Niger seeks security cooperation with India: Ambassador

New Delhi, June 21 (IANS) The landlocked West African country of Niger, rich in natural resources but home to festering jehadist activities stoked by its neighbours, is seeking security cooperation with India and will soon post a defence attache at its embassy here, the country's envoy says.

A military delegation from Niger had visited New Delhi at the invitation of the defence ministry and had also explored the possibilities of purchasing suitable defence equipment, said Ali Illiassou, the country's first ambassador to India.

"The military delegation had fruitful discussions. The next step is defining the areas of defence cooperation. We will also have a defence attache here in a few months," Illiasou told IANS in an interview.

"We want to take advantage of India's expertise in dealing with problems like terrorism and extremist violence," the envoy said.

"Security is now a trans-border phenomenon and regional security systems only can handle the threats. We are thinking of creating regional systems for the west and north African region, where many of the populations are common beyond borders. We have support of partners like the European Union in the effort and we also want India's partnership in security," Illiasou said.

However, Niger's aspirations to purchase military hardware from India could prove to be a bridge too far, enquiries reveal.

For one, India accords immense importance to complying with arms control, non-proliferation and export control regimes, even though it is not a signatory to some of them.

Then, the government of India has in place stringent controls for the export of arms, including the requirement of an end-user certificate from the country to which these are to be exported. Each request is thoroughly vetted before the government clears an arms export licence.

Finally, India ensures that no arms are exported to countries involved in conflict.

Niger, with a population of over 16 million, is troubled by activities of Islamic militants of the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After a coup in Mali in 2012 Niger has been raising its concerns at regional and international fora to prevent a spillover in Niger.

However, the situation was such that France sent its Special Forces to the country late last year and they are still engaged in operations against the rebels. As recently as May 23, simultaneous car bombings at a French uranium mining facility and a military barrack in Niger killed at least 20 people. Two groups that are offshoots of AQIM claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Besides, Tuareg rebels in northern Niger have been resisting the mining of mineral resources, particularly uranium, by foreign countries. Niger is also rich in gold, coal, oil, iron and gypsum.

Saying President Mahamadou Issoufou had taken an "important political decision" to open an embassy here in 2012, Niger's envoy said this had boosted economic ties.

Earlier this week, the Indian government approved two projects for Niger's energy sector, Illiassou said. The first is a 5-MW solar power plant and the other the electrification of around 30 villages.

A rural drinking water supply project is under consideration and expected to be approved soon. Illiassou said that an MoU on this was signed this week by Niger's minister for water resources and Indian government-owned firm WAPCOS Limited, which will be the consultants for the project.

Illiassou said his major mandate was to attract more Indian companies to invest in various sectors of Niger's development, including in its food security programme, adding he had recently been visited by a group of Indian firms interested in farming in Niger.

"Currently there are some Indian companies involved in exploration of mineral blocks in Niger," the ambassador said.

India-Niger trade stood at $88.22 million in 2011-12, with the balance heavily tilted in this country's favour at $88.07 million. The two-way trade has doubled over a five-year period.

(Biswajit Choudhury can be contacted at biswajit.c@ians.in)