Fulani herders are seen chatting as they gather at the N'gonga cattle market near Dosso, Niger on 22 June 2019
Report 301 / Africa

South-western Niger: Preventing a New Insurrection

In south-western Niger, organised banditry could reinforce mistrust between ethnic groups and foster insurgencies that jihadists could exploit. The Nigerien authorities should take action to remedy the injustices experienced by communities living off livestock, initiate intercommunal dialogues and better supervise fledgling self-defence groups.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? Under the influence of armed groups operating from Nigeria, organised banditry is spreading to south-western Niger, along a border strip between the towns of Maradi and Dogondoutchi. This phenomenon reinforces mistrust between ethnic groups, paving the way for the emergence of armed insurrection.

Why does it matter? Jihadist groups – which are already present in this border zone – often exploit communal violence to enlist new fighters. As they take root, they could open a new front against the Nigerien state and threaten to encircle Niamey, the capital.

What should be done? Niger’s authorities should complement their current security efforts with preventive measures aimed primarily at: remedying the injustices experienced by communities living off livestock; initiating intercommunal dialogue; and better supervising fledgling self-defence groups.

Executive Summary

Under the influence of gangs operating out of Nigeria, banditry is spreading in south-western Niger. Along a border strip stretching between the Nigerien towns of Maradi and Dogondoutchi (or Doutchi), armed bandits have stolen entire herds and kidnapped hundreds of villagers. Many of the marauders are driven by greed, but others – in particular nomads whose pastoral livelihoods are imperilled by farmland expansion – take up arms to defend their families and property or to avenge injustices. In reaction, sedentary border zone residents have been forming fledgling self-defence groups. The insecurity risks creating the conditions for an insurrection that jihadists could exploit. The Nigerien authorities are mobilising their security apparatus to respond to the new threats. They should also redress grievances of herders impoverished by the pastoral crisis, reducing their incentive to take up arms, while pursuing intercommunal dialogue, monitoring self-defence groups and disarming bandits who pose a particular danger.

Cross-border banditry is not new along the strip linking Maradi to Dogondoutchi. For decades, it has fuelled organised criminal networks that transformed in the early 2010s due to external dynamics, primarily the war in Libya. Since 2011, the Libyan war economy has revolved around trafficking, which has facilitated illicit flows (notably of drugs and fuel) from Nigeria through Niger. Flowing in the opposite direction, weapons from Qaddafi-era stocks are supplying criminals in countries to the south. Concentrated in Nigeria’s northern states in the 2010s, these gangs have become specialised in cattle rustling, kidnapping and targeted killing. Starting in the middle of the decade, they exported their violence to the Nigerien side of the border: to Maradi from 2016, and then to Tahoua in 2019. The bandits have ties to the cross-border trafficking networks, and they recruit from all the ethnic groups in the region (Hausa, Tuareg and Fulani).

The new banditry is giving birth to new forms of violence, as the pastoral crisis hits the regions of Tahoua, Maradi and Dosso. The expansion of agricultural land greatly reduces the space available for livestock to graze, leading to pastoralists’ progressive impoverishment and sparking conflict between them and other land users, especially crop farmers. Many herders have come to see joining the bandits as a way of saving their livelihoods and protecting themselves from cattle rustling, as well as sometimes reaching a position of power. This trend was already significant in Nigeria and is now spreading into Niger. Some bandits remain simple criminals, but others, notably among the Fulani, have become public figures respected as defenders of the community.

The communal aspect of banditry threatens social cohesion in south-western Niger, as it does in north-western Nigeria.

The communal aspect of banditry threatens social cohesion in south-western Niger, as it does in north-western Nigeria. Sedentary border zone residents have come to associate banditry with the Fulani, who make up the majority of the area’s nomadic population. To protect themselves from bandits, villagers in the Maradi region are forming self-defence groups that are predominantly Hausa. These groups exclude pastoralists – and especially Fulani – due to prejudice linking them to bandits, even though they may be victims of rustling and kidnapping themselves. The Fulani are thus driven toward bandit groups to seek protection.

An armed insurrection against the state is becoming a real danger amid the communal violence, as the region is increasingly arousing the interest of jihadist groups from the Sahel and north-eastern Nigeria. The close link between jihadists and bandits is already evident elsewhere in the Sahel. The border strip extending from Dogondoutchi to Birni N’Konni (or Konni) is already a supply corridor for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which has anchored itself here since 2018, even attempting to collect a protection tax. Jihadists could take shelter in the scattered woods along the border from Maradi to Dogondoutchi, which already serve as a refuge for bandits. Finally, from north-eastern Nigeria, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), more commonly known as Boko Haram, and Ansaru, a JAS dissident group, are trying to move into Nigeria’s north west and closer to the south west of bordering Niger.

Niger reacted very early to the deteriorating situation along the border strip. The authorities have strengthened security measures, but these remain insufficient. Nigerien forces are deployed on many fronts across the country and are generally stretched thin. The effectiveness of their response to cross-border banditry depends on cooperation with Nigeria, which is longstanding but needs improvement. The two countries have strengthened cooperation amid the recent escalation of violence, but they are still doing too little to stop people from falling into banditry or an insurrection from emerging. Compared to other regions of Niger facing insurgencies, such as Tillabery and Diffa, this border strip has seen little investment from either the state or its partners.

To prevent an insurrection in this zone, it is essential to reduce the injustices experienced by pastoralists and to preserve social cohesion.

To prevent an insurrection in this zone, it is essential to reduce the injustices experienced by pastoralists and to preserve social cohesion. The new president of Niger should thus make ranching a major policy area. Pastoralists should be better represented in land commissions and have access to more intermediaries to defend their rights. Such measures would encourage them to resort to law rather than force. The state should strictly supervise self-defence groups and establish communal dialogues as it has done elsewhere in Niger. Finally, the state must step up security efforts to prevent an epidemic of violence, in particular by strengthening cooperation with bordering states, though it should not rule out negotiations to demobilise certain bandit groups. For their part, Niger’s partners should take an interest in these areas before they face destabilisation, possibly funding a prevention program that Nigerien authorities would design and run.

