NIAMEY Niger will spend nearly $2.5 billion to develop and secure its vast northern desert zones over the next five years, according to a new plan aimed at preventing the spillover of a conflict that has split neighboring Mali in two.
Uranium-producing Niger, perched on the Sahara's southern rim, is one of the world's poorest nations. With a northern nomadic Tuareg population similar to the one that rebelled in Mali this year, it is seen as vulnerable to uprisings.
The money is due to be spent on strengthening law and enforcement and border controls in an area where government authority is weak and traffickers and gunmen, some with links to al Qaeda, operate.
Funds will also target improving basic social services and infrastructure in the six most northern regions, where underdevelopment has led to previous rebellions.
Both Mali and Niger were threatened by the return home of thousands of gunmen who had fought for Muammar Gaddafi during Libya's conflict last year.
While Mali's north has since been over-run by rebels, Niger has so far contained any threat. It has disarmed its returnees and ensured better representation in government for the Tuareg community, which has rebelled before over the lack of development and demands for a greater share of resource wealth.
The new plan, known as SDS/Sahel-Niger, will cost 1.266 trillion CFA francs ($2.49 billion), according to Prime Minister Brigi Raffini, himself a Tuareg, who launched the initiative late on Monday.
At least half of the program will be funded by the government in Niamey while the European Union has pledged a further 91.6 million euros ($118 million), according to documents seen by Reuters. It was not immediately clear where the rest of the money would come from.
Niger hosts mining projects run by French nuclear power giant Areva and, with investments from China National Nuclear Corporation, the country has also recently become an oil producer.
Yet it also faces recurrent drought-related food shortages and struggles to feed its rapidly growing population, currently at around 16 million.
Niger has become of increasing strategic importance after Mali's Tuareg rebellion was taken over by a mix of local and foreign Islamists. A coup in Mali's capital, Bamako, has hamstrung any foreign efforts to tackle Mali's crisis.
The EU already has a team of security experts in Niger trying to help the authorities tackle organized crime and terrorism.
Niger's last Tuareg rebellion ended in 2009 but the former fighters who laid down their weapons are still waiting for the projects that are meant to help them find jobs. ($1 = 508.2970 CFA francs)
($1 = 0.7749 euros)
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Stephen Nisbet)