The Power of People
Taking Time to Engage Civilian Leaders Can Build Partnerships that Enhance Security
The village of Gofat spreads out beyond the rocky crags that punctuate the southernmost sands of the Sahara in Niger. More than 1,000 people call it home, but the population shifts like the desert wind — at times topping 3,000 people, depending on the season.
As the sun peeked above the horizon on February 27, 2014, a convoy of Soldiers, supplies and medical personnel made the lonesome drive into the village, 27 kilometers northeast of Agadez. They spent the day offering medical help to villagers and others from up to 160 kilometers away. In the medical civil action program (MEDCAP), a doctor, nurses and medics treated people who complained of tooth pain, diabetes, diarrhea and other illnesses. The event was part of Flintlock 2014, a larger annual military exercise in the Sahel area that focuses on counter-terrorism strategies. MEDCAP events are common at such exercises. They show civilians that militaries can be armed with stethoscopes and blood-pressure cuffs, not just guns.
This year’s Flintlock — held throughout Niger in Niamey, Agadez, Tahoua and Diffa — employed a new approach. Organizers reached out to key leaders across the nation to familiarize them with the exercise. Such an effort can build good will and relationships that can add value to counterterrorism efforts for years to come.
About 20 key leaders from throughout the region, including three women, attended the Gofat MEDCAP. Prominent among them was Oumarou Ibrahim Oumarou, the sultan of Aïr, who holds influence through a large swath of Niger and beyond. He came with his court of attendants, who have authority to resolve issues throughout the sultanate before they reach the sultan.
Oumarou told ADF that he was pleased with how Western militaries had come to Niger to help the national military build its capacity. He said he and other civilians are eager to work with the military to ensure the country remains secure against all threats. He added that trust between the military and civilians has improved in recent years.
“We, as local leaders, we will work, we will do our best to reach out in any far, deep place in this earth to let people know that we are looking for only one thing: peace in the heart and in the house of our population,” he said.
NIGER SURROUNDED BY TERRORIST THREATS
Niger occupies a challenging space in Africa’s Sahel region: Mali is to its west, Libya is to its north and Nigeria is to its south. Weapons have passed through the region from post-Gadhafi Libya, and Boko Haram goes on murderous rampages just kilometers from Niger’s border. Niger, like Mali, has vast territory to the north of its capital, which can be enticing to smugglers and violent extremists seeking to ply their trade unnoticed.
On May 23, 2013, terrorists detonated two truck bombs in Niger — one at an army base in Agadez, the other at a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit. The attacks killed 21 Soldiers and five bombers. The movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of al-Qaida, claimed responsibility. The group, which has been active in northern Mali, underscores concerns that violence elsewhere will spill into Niger. The government takes the threats seriously. In March 2014, Niger met with representatives of Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss the establishment of joint patrol teams to secure common borders. In February, Sahel and West African foreign ministers met in in Niamey to discuss a response to terrorism.
“Niger is suffering the collateral fallout of the Libyan and Malian crises, and at a very early stage, it began seeking ways of safeguarding its extra-community borders through a partnership guaranteeing human rights and the free movement of people,” Nigerien Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told the meeting of the Fusion and Liaison Unit.
The terrorist threat was underscored even as Flintlock was underway. Overnight on February 24 and 25, Boko Haram militants attacked and burned a school in Buni Yadi in Nigeria’s Yobe State, which shares a border with Niger. Nearly 60 students — all boys — were either shot or burned by the terrorists.
ENGAGING KEY LEADERS
As with most large-scale military exercises, the months leading up to Flintlock included efforts to reach out to civilians using posters, radio and text messages. But a few months before the exercise began, Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, told U.S. organizers that efforts to tell civilians about what Flintlock was and why Niger was hosting it were insufficient. In response, Nigerien and U.S. senior military officials met with Nigerien military zone commanders and governors, as well as traditional leaders in Agadez, Tahoua and Diffa, to explain the exercise in French and Hausa.
Still, there were concerns that the message was not reaching enough traditional leaders. So organizers brought leaders from each region to the three exercise sites, and they chose leaders who lived at least two hours away from each site. The leaders spent three nights in hotels with meals and transportation provided. They attended a briefing, observed training at the three sites, and attended the MEDCAP in their region.
The effort served two important purposes: Traditional leaders saw national and international military officials willing to be transparent about Flintlock’s mission. And both sides built relationships that could help the Nigerien Army rely on traditional and tribal leaders to be its eyes and ears throughout the vast countryside.
U.S. Lt. Col. Eric Kotouc, who helped organize the key-leader engagement in Agadez, agreed that the effort was not just about promoting Flintlock. He said it was about increasing “the standing of the military and the government in the eyes of the population.”