Niamey/Brussels, 29 April 2021

I. Introduction

The southern parts of Maradi and Tahoua regions, some of the most heavily populated areas of Niger, suffer almost daily attacks from bandits operating from across the border in Nigeria.[fn]In Maradi, the departments of Madarounfa (129 inhabitants/sq km) and Guidan-Roumdji (115 inhabitants/sq km) have two of the three highest population densities in Niger. In Tahoua, Konni (94 inhabitants/sq km) and Madaoua (91 inhabitants/sq km) are the most densely populated departments. In Doutchi, the population density is 57 inhabitants/sq km.Hide Footnote These attacks have attracted little public attention, but their impact is severe: since 2017, bandits have stolen tens of thousands of animals, kidnapped several hundred people and killed many; nearly 70,000 Nigerians have taken refuge in Maradi and 20,000 Nigeriens have been internally displaced.[fn]“Maradi Factsheets”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, December 2020.Hide Footnote While the banditry is not new, its scale and violence are unprecedented. Long considered a Nigerian problem, this banditry is increasingly hurting Niger as well, damaging its economy, which relies heavily on agropastoral activities and cross-border trade with Nigeria, both curtailed by the insecurity.

This report analyses the development of banditry and warns of the potentially disastrous consequences for south-western Niger should it continue to mutate. It examines the dynamics that could transform bandits into insurgents and draw them closer to the jihadists who are already present in the border zone. The zone under study covers a 400km strip of land stretching from the department of Dogondoutchi (or Doutchi), in the region of Dosso, to the departments of Guidan-Roumdji and Madarounfa in the region of Maradi (see map in Appendix A).[fn]Dogondoutchi and Madarounfa sit, respectively, at the western and eastern limits of the border area most affected by banditry from northern Nigeria. Dogondoutchi is also a stronghold of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in south-western Niger. The department of Torodi, farther west, could have been included, but events there reflect different dynamics with links to Burkina Faso. The ISGS is also present there, but its units answer to a different chain of command based in Burkina Faso.Hide Footnote This zone also includes the departments of Birni N’Konni (or Konni) and Madaoua, in the south of Tahoua region.

The report draws on fieldwork carried out in Niamey and Maradi, mostly in October 2020, as well as on online exchanges conducted between then and March 2021. It also relies on previous Crisis Group research both in this zone and in north-western Nigeria. Among those interviewed were representatives of local and national governments, defence and security forces, traditional authorities, civil society actors and victims of attacks, including residents of Konni and Doutchi. The report complements the analysis carried out by Crisis Group across the border, in north-western Nigeria, in early 2020.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°288, Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, 18 May 2020.Hide Footnote

II. The Escalation of Cross-border Banditry

In south-western Niger, along the strip connecting the departments of Doutchi and Madarounfa, cross-border banditry is a decades-old phenomenon. But in recent years, it has become more organised and much more violent. This development is largely attributable to several factors: the 2011 Libyan crisis; deteriorating security in the border states of north-western Nigeria; and the influence of this neighbouring zone on south-western Niger.

This agropastoral region has long maintained licit and illicit economic exchanges with Nigeria, some of which are linked to the rustling and black-market sale of livestock.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, op. cit. In general, the largely Nigerien networks that operate in Niger are little researched, unlike in Nigeria where the phenomenon is better known. See Murtala Ahmed Rufaï, “Cattle Rustling and Armed Banditry along Nigeria-Niger Borderlands”, Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 23, no. 4 (2018).Hide Footnote For example, the municipality of Guidan-Roumdji (Maradi region) was originally a village that lived off the slaughter of cattle stolen from Nigeria, an enterprise involving organised networks of butchers selling stolen cattle.[fn]Aghali Abdoulkader, “Le ‘bien’ sécurité dans trois communes”, Lasdel, 2013.Hide Footnote Likewise, since the 1980s, cattle rustled in northern Mali are exported to Nigeria via a corridor passing through Tahoua, in Niger, then through Sokoto state, in northern Nigeria.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°261: The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote This channel is also used for other contraband. Since the 1983-1984 drought, the smuggling of Nigerian fuel has notably emerged as a substitute activity for many herders. It has become an essential segment of the economy in the Maradi and Tahoua regions.[fn]See Vincent Caupin, “Les flux d’hydrocarbures entre le Niger et le Nigéria”, Orstom, 1997.Hide Footnote Vast criminal networks operating between the Sahara Desert and the Niger-Nigeria border have gradually appeared.

The nature of this banditry began to change in the early 2010s due to external factors. Most important was the Libyan crisis of 2011. Trafficking became central to the Libyan war economy, facilitating the illicit flows from Nigeria: people (migrants, including some destined to work as prostitutes) and narcotics (Tramadol and Indian hemp). These flows are moving north, via Niger and Libya, to supply the Middle Eastern and European markets. Basic necessities and fuel smuggled from Nigeria also fill part of the Sahelian market’s needs.

At the same time, since 2011, weapons of war from stocks accumulated during the Qaddafi era have been making their way down from Libya to satisfy part of the sub-regional demand for arms, notably from Nigerien and Nigerian criminal groups, although the latter also obtain supplies from Nigeria. The regions of Tahoua and Maradi have thus become trafficking corridors for Libyan small arms and ammunition destined for Nigeria.[fn]In recent years, traffickers have been arrested and arms seized. On the flows between Libya and the states of Katsina and Zamfara, for example, see “Nigeria’s Herder-Farmer Conflict”, Conflict Armament Research, 2020.Hide Footnote

The western part of the Niger-Nigeria border was simultaneously affected by a deteriorating security situation in several northern Nigerian states in the 2010s. Mounting violence in Zamfara state, particularly after 2013, resulted in the formation of better-organised bandit groups equipped with arms sent from Libya, but also from the Lake Chad basin.[fn]In 2013, the governor of Zamfara’s decision to organise militias contributed to the rise in violence. See Crisis Group Report, Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since 2016, this insecurity has spilled over the border, primarily affecting the Nigerien region of Maradi, next to Zamfara state. Attacks there multiplied, replicating forms of crime already seen in Nigeria: theft of entire herds of cattle and kidnappings for ransom.[fn]Cases of cattle rustling began to increase in late 2016. See “Le nord du Nigéria aux mains des voleurs de bétail”, RFI, 10 November 2016.Hide Footnote

In 2019, the attacks spread to Nigerian states neighbouring Zamfara, including Katsina and Sokoto.[fn]The agreements between Zamfara’s governor and certain bandit groups led the latter to pursue their activities in neighbouring states.Hide Footnote In turn, the west of Niger’s Maradi region (bordering Sokoto) was hit by insecurity, in particular the departments of Madaoua, Konni and Doutchi. Nigerian territory remains the rear base for bandit groups operating on both sides of the border. They benefit from being able to retreat easily into extensive wooded areas such as Baban Raffi, straddling Nigeria and the Nigerien departments of Madarounfa and Guidan-Roumdji, and the long forest zone of Gandou (Nigeria), bordering the Nigerien departments of Doutchi and Konni.

