahamadou Issoufou was still president of Niger as the country prepared for a presidential election.
Now President Mohamed Bazoum is in power in Niger, the Security Council has visited the Sahel region potentially to be more active on the file and Barkhane is scaling down. A lot has changed in Niger since the country joined the Council in January 2020, but Niger’s Ambassador Abdou Abarry is satisfied with his team’s work.
“The legacy we want to leave in the Security Council is one of a country, a small country from Africa, from the Sahel region,” Abarry told PassBlue on Nov. 18. “We fought as hard as we can to talk about our realities, our fight against terrorism, women peace and security, the situation of school and children in an environment with conflict like in West Africa. Also, we shed some light on the link between climate change and security.”
The Sahel is a band of semiarid desert that stretches below the Sahara from the Red Sea in East Africa to the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa, as far as Cape Verde.
During its term, Niger shed light on the situation in the Sahel through, among other steps, a Council trip to Niger and Mali in late October. While tangible results did not come out of the trip other than a Council statement, Abarry hopes the visit at least raised awareness to the challenges his country is facing.
“Why did we go to the Sahel? Because I told my colleagues that whatever problem you want to discuss, you have it in our society,” he said. “If you talk about insecurity, the fight against terrorism, the Sahel is the right place to be. If you want to deal with the impact of climate change on humanitarian issues and peace and security, the Sahel is suffering from it.”
According to Michael Shurkin, the director of global programs at 14 North Strategies, a consultancy firm based in Dakar, Senegal, the trip also helped secure Niger’s position as an ally for the West — the so-called “international community” — when it comes to the Sahel region, as Mali is too unstable politically to deal with for many countries right now.
President Bazoum, Shurkin said, has “become kind of like the man to go to in the Sahel.” He added: “He’s sort of a trusted partner of the international community. In part, this has to do with the fact that [former Chad President Idriss] Déby is dead. He was killed in April. The Malian government had two coups in the last year. The Malian government is run by the military, one that is kind of going off the rails and decided that antagonizing the international community is in its own parochial interests. . . . But what this means is that the Malian leaders have become persona non grata in the international community.”
On top of its focus on the Sahel, Niger and Ireland (another elected Council member), are aiming to get a draft resolution on climate and security approved by early December. The draft resolution, initially organized by Germany when it was on the Council in 2019-2020, would be the first of its kind. It calls for more integration and monitoring the effects of climate change in conflict areas.
However, China, Russia and India oppose the topic getting onto the Council agenda, arguing that the twin issues of climate and security is best tackled by other UN bodies. The draft resolution is still being negotiated until more common ground can be found on the issue, Abarry suggested in his press briefing on Dec. 1 (below). Yet it could be put to a vote early next week.
“For us, as Niger is to show members of the international community at large and members of the Security Council that the impact of climate change for us is not tomorrow. It’s already today,” Abarry told PassBlue.
According to Shurkin, Niger’s strategy to focus on climate and security hits crucial elements of instability in the region. “I think that if you were to poll 100 Sahel watchers, I’m pretty sure that 99 of them are going to tell you that climate change is a very important factor . . . climate change is really just caused all sorts of terrible problems,” he said. “I think that it’s only going to get worse. It’s putting a lot of pressure on countries that are already amongst the poorest on the planet, that already are amongst the most fragile on the planet that already have serious problems with competition for scarce natural resources.”
President Bazoum is planning to preside over Niger’s signature open debate it is holding in the Council on Dec. 9, on international peace and security, focusing on terrorism and climate change. He will also go to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Joe Biden, though an official date has not been set yet.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the presidency of the Security Council. This year, the column has reported on Tunisia, Britain, the United States, Vietnam, China, Estonia, France, India, Ireland, Kenya and Mexico.
To hear an original analysis with more details on Niger’s Council presidency and insights from Shurkin of 14 North, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela, on Patreon or SoundCloud. (Excerpts are included in the interview portion below.)
Ambassador to the UN: Abdou Abarry, 62
Languages: French, English, Hausa, Djerma
Education: M.A., 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 with Niger’s mission to the UN, from 1992 to 1997. The circumstances were far different than they are now, he said, since it was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Now we are facing a totally new environment in New York. For us, the main problem 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 his first years in New York City, Abarry held top diplomatic jobs in Africa and in Europe. From 1999 to 2003, he was diplomatic adviser to Niger’s then-President Mamadou Tandja. From 2003-2011, Abarry was Niger’s ambassador to Belgium, serving concurrently in numerous other European countries. One diplomatic trip Abarry recalled vividly was four days in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. For a person who grew up in the sunny, hot and dry climate of the Sahel, the cold darkness of Iceland — at least in the winter — was a shock.
“I had just gotten back from Niger, in 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 the capital of Nigeria, Abuja. In 2014, Abarry became the special representative to the chairperson of the African Union Commission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 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., though he admits he that is looking forward to taking time off after the Council tenure and intends to leave the US shortly thereafter.
He talked to PassBlue on Nov. 18. His remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How has Covid-19 affected the work of the Security Council? Do you agree with the criticisms that the Council cannot get anything done nowadays? Covid-19 was a huge disaster not only for the ways the Security Council works but in all structures of the international community. Diplomacy is a game; we have to see your interlocutor, and your interlocutor has to see you. There is a kind of feeling in diplomacy that with Covid-19 and these virtual meetings, we do not have the same feeling about the procedures of the Security Council. The consequence was that after one year, those who joined the Security Council during this pandemic never went into the chamber, in the plenary or the consultation chamber. Can you imagine a member of the Security Council who was sitting only at home, dealing with serious business from his house? I think this is something we are not going to forget. But we succeeded in having Security Council meetings; we didn’t keep quiet, we didn’t keep silent, we continue using the minimum space that remains available to deal with international issues. We have to be praised for what we achieved in this difficult time.
Niger had its first democratic transition earlier this year, electing President Mohamed Bazoum, but the government remains fragile. What can the rest of the world, such as other democracies, do to help countries like Niger? Democracy is one step. When you succeed in organizing free and fair elections, it is very important, but development is the main issue facing Niger today. Yes, you have an elected a president, you have some institutions that are working, but unless you deal with the issue of development, and unless the international community helps Niger fight terrorism, unless we get help from the international community not to put our resources in the fight in military expenses but on social issues. . . . We need more education, we need to educate young girls, we need to build a strong health system.
Now that we are facing this pandemic, we saw that even as the developed countries are facing some challenges, we also have to build a secure food security system. Democracy itself will not be enough to help stabilize the country and to give the citizens of Niger chances to benefit from development. That is my last word. It is an appeal to the international community for more solidarity, for more help to Niger and the other countries of the Sahel.
Head of State: President Mohamed Bazoum
Foreign Affairs Minister: Hassoumi Massoudou
Type of Government: Semipresidential representative democratic republic
Year Niger Joined the UN: 1960
Years on the Security Council: 1980-1981; 2020-2021
Population: 24.2 million
CO2 emissions, 2019: 0.1 (world average, 4.7 tons per person; US: 16 tons; target for 2030 to achieve a 1.5-degree Celsius limit: 2 tons)
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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.