“This is an opportunity to really tell the story of the fact that their militaries are getting more capable, that they are getting assistance from other countries to build that capacity so that they hopefully have greater trust in the effectiveness of their military forces and the security that they provide,” Kotouc said.
Leaders in Agadez met with officials, observed Soldiers’ military training and attended the MEDCAPs. The leaders told officials they would spread the word about Flintlock among their tribes and villages, and encourage cooperation with the military.
HOW TO ESTABLISH RELATIONS WITH KEY LEADERS
Flintlock offered classroom instruction on civil military operations (CMO), which included key leader engagement (KLE). In Agadez, Nigerien and Mauritanian Soldiers learned how to engage leaders, and how to set up a full-scale MEDCAP and smaller “tailgate” MEDCAPs.
Soldiers learned that CMO can be strategic, operational or tactical, and can help build support among populations in friendly, neutral or hostile areas. KLE is essential to effective CMO and includes a cycle of steps:
Identify key leaders: Find the people who hold sway in the area and determine their degree of influence, and the depth of personal and professional networks.
Prepare the environment: Understand the cultural, religious and political associations of people in the area, including whatever clan-based or personal alliances exist. Before meeting with local leaders, develop talking points explaining your mission in the area.
Identify desired effects: Identify your military objectives in an area and how civilians can help support those objectives. This includes identifying key leaders’ needs and how the military can help meet them.
Prepare: Choose a leader for the military engagement and have talking points. Be aware of local customs, such as gift exchange expectations, and designate photographers and note takers as appropriate.
Execute: Show respect and be patient. Good listening is paramount. Focus on building a rapport with key leaders, and promise only what can be delivered. Try to build local ownership of solutions that arise to local problems, and conclude by clarifying agreements.
Debrief and report: Write a report on the KLE, and keep a record of key leader information for use in follow-up meetings.
Re-engage: This step is vital to sustaining relationships. Soldiers must provide a way for key leaders to stay in touch between engagements, and monitor the development and protection of key leaders. Also, they should determine the military assets that can be used to address civilian key leaders’ concerns.
CIVILIANS CAN PARTICIPATE IN SECURITY
Col. Dari Noma, Nigerien Army zone commander for the region that includes Agadez, said winning the hearts and minds of civilians is crucial to security. “In order to win all of this, you have to build a bridge of trust between the Army and the civilian population.”
The forces armées nigeriennes has formed two teams for civil-military engagement with U.S. help. Noma said the teams ask civilians what they need, determine whether they have sufficient water, and see whether education and health needs are being met. They also ask whether unwanted elements are harassing the population. The strong relations are paying off for the military. Noma said his forces get hundreds of tips a day from village leaders, and communication has been established with others, including schoolteachers and social workers. These relationships are the bedrock of security in the region.
Akoli Algoumaret, a Tuareg community leader from Ihugaan, 160 kilometers from Agadez, seemed pleased with what he saw in Gofat and Niger’s willingness to work with people like him. He said civilians can help keep the military informed of events in their communities. “As a key leader, our contribution is to give the military the right information about the bad guys — their situation, where they are located and everything,” Algoumaret said. “What we can do is just help the Army reinforce the relations between civilians and the military.
“And the population is also very glad about this kind of action,” he said of the MEDCAP, “because today they can see the presence of the Nigerien Army, doing these kinds of good things for them, and also with the help of their friend militaries who are here.”
Goumar Issouf of the village of Ingall went to the clinic to be treated for tooth pain. He was one of 520 patients seen in less than seven hours. The clinic, and his Army’s willingness to help set it up, made him feel good. “They could do it downtown, but they didn’t use the big town,” Issouf said. “They just used the village to come and help people who really need help.”
Exercise Flintlock 2014
Since 2005, Exercise Flintlock has helped to develop counterterrorism capacity and collaboration among Sahel nations to better assist them in protecting their civilian populations. In 2014, Niger hosted the exercise from February 19 to March 9, with training in Niamey, Agadez, Tahoua and Diffa.
More than 1,000 troops took part in the training, with participating countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. Western and European participants included Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“Your presence reflects your interests in our regional partnerships,” Nigerien Col. Mahamane Laminou Sani, Flintlock country coordinator, said during the opening ceremony. “By sharing their experiences, expertise, and camaraderie, we share our interests in promoting stability in the region.”
Participating countries trained in aerial resupply drops, casualty evacuation skills, raid and ambush techniques, checkpoint and search techniques, civil-military operations, and conducted civilian medical outreach clinics in remote villages.