Bandits come from different ethnic groups in the region (Hausa, Tuareg and Fulani) and have often been involved in cross-border criminal networks. Several bandit leaders are known to have begun their activities in the 1990s, smuggling fuel, selling stolen cattle or trafficking weapons, and some continue to do so.[fn]“After the Storm: Organized Crime across the Sahel-Sahara Following Upheaval in Libya and Mali”, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, 2019. Crisis Group interview, defence and security forces officials, Maradi, 12 October 2020.Hide Footnote In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government decided to close the Nigerian border, an initiative which reportedly had the impact of driving more people into the criminal economy.[fn]The border was closed in order to limit imports and support Nigerian production. The smuggling economy was stimulated by the rising prices of basic necessities and fuel. See “Buhari explique pourquoi il a décidé de fermer temporairement des postes-frontières avec le Bénin et le Niger”, La Tribune, 30 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Banditry also thrives off local tensions. Many attacks are the result of scores being settled between people from the same families, villages or communities. These often involve longstanding, unresolved conflicts, jealousies and experiences of injustice. But the herding crisis is undoubtedly the single most important and most worrying factor reshaping cross-border banditry today.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, village chief, Nigerien security forces leader and victims of banditry, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The herding crisis is undoubtedly the single most important and most worrying factor reshaping cross-border banditry today.

III. Toward New Forms of Violence?

Not only is banditry spreading, but the violence is increasing in scale: animal rustling now involves entire herds, kidnappings are becoming common and targeted killings – infrequent until 2019 – are on the rise. The violence is partly fuelled by a crisis of pastoralism. This crisis, which affects the border strip between Doutchi and Maradi like other Sahelian areas, stirs up tensions between ethnic groups and lays the groundwork for the emergence of insurgencies.

A. The Crisis of Pastoralism and Its Repercussions

The crisis of pastoralism affecting the Sahel is hitting herders hard in the regions of Tahoua, Maradi and Dosso. Here, more than elsewhere, the expansion of agriculture, combined with increased demographic pressure, is reducing the space dedicated to livestock.[fn]The regions of Maradi and Dosso have the highest rates of agricultural coverage in the country, with 36 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. “Analyse des facteurs de conflits au Niger”, UN Development Program, November 2014. In Maradi, between 2004 and 2013, crop areas increased by 217 per cent for cowpea, 235 per cent for groundnut, 272 per cent for sesame and 160 per cent for nutsedge. See the Maradi Regional Development Plan, 2016-2020.Hide Footnote The whittling away of grazing areas and transhumance corridors complicates the migration routes of nomadic pastoralists.[fn]This report uses the term “pastoralists” rather than “herders” because, while nomadic pastoralists are the main victims of the crisis, it also affects sedentary pastoralists. Crisis Group interviews, cattle farmers in Maradi, Madaoua and Konni, Maradi and Niamey, May 2019 and October 2020.Hide Footnote

The growing difficulty in practising mobile livestock raising – including transhumance – is contributing to the gradual impoverishment of pastoralists. It results in the loss, sale or theft of animals. The reduction of cattle farming areas is leading to conflicts with other land users, especially crop farmers.[fn]These conflicts often result from rural damage due to cattle trampling crops, or from non-compliance with the dates for clearing fields agreed upon by crop farmers and herders.Hide Footnote Changing migration routes force herders to take itineraries that are less secure or with fewer watering points, at the risk of losing part of their herds.

The evolution of agropastoral relations is making the situation worse.

More broadly, the evolution of agropastoral relations is making the situation worse. To diversify their activities or to accumulate savings, crop farmers are becoming owners of livestock and are in turn seeking land for pasture. Land pressure is thus accentuated, causing the once reciprocal relations between pastoralists and crop farmers to suffer.[fn]This reciprocity was based, for example, on the loan of draft oxen to plough fields. Another cooperative arrangement was manure contracts: herders were allowed to feed crop remnants to their herds, in exchange for the manure, which farmers then used as fertiliser.Hide Footnote Finally, cattle rustling on both sides of the border is a major threat for pastoralists in the area.

The Nigerien state is trying to regulate and protect the pastoral sector. Niger is in fact a pioneer in the Sahel for its rural code and conflict resolution mechanisms. But the regulatory effort varies in effectiveness from one region to another. One relative success story is Maradi, where the state intervened after a 1991 massacre of Fulani pastoralists by Hausa farmers in Toda (Guidan-Roumdji department) shook the region.[fn]In reaction to rural damage, Hausa farmers killed 104 Fulani with the approval of traditional authorities. Crisis Group interview, civil society actor, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote Following this incident, with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the state set up land commissions intended to regulate conflicts over land use. The region has not experienced another conflict as deadly since then, though the situation remains tense. Dosso, however, has continued to see lethal incidents despite regulation. Tahoua has been a more difficult case still.[fn]Dosso, in particular the department of Boboye, has experienced numerous deadly conflicts between farmers and herders. See Gandou Zakara, Arzika Sani, Harouna Abarchi and Adam Kadri, “Les violations collectives des droits humains fondamentaux”, IWGIA/AREN, 2011.Hide Footnote All three regions are drawing up land development plans, but it is too early to predict what effect these will have on conflict mitigation.

In the zone under study, pastoralists are predominantly Fulani and sometimes Tuareg, while crop farmers are predominantly Hausa or Zarma. When limited land resources create a tense climate, the overlap between occupation and ethnic affiliation increases the risk of violence. In Tahoua, communal relations were greatly affected by a conflict that arose in November 2016 in the locality of Bangui (Madaoua department), where Hausa villagers killed 22 Fulani with the probable involvement of traditional Hausa authorities.[fn]The conflict in Bangui resulted from rural damage that was rightly or wrongly attributed to Fulani herders. Against the backdrop of pre-existing communal tensions, the damage seemingly served as a pretext for a series of violent acts serving the political interests of a local Hausa official. He coveted the village mayorship, which was held by a Fulani, and armed young Hausa to kill or drive out the Fulani. The individual was prosecuted and the case is still under investigation. The case of Bangui illustrates the importance of controlling local power for securing access to resources. Each ethnic group bemoans its difficulty in getting access to land and water when someone from another group holds the mayorship. Crisis Group interviews, researcher in Tahoua, villagers and local authorities from Bangui, Niamey and Maradi, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote More recently, in May 2019, crop farmers killed five herders in Allela (Konni department) before the authorities’ rapid intervention prevented the conflict from escalating.

Even when violent conflicts are avoided, it is often at the cost of nomadic pastoralists, who suffer various injustices.

