NIAMEY (Reuters) - Long bedevilled by coups, rebellions and other home-grown troubles, Libya’s African neighbours have been landed with a new set of woes imported fresh from someone else’s war.
The arrival in Niger of 32 fleeing Muammar Gaddafi loyalists — including one of the ousted Libyan leader’s sons — in recent days is already a diplomatic headache for the government.
Yet that may just be a precursor to developments that would scare off foreign investment and further unsettle a region that is already a base for al Qaeda-linked militants.
Lacking the military might and technology to secure its northern borders, Niger this week warned that the Libyan conflict could turn into the next security and humanitarian crisis to afflict the drought-prone former French colony.
“We need your help and support on both scores,” Prime Minister Brigi Rafini appealed to local ambassadors during talks in the capital Niamey this week.
More than 150,000 people have already fled Libya into the northern part of Niger, which is mostly desert. Nigeriens and other sub-Saharan Africans have for years sought work in oil-rich Libya, where average income per head is 20 times Niger’s.
Among them are gangs of local Tuareg nomads who were hired to fight on Gaddafi’s side and which in the past weeks have been spotted returning to their encampments in northern Niger.
While the numbers so far are small, Niamey’s main worry is that a final capitulation of Gaddafi forces will drive thousands more of his Tuareg fighters back over the border to a country where they have for years led a string of rebellions.
“The Sahelo-Saharan strip is already insecure, with the activities of terrorists and drug traffickers. Now we seeing the return of young men with no source of employment but who know how to handle weapons,” said Ahmet Haidara, a parliamentarian in Niger’s north, told Reuters.
“We didn’t want this war but now we have to deal as best we can with the negative consequences,” said Haidara, who heads a Tuareg committee in contact with Libya’s new National Transitional Council rulers.
Aside from arms coming back with the Tuaregs, governments in the region believe trafficked weapons from Libya have fallen into the hands of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) allies behind a series of kidnappings of Westerners and other crime.
“Businesses operating in the region will face increased criminality and insecurity in the coming months as a result of the influx of arms and armed individuals or groups,” forecast Roddy Barclay, Africa analyst at London-based Control Risks.
That would not only make humanitarian work tougher, but be bad news for companies such as Areva, whose uranium mines in the northern town of Arlit supply France’s nuclear sector.
The target of an AQIM hostage-taking a year ago, Areva began returning its expatriate workers to northern Niger in July under tightened security. Citing the increased measures, an Areva spokesman said the company was ready for all eventualities.
Neighbouring Mali, where AQIM is thought still to be holding a group of four French hostages from the Arlit kidnappings, faces the same set of concerns as Niger.
It too is seeing a recent respite from a rebellion launched on its soil by Tuaregs, whom one senior military source linked to new signs of a trade in weapons trafficked from Libya. Others fear an opportunity for AQIM.
“The influx of arms into the region cannot but strengthen AQIM,” Burkinabe parliamentarian Melegue Traore said at talks on regional security and other issues in Niamey this week.
“It’s a golden opportunity for them — I’m sure the West didn’t think it would be like this,” he added.
Security sources in Chad to Libya’s southeast cite arrivals of arms in the northern Tibesti mountains inhabited by Toubou rebels, and say the population of the Faya-Largeau, the main town of the region, has been swollen by Chadians fleeing Libya.
But their main concern is the return of Darfur rebel leader Khalil Ibrahim to neighbouring Sudan from his Libyan refuge, upsetting the delicate peace on the Chad-Sudan border.
“Chad, which has a non-aggression pact with Sudan, has put its troops on alert in case Sudanese rebels try to enter Chad,” said one of the security sources.
Events in Libya over coming days could well determine how big an impact is seen on stability in the fragile region.
For now, the hand-wringing in Niamey over what to do with the Gaddafi loyalists — including his son Saadi — highlights the challenges facing governments which had learned how to live with Gaddafi’s mix of irksome meddling and erratic generosity.
Niger has stressed the Libyans are under surveillance rather than detention, as they are not being sought for arrest and so are being granted refuge on humanitarian grounds.
That stance might appease the local politicians who have sampled Gaddafi’s generosity, but would be tested if Libya’s new leaders and the West push for the fugitives to be handed over — particularly given Niger’s reliance on foreign aid.
While many African states have only begrudgingly recognised Libya’s National Transitional Council, whose members are largely unknown south of the Sahara, some analysts argue they will fare better after Gaddafi’s fall.
“With the Gaddafi regime no longer playing regional governments off against each other, co-operation on issues such as border control, counter-narcotics and the creation of a regional task-force should face less disruption,” argued Control Risks’ Barclay.
Additional reporting by Bate Felix and Nathalie Prevost in Niamey; Madjiasra Nako in N'djamena and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Editing by Giles Elgood