NIAMEY Niger called on Wednesday for international help to secure its northern border with Libya, saying the conflict to the north was holding back efforts by its new civilian government to find stability and develop its economy.
Justice Minister Marou Amadou said Niger needed help with intelligence-gathering and aerial surveillance of some six million square meters of desert in its north, already a venue for al Qaeda's North African wing and bandits.
"The situation in Libya is characterized by a number of uncontrolled arms that are circulating in the region and which could end up in the hands of all kinds of criminals, or al Qaeda members," Amadou said in an interview in the capital Niamey.
"The situation is explosive, to say the least."
He said efforts by Niger and other countries in the region to secure the area were not enough. Niger's entire 2011 annual budget of just under $2 billion would not be sufficient even if spent on security alone.
"We need aerial surveillance, good intelligence and information and all of these cost a lot for a very poor and indebted country such as ours, which perennially suffers from food crises," Amadou said.
"The need was expressed at the (regional) foreign affairs ministers meeting in Algiers (earlier this month) and anyway, all the countries of the EU, and the United States, have committed to supporting our countries," he said.
Asked what help Niger had received so far, he said: "I think that will come."
The uranium-producing West African nation is emerging from years of instability following an election in April that ended the rule of a military junta, and also rebellion by Tuareg nomads in the north of the country from 2007-2009.
Before entering government, Amadou was a prominent rights activist who was repeatedly jailed by the government of former president Mamadou Tandja. Tandja was ousted by soldiers in 2010 for trying to stay in power beyond his term limits.
Current President Mahamadou Issoufou has won Western backing for his efforts to get the country back on its feet, but his troubles include the risk of a failed harvest this year.
Amadou said Niger was track to meet some of its economic objectives such as plans to start pumping oil for the first time next year, and a new uranium project in the north which if completed, would make it the world's second-biggest producer.
But he added that Niger needed the situation in Libya to be stable for such projects not to be jeopardized.
"This is a completely unexpected, uncontrollable situation, which runs up against our vision for the future.
"For us, the immediate neighbours of Libya, what is at stake is not just the reconstruction of buildings destroyed by war, but peace, stability and the reconciliation of the (Libyan) people," he said. "It is a major challenge and it is a condition for our peace as well."
(Additional reporting by Mark John)