Even when violent conflicts are avoided, it is often at the cost of nomadic pastoralists, who suffer various injustices. Village chiefs, most of whom are sedentary, often set excessive and arbitrary fines, some of which they apply in defiance of official regulations.[fn]These regulations require that a joint commission representing the interests of each party meet to reach a consensus on the amount of compensation to be paid.Hide Footnote In addition, water and forest management officials and gendarmes regularly demand bribes from herders seeking to reach cattle markets or pasture in certain protected areas. Other rackets stem from the impounding of stray cattle, a legal provision that state representatives and local elected officials abuse.[fn]Several cases of illegal impounding of animals have been recorded in recent years in Dosso and Tahoua, for example. Crisis Group interview, herders’ association head, Niamey, 13 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Several cases of illegal impounding of animals have been recorded in recent years in Dosso and Tahoua, for example. Crisis Group interview, herders’ association head, Niamey, 13 October 2020.

Hide Footnote These injustices undermine confidence in the authorities and are detrimental to peaceful coexistence between communities.[fn]In Maradi, Tahoua and Doutchi, many pastoralists claim to be victims of injustice and decry what they describe as official favouritism toward crop farmers. Crisis Group interviews, herders in these areas, Niamey and Maradi, October 2020.Hide Footnote Indeed, rural populations as a whole suffer from a lack of access to justice, whether because they are geographically distant from courts, unaware of their legal recourse, or too poor to pay for legal services. The paralegal networks that serve rural Mali are still insufficiently developed in Niger.[fn]Paralegals are civilians trained in law who provide legal assistance to populations that otherwise lack it. They must be familiar with local sociological realities to gain the residents’ acceptance. They are quite well organised in Mali, though less so in other Sahel states. “Besoins et satisfaction en matière de justice au Mali”, The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, 2018.Hide Footnote

Most Fulani pastoralists are no longer able to live off livestock alone, and some adopt an agropastoral way of life if they can. Some Fulani are becoming more or less sedentary. Others are abandoning the pastoral world altogether. Yet they are poorly prepared for vocational retraining, and their professional prospects are limited, as they have less schooling than sedentary people. As the alternatives are few, a small number of pastoralists fall into banditry.

B. Communal Banditry?

For many Fulani herders in this region, joining the bandits is simply a way of dealing with the herding crisis, protecting themselves from cattle theft and sometimes attaining a position of power. This trend was already significant in Nigeria and is now spreading into Niger. It leads, in turn, to the stigmatisation of Fulani pastoralists and strains communal relations.

Particularly in north-western Nigeria, bandits are often seen as successful men: in a few months or years, formerly impoverished herders who took up banditry have become owners of several hundred or even thousand head of livestock. With the power granted by weapons and money, they set the rules for using local lands. In north-western Nigeria, it can be necessary for herders to join the bandits simply to ensure their own safety and to protect their herds. “In Nigeria, the bandits laugh at herders who have not joined their ranks and call them weak”, notes a cross-border herder.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Madaoua-based herder, Maradi, 11 October 2020.Hide Footnote


Entretien de Crisis Group, éleveur basé à Madaoua, Maradi, 11 octobre 2020.Hide Footnote

While most Fulani bandits remain simple criminals, others pose as defenders of the community and have become respected local figures.

In Niger, similar behaviours are developing. While most Fulani bandits remain simple criminals, others pose as defenders of the community and have become respected local figures. In the aftermath of the above-mentioned Bangui conflict, a Fulani bandit leader, originally from that locality and operating in Niger, contacted several Fulani notables living nearby to offer them his protection services.[fn]They refused, aware that settling would not be to their advantage considering Bangui’s majority Hausa population and the presence of defence and security forces. Crisis Group interviews, Bangui massacre victims, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote Fulani bandits tend to target Hausa and spare fellow Fulani.[fn]In some cases, Fulani public figures, some of whom are bandits, intervened to secure the release of kidnapped Fulani, proving that banditry does not break communal ties.Hide Footnote In the Maradi areas of Guidan-Roumdji and Madarounfa, the bandits attacked the Hausa villages, while leaving the Fulani hamlets and encampments be. Those Fulani whom the bandits do target are often those who refuse to join their ranks or are suspected of giving information to the authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hausa and Fulani public figures of high standing, Maradi, 10-12 October 2020.Hide Footnote Fulani villages reportedly protect themselves from attack by providing recruits to the local bandits.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The Hausa have come to perceive banditry as particularly widespread among the Fulani, especially in Maradi, the most affected region to date. Communal relations, which were previously healthy, as evidenced by numerous mixed marriages, are deteriorating. Fear is setting in: while some Fulani are leaving their hamlets, others no longer frequent Hausa villages.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

C. The Formation of Self-defence Groups

In north-western Nigeria, the recent wave of murderous banditry has led to the formation of numerous self-defence groups and armed militias.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, op. cit.Hide Footnote The phenomenon is especially noticeable in sedentary communities of Hausa farmers. Some of these groups were formed very recently, either on a voluntary basis or with the encouragement of local authorities who recruited and armed village-based self-defence units.[fn]“Zamfara to recruit 8,500 youth as JTF members”, Premium Times, 1 November 2018.Hide Footnote Others are rooted in the hunting and other brotherhoods of traditional society. Since the 1950s at least, the latter have been tasked with protecting people and property.[fn]See Miroc Göpfert, “Security in Niamey: An Anthropological Perspective on Policing and an Act of Terrorism in Niger”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 50, no. 1 (2012).Hide Footnote Confronted with the extreme violence of bandits operating in north-western Nigeria, they have gradually become militarised and now stand accused of various abuses.[fn]Aghali, “Le ‘bien’ sécurité dans trois communes”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Following the Nigerian example, communal self-defence groups appear to be forming in south-western Niger. Indeed, the Nigerien side has recently witnessed the birth of self-defence groups tasked with combating banditry. Still at a fledgling stage, most do not have a specific name. They exist in almost every village in Gabi municipality (Madarounfa department), because banditry has hit this area hard and the state has been unable to protect its inhabitants. In some villages in Tibiri and Safo municipalities (Guidan-Roumdji department), which have been similarly affected by the attacks, self-defence groups equipped with traditional rifles have also reportedly emerged.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO official, defence and security forces, Maradi, 10-11 October 2020.Hide Footnote

For the time being, local authorities and the armed forces appreciate these groups’ help. They receive support from local elected officials, who contribute to the purchase of artisanal weapons costing 5,000 CFA francs (or €7.6).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, public figures of high standing from Madarounfa, Maradi, 10-11 October 2020.Hide Footnote Nigerien defence and security forces showed them recognition after they repelled several bandit attacks and managed to recover some stolen livestock.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Yet the rate of bandit attacks has not dropped in these municipalities.[fn]Between June and November 2020, nineteen attacks were recorded in Tibiri and fifteen in Gabi; since August, ten attacks have occurred in Safo. Other municipalities are targeted to a lesser extent, notably Dan Issa, but also Toda, Dan Abdallah and Sarkin Yamma, as well as other municipalities in Madarounfa and Guidan-Roumdji departments.Hide Footnote

Entre juin et fin novembre 2020, dix-neuf attaques ont été enregistrées à Tibiri et quinze à Gabi, tandis que depuis le mois d’août, dix attaques ont visé Safo. D’autres communes sont visées dans une moindre mesure, notamment Dan Issa, mais aussi Toda, Dan Abdallah, Sarkin Yamma et d’autres communes des départements de Madarounfa et Guidan-Roumdji.Hide Footnote

The self-defence groups provide real services to local populations, but they threaten social cohesion when their actions target particular ethnic groups.

The self-defence groups provide real services to local populations, but they threaten social cohesion when their actions target particular ethnic groups. On the Nigerian side of the border, the formation of Hausa self-defence groups prompted the Fulani to approach bandit groups for protection, initiating a cycle of violence that has lasted several years.[fn]The killing of a Fulani associative leader in Dansadau (Sokoto) in 2011 by Hausa self-defence groups (yan banga) led to a series of reprisals that motivated each community to equip itself with weapons of war. In Zamfara, self-defence groups (yan sa kai or voluntary guards), supported by the authorities, have stepped up violence against herders (including cattle rustling), forcing many of them to seek protection by joining Fulani bandits as auxiliaries or combatants. Crisis Group online interviews, civil society actor in Zamfara, September 2020.Hide Footnote In Maradi, these fledgling groups are entirely Hausa; the Fulani are systematically excluded due to the stigma attached to them. The risk of ethnically charged confrontations is therefore high.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community radio journalist, Maradi, 11 October 2020.Hide Footnote Clashes between the self-defence groups and bandits could easily multiply and inflame communal relations.

The formation of communal self-defence groups generates tensions that, in central Mali and Burkina Faso, for example, have fostered or fuelled cycles of severe ethnic violence.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Reports N°287, Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, 24 February 2020; and N°293, Reversing Central Mali’s Descent into Communal Violence, 9 November 2020.Hide Footnote Traditionally, these groups have enjoyed close ties to the authorities. They recruit among sedentary populations, which also form the majority of state representatives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society actors, Maradi, 10-12 October 2020.Hide Footnote In addition, they maintain forms of collaboration with security services in their common fight against bandits.

Conversely, because pastoralists (and especially Fulani) are often excluded from the self-defence groups and suspected by them of being at the root of violence, they tend to be driven toward bandit groups in the hope of finding a form of protection. This trend further alienates the pastoralists from the state and its security forces, with whom relations are already strained.[fn]In August 2020, in the Nigerian municipality of Garin Fadji bordering Bangui (Niger), herders were attacked by the local yan banga. The herders called on local bandits for aid. The bandits then attacked the villagers in retaliation. Crisis Group interviews, Bangui residents, Maradi, 12 October 2020.Hide Footnote Pastoralists are generally under-represented in state institutions, as well as political parties, largely as a result of their low level of education. As a result, policymakers seldom take their interests into account.

The risk of an insurgency – the outbreak of open hostilities against the state and its allies – is growing, all the more so because the region is increasingly arousing the interest of jihadist groups based in neighbouring zones.

IV. Toward a Third Jihadist Hub in Niger?

Two recent events in south-western Niger have drawn attention to the expanding activities of armed jihadist groups in this region. In August 2020, eight civilians, including six French tourists, were killed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in Kouré, 60km east of Niamey, illustrating the rapid advance of jihadists toward Niger’s south west.[fn]ISGS is the acronym used by many observers to designate the Sahelo-Saharan branch of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). This report uses the acronym for convenience, even though the Islamic State does not officially recognise the group, considering it a constituent part of ISWAP, whose main base is the Lake Chad basin. Although links do exist between them, these two branches are not integrated with each other. They obey separate chains of command. On the Kouré attack, see “Niger: le groupe État islamique revendique l’attaque de Kouré”, RFI, 18 September 2020.Hide Footnote In October 2020, a U.S. citizen, Philip Walton, was kidnapped from a village in the Konni department by bandits specialised in kidnappings and probably acting on behalf of a jihadist group, thus reflecting the risk of close ties developing between these actors.[fn]The intervention of U.S. Navy Seals led to Walton’s release before he was sold off. “US forces rescue American kidnapped in Niger”, Al Jazeera, 31 October 2020.Hide Footnote

At the border that separates south-western Niger from north-western Nigeria, there is a growing presence of jihadist groups, although it is too early to say whether it will endure. In addition to the activity of the ISGS in this region, two other groups have claimed responsibility for attacks in north-western Nigeria: the People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad (JAS) – a group led by Abubakar Shekau and more commonly known as Boko Haram – and Ansaru, a JAS dissident group since 2012 and now affiliated with al-Qaeda.[fn]Ansaru has resurfaced since September 2019 after a three-year lull that followed the 2016 arrest of its leader, Khalid Al Barnawi, by the Nigerian military. On the links between Ansaru and al-Qaeda, see Jacob Zenn, “The Return of al-Qaeda’s Faction in Nigeria: What’s Going on in Zamfara?”, Jamestown Foundation, 25 March 2019. In January and August 2020, Ansaru notably claimed responsibility for attacks in Kaduna state, bordering Zamfara and Katsina states. Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda-linked group claims attack in north-western Nigeria”, Long War Journal, 8 August 2020. Through two videos broadcast on 15 June and 7 July 2020, JAS announced its presence in the states of Zamfara and Niger, bordering the states of Kaduna, Kebbi and Zamfara.Hide Footnote Both groups are thus getting dangerously close to Niger.

A. Jihadist Influences from the Sahara

The ISGS has long used the 140km-long strip stretching from Doutchi to Konni as a supply corridor, and soon could make it an area of operations as well. The ISGS obtains most of its supplies from northern Nigeria; its main zone of activity in Niger is northern Tillabery, an area bordering Mali located north west of Konni. The group reaches it by the so-called highway connecting Konni to Sanam and Abala. There is almost no human or security presence along this axis.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local civilians and Nigerien security officials, Niamey and Maradi, 6-13 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The ISGS has facilitated access to the border area between Sokoto and Konni because a significant number of its local recruits belong to a Fulani sub-group, the Tolebe, who claim to hail from Sokoto and have family and economic ties there.[fn]They claim to have left Sokoto at the end of the 19th century and borrowed this transhumance corridor to settle in the north of Tillabery as well as in Madaoua and Dosso.Hide Footnote

They claim to have left Sokoto at the end of the 19th century and borrowed this transhumance corridor to settle in the north of Tillabery as well as in Madaoua and Dosso.

Hide Footnote For several years,columns of combatants and supporters have been travelling to this region on two-wheelers from Abala to bring back food, contraband medicine, motorcycles and fuel. They often exchange stolen cattle or weapons for these products.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien security officials, Maradi, 11 October 2020.Hide Footnote In addition to these historical ties, the ISGS has trade relations with networks of cross-border smugglers, allowing them to move around without too much trouble.

Since 2018, it appears, the ISGS is no longer merely using the zone for its supplies but is also seeking to develop its operations there. In June 2018, ISGS religious leaders gave sermons a few kilometres from the Nigerian border, in Jima Jimi (a village in the Konni department). That November, the Nigerien authorities identified an ISGS training camp in the same village, which they finally dismantled in February 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien security officials and civil society actors in Konni, Maradi, 10-12 October 2020. See also “Découverte d’une base de djihadistes en gestation dans le village de Jima-Jimi”, Studio Kalangou, 7 December 2018.Hide Footnote In early 2021, a jihadist leader from the northern part of Tillabery is said to have died following clashes on the Nigerian side of the border, south of Konni.[fn]The protagonists in this clash could not be precisely identified. Crisis Group interviews, individual with previously close ties to the ISGS and civil society figure, Niamey, March 2021.Hide Footnote

Locals also call upon ISGS jihadists for protection from bandits. Thus, in early 2019, prominent public figures from Sokoto (Nigeria) and Konni (Niger), concerned about attacks by bandits from Zamfara (Nigeria), asked ISGS jihadists to drive them away, which they succeeded in doing.[fn]A prominent public figure from Balle (Sokoto) involved in summoning the jihadists later fell under suspicion of collaboration. The jihadists executed him in May 2019. In Niger, another prominent person from Konni (related to the former from Balle) was accused of complicity and imprisoned for several months before being released on bail. Crisis Group interviews, public figures of high standing from Doutchi and Konni, Nigerien authorities, Niamey, 2019-2021.Hide Footnote The jihadists returned stolen cattle and ransom money to their owners, while pressuring some of the bandits to join the ISGS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, resident of Doutchi, Niamey, March 2019.Hide Footnote In September 2019, another armed incident in Dogon Kiria (Doutchi department) testifies to the movement of ISGS elements. On their way back from Muntseka (Konni department), a jihadist column foiled an ambush by the National Guard, killing one guard.

Since then, the ISGS has sunk roots in many villages in south-western Niger, for instance by encouraging its members to marry locally, recruiting villagers as fighters and placing more arms caches in these settlements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security forces and prominent figures from Konni, Maradi, 11 October 2020.Hide Footnote As of June 2020, the ISGS has been reinforcing its presence in the northern parts of the departments of Doutchi and Konni, where it is trying to exercise a form of territorial control rivalling that of the state. In keeping with its operations in the north of Tillabery and Tahoua, the group collects a tax there, the nature of which is not clear: some villagers say it represents the zakat (Islamic tax), while others perceive it as a contribution to the group’s war effort and its guarantees of protection.[fn]Operations to collect this tax have taken place in at least 30 villages in the municipalities of Tebaram, Bagaroua, Soucoucoutane, Kourfey, Matankari, Dogon Kiria and southern Sanam. Crisis Group interviews, civilians from these areas, humanitarian workers and security officers, Niamey and Maradi, October 2020.Hide Footnote This presence involves recruiting collaborators and sympathisers from villages where the ISGS organises sermons.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Doutchi and Konni residents, Niamey and Maradi, October 2020.Hide Footnote The jihadists also circulate in certain grazing zones in this region, such as the Yani area, where herders have tried in vain to evade paying the tax.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher specialising in the Tahoua area, Niamey, 8 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The ISGS may struggle, however, to advance farther south and establish a sanctuary in north-western Nigeria. First, the movement grants significant autonomy to its commanders and maintains a rather loose chain of command. It will therefore have trouble connecting the various cells scattered over such a vast territory. Secondly, it seems to be lacking a relay in north-western Nigeria for the time being, and particularly in Sokoto state, even if some of its recruits are from the area, as previously mentioned. In north-western Nigeria, the ISGS also faces competition from other Nigerian jihadist groups whose incursions and activities are described below. The fact remains that the group occupies several zones around Niamey in what could be a strategy to encircle the capital.[fn]In January 2020, casings of mortar shells probably fired in the direction of the capital were found near Niamey, suggesting an imminent terrorist threat. Crisis Group interview, Nigerien officer, Niamey, 7 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The other major Sahelo-Saharan jihadist group, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), affiliated with al-Qaeda, appears to be less present in the cross-border area between Niger and Nigeria. GSIM has extended its operations to Niger, west into the Torodi area, and to Burkina Faso, from the Yagha region to the East region, two zones where it has coexisted uneasily with the ISGS. This space, where the GSIM’s presence has grown steadily since 2018, is both a sanctuary and a platform for the group to expand its actions toward the north of Benin and the border with Nigeria, in to Kebbi state. This expansion strategy opens up the possibility of links forming between GSIM and Ansaru, if the latter is still affiliated with al-Qaeda.[fn]Ansaru’s current affiliation is uncertain. In 2015, some Ansaru members indeed joined ISWAP. “Boko Haram Faction Releases Book on History and Ideology”, Council on Foreign Relation, 9 August 2018. See also “The Return of al-Qaeda’s Faction in Nigeria: What’s Going on in Zamfara?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote A stronger presence of GSIM and Ansaru in the Nigerian states of Kebbi and Sokoto would increase jihadist pressure in Niger’s Dosso region.

B. Jihadist Influences in Nigeria

Two Nigerian groups from the country’s north east, the JAS and Ansaru, are now encroaching upon its north west.[fn]In 2014, for example, the JAS claimed responsibility for an attack on the Kano mosque (Kaduna state). “Attentat meurtrier au Nigéria dans la grande mosquée de Kano”, Le Monde, 28 November 2014.Hide Footnote Since its creation, Ansaru has called for restoration of the Sokoto caliphate and therefore – at least through its rhetoric – it embodies a particular threat in the north west.[fn]Ansaru perpetrated several kidnappings between 2011 and 2013 in Kebbi, Bauchi and Katsina states.Hide Footnote On 11 December 2020, the JAS claimed the kidnapping of 334 high-school students in Kankara, a locality of Katsina state, 220km south of Maradi, its first large-scale operation in north-western Nigeria since 2014. Nevertheless, the incident could illustrate the group’s occasional collaboration with local bandits rather than aspirations to a permanent presence outside its north-eastern stronghold.[fn]“Nigéria: avec l’enlèvement des lycéens de Kankara, la nouvelle expansion de Boko Haram”, RFI, 16 December 2020.Hide Footnote

« Nigéria : avec l’enlèvement des lycéens de Kankara, la nouvelle expansion de Boko Haram », RFI, 16 décembre 2020.Hide Footnote

Recent border attacks against Nigerien and Nigerian defence and security forces suggest growing ties between border gangs and Nigerian jihadist groups.

Recent border attacks against Nigerien and Nigerian defence and security forces suggest growing ties between border gangs and Nigerian jihadist groups. No statements have been made, but the tactics and heavy weaponry used in the attacks bespeak a jihadist influence, as the militants can generally muster greater firepower than simple bandits. Thus, the use of M80 rocket launchers, highly prized by jihadists, in the attack on the Mobile Border Control Company in Maradi on 1 December 2019, suggests possible logistical links with the jihadists. On 18 July 2020, a few kilometres from the border with Maradi, in Jibia (Nigeria), “bandits” ambushed the Nigerian army for the first time, killing 23 soldiers. Their leader, one of the main bandits operating in Maradi, appears to be stepping up relations with jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien security officials, Maradi, 11-12 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The geography of the border strip is also conducive to the development of sanctuaries for armed groups, including jihadists. The wooded areas scattered along the border from Maradi to Doutchi are already frequented by bandits but could also serve as a refuge for jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien security officials, Maradi, 12 October 2020.Hide Footnote Gandou forest, located on the border between Doutchi and Konni, is said to shelter so many armed men, both bandits and possible jihadists, that local residents call it “Sambisa 2”, after the forest that the JAS uses as a base in north-eastern Nigeria. It was in this forest that the U.S. hostage was detained in October 2020. In 2017, in the forest of Baban Rafi (Maradi), the Nigerien authorities discovered a weapons cache that one of the arrested combatants helped identify as belonging to ISWAP.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The widespread violence in north-western Nigeria could spill over into Niger.

The widespread violence in north-western Nigeria could spill over into Niger. It is still difficult to predict whether the banditry in the region will remain as it is, simple crime without a clear political motive, or whether it will evolve toward more organised insurgency. The latter scenario could develop even without the support of jihadist groups; but since 2012, most insurgencies in the Sahel have been facilitated by jihadist groups exploiting local divisions. The jihadisation of banditry is a consistent trend in these insurrections and presents a growing risk in the region.[fn]In Torodi, for example, some of the jihadists were previously local bandits who had been defeated by self-defence groups. From 2018, with the jihadists’ support, they “took their revenge” upon these groups. Crisis Group interview, elected official from Torodi, Niamey, 7 October 2020.Hide Footnote On the Nigerian side, the JAS has announced its intention to recruit from bandit groups operating in north-western Nigeria, which Ansaru seems to already be doing.[fn]Ansaru has reportedly already recruited one of the most important leaders of the Zamfara bandits. It appears that he mobilises herders, promising them security as long as their actions conform with the jihad, and thus prohibits, among other things, cattle rustling and kidnapping of civilians. Crisis Group online interview, Zamfara-based journalist, 10 September 2020. In addition, the bandits are said to frequently refer to Islam and jihad. See Crisis Group Report, Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, op. cit.Hide Footnote Among these bandits are Nigerians and Nigeriens who harbour resentment against the state, notably pastoralists deprived of their means of subsistence.[fn]A Tuareg originally from Niger, Halilu Mairakumi, previously a receiver of stolen camels who organises kidnappings and cattle rustling in Zamfara state, is suspected of being linked to Ansaru in north-western Nigeria. See the tweets by Ahmad Salkida, @A_Salkida, journalist, 5:21pm, 11 March 2019.Hide Footnote Other Nigerien bandits could follow this trajectory and produce a Nigerien or even transnational hotbed of insurgency, which would challenge the authorities of both countries.

The penetration of jihadist groups in the region could, however, face resistance. The bandits can certainly supply experienced local recruits, but they can also slow down the jihadists’ encroachment if the militants interfere with their economic interests, for example, by setting new rules for sharing loot. Moreover, the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolchildren since December 2020 first highlighted the ties between local criminals and the JAS, but their release once the criminals negotiated amnesties shows that the interests of the two groups do not always converge.[fn]“Nigéria: le chef d’un des gangs ayant kidnappé plus de 300 écoliers rend les armes”, RFI, 10 February 2021.Hide Footnote The conflicts in Sokoto between the ISGS and bandits could recur.

On the other hand, the growing state military pressure on these criminal groups risks pushing bandits and jihadists closer together. As this pressure increases, bandits are pushed to accept, or even seek, jihadist support for their own protection. For Niger, the growing involvement of its armed forces in the fight along the border could heighten the threat by further exposing Nigerien territory to reprisals from these groups, as in the Diffa region (Niger) after 2015.[fn]The launch of Nigerien military operations against Boko Haram motivated the retaliatory attacks in the Diffa region. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°245, Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Le démarrage des opérations militaires nigériennes contre Boko Haram a favorisé la conduite d’attaques en représailles dans la région de Diffa. Voir le rapport Afrique de Crisis Group N°245, Le Niger face à Boko Haram : au-delà de la contre-insurrection, 27 février 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Security without Stabilisation

Niger reacted very early on to the deteriorating situation along the border strip, but mainly with reinforced security measures.[fn]Some important bandits have been eliminated, such as Souleymane Labo, who was killed in 2014, but others have been operating in the Maradi region since the mid-2000s, like one of the main leaders of the recent attacks in Maradi, who was arrested and then released in 2017. “Maradi: Arrestation du gangster le plus dangereux du Niger”, TamTaminfo, 24 August 2014. Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien security officials, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote Since 2018, the authorities have deployed an army battalion to Madarounfa (Maradi department), which has training support from the Belgian army and outposts in Dan Kano, Baban Rafi and Shirgu.[fn]“Le Niger renforce la sécurité sur sa frontière avec le Nigéria”, Xinhua, 15 October 2018.Hide Footnote Concurrently, the first Mobile Border Control Company, with 400 police officers, has been deployed in Maradi since May 2017 with U.S. support. It is now focused on combating banditry, having moved away from its original mission of controlling migratory flows.[fn]The Mobile Border Control Companies were officially created in 2016. Their initial mandate to combat migratory flows stems from the commitment made by the Nigerien president to the European Union in particular to fight this phenomenon.Hide Footnote The second mobile unit, with 252 police officers, was deployed in November 2019 in Konni (Tahoua). It was equipped and trained by EUCAP Niger, the European Union Capacity Building Mission which gives support to local security forces in Niger.

The results are generally positive. The Maradi mobile unit piloted the operation to dismantle the first jihadist camp of Jima Jimi in early 2019. The jihadists reportedly suffered few losses during this operation but were forced to retreat to northern Tillabery. In Maradi, there is unanimous recognition of the unit’s usefulness, although since the attack it suffered on 1 December 2019 (see Section IV.B) it has seemingly cut back its mobility, one of its main strengths on the ground. As for the Konni mobile unit, Nigerien security actors criticise this second company and its command for making less use of its advantages of mobility than the Maradi company.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien security officials, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Security measures remain insufficient, however, while violence is increasing along this border strip in south-western Niger. Nigerien forces are simultaneously present on multiple fronts across the country and are often understaffed. Thus, the Maradi mobile unit was recently redeployed to Filingué, and several hundred Nigerien soldiers based in Maradi were sent to the eastern front, in the Diffa region.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The security measures in place around Doutchi and Konni are weak, and several local authorities and security forces are calling for better control of border crossings there.[fn]Ibid. The state is reportedly considering the imminent creation of new units to respond to this need.Hide Footnote

Ibid. L’Etat envisagerait la création imminente de nouvelles unités pour répondre à ce besoin.Hide Footnote

The effectiveness of the response to this cross-border insecurity also depends on the country’s cooperation with its Nigerian neighbour, which is longstanding but remains to be improved.

The effectiveness of the response to this cross-border insecurity also depends on the country’s cooperation with its Nigerian neighbour, which is longstanding but remains to be improved.[fn]In 2012, a defence agreement was signed between Niger and Nigeria covering the entire border of the two countries, but it is above all intended to counter the Boko Haram insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria. “Nigeria seeks Niger’s military support against Boko Haram”, Reuters, 21 May 2013.Hide Footnote For many years, authorities on either side of the border had different approaches. Nigeria considered that banditry in its north-western regions was not a priority and that it did not justify closer cooperation with Niger.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien authorities, Maradi and Niamey, October 2020.Hide Footnote

The recent escalation of violence has been a game changer and progress has been made in terms of cross-border cooperation. In October 2018, a major joint military operation between Niger and Nigeria was carried out in the border areas of Maradi, notably in Gabi and Dan Kano, where at least 30 bandits were officially neutralised.[fn]“Au moins 30 ‘bandits’ tués lors des opérations conjointes des armées des Niger et Nigéria”, VOA Afrique, 16 October 2018.Hide Footnote The authorities should have systematised such operations to make them more effective over the long term. The progress should largely be credited to a rapprochement between the governors of the border areas of Maradi and Tahoua. In late 2019, a meeting in Maradi between the governor and his counterparts from the three Nigerian border states made it possible to set up mixed patrols (with vehicles offered by these states to the Maradi Regional Security Committee) and to give Niger the right of pursuit on Nigerian territory despite the official border closure.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maradi state official, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote This same exemption was not successfully negotiated in Tahoua, preventing cooperation there from being as effective as in Maradi.

The authorities and their partners are essentially active on the security front, but few measures have been taken to prevent the population from taking up banditry or to redress the grievances that might fuel an insurrection. The state and international partners continue to under-invest in the livestock sector. With the exception of Switzerland, no outside backer has been substantially involved in the border strip area.[fn]Germany and the European Union have funded two programs – unrelated to the current violence – aimed at preventing irregular migration and facilitating returns.Hide Footnote Moreover, a repressive approach takes precedence over the options of fostering dialogue and demobilising armed actors. Unlike Nigeria, in 2019 Niger explicitly refused to grant amnesty on the grounds that: “We do not dialogue with bandits”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maradi state official, Maradi, 10 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, responsable étatique de Maradi, Maradi, 10 octobre 2020.Hide Footnote

VI. Preventing the Spread

Beyond the security measures, which are essential but insufficient, Niger should develop preventive actions to slow down the spread of violence and avoid an insurrectionary situation. The livestock sector deserves special attention from the new president, Mohamed Bazoum, elected in March 2021, and increased investment to address the crisis it is experiencing. The Nigerien authorities should also be concerned with preserving social cohesion in the border strip to prevent the stigmatisation of certain communities and to supervise the development of self-defence groups before they get out of hand. Finally, the state should step up security efforts to avert an epidemic of violence, without ruling out negotiations to demobilise certain bandit groups.

A. Mitigating Factors of Insurgency among Herders

Livestock farming should become a priority policy area for the Nigerien authorities, both in the south west and elsewhere in Niger, so as to reduce the injustices faced by pastoralists that drive some of them to take up arms.

In the short term, the land commissions, intended to prevent and resolve conflicts related to natural resources, should better represent the interests of herders. Authorities should revise their composition (not the charters but the practices) to ensure that herders are represented and that joint commissions are systematised. The latter are provided for by the Rural Code of 1993; they are charged with mediating disputes between land users and therefore also assessing the damage in the event of conflicts, especially those involving crop farmers.[fn]In January 2013, a decree laying out the operating procedures of the joint commissions was adopted. In practice, these procedures are rarely observed. The damage caused is calculated according to the number of hectares of field destroyed and the equivalent in lost crops.Hide Footnote

Pastoralists should also have more intermediaries who can defend their rights, whether technical and financial partners of cattle farmers’ associations, such as the Association for the Revitalisation of Livestock in Niger, or associative networks of paralegals.[fn]This association, created in 1991, is the main Nigerien group supporting livestock farming. It has launched actions aimed at better defending pastoral land rights and fighting injustices. There are very few paralegals in Niger (individuals from local communities – pastoral in this case – who are trained in defending their rights).Hide Footnote If herders had access to better counsel, they might well choose to resort to law rather than force.

Paralegals should be recruited by the Nigerien state or its partners on the basis of their roots in herding communities, and specially trained in pastoral land legislation, since the populations concerned notably suffer injustices in this area. Niger’s partners could finance training programs for paralegals to make up for the insufficient number of these court officers in Niger. They could also encourage sharing experiences with states where this system is more developed, such as Canada or, in the sub-region, Mali.[fn]See “Rapport général de la conférence sur le parajuridisme au Mali”, USAID/DEMESO, June 2019. The Canadian Association of Paralegals is among the main organisations specialising in this field.Hide Footnote These provisions would help curb the racketeering economy by allowing herders to oppose these practices by legal means. The presence of court-appointed counsel – paralegals empowered to defend litigants instead of lawyers under certain conditions – should also be encouraged by the state and its partners.

At the same time, Niger and its partners must support herders, whose livelihoods are in crisis, by protecting the mobility of nomadic pastoralists and by facilitating paths toward retraining or diversification of economic activity for those who so wish. For instance, the state can promote promising sectors (such as milk production, for example) and help people make a career change by providing support for vocational training and the purchase of equipment. Activities that involve restoring herds and fattening livestock can be developed. This type of support exists in certain regions of Niger, such as Diffa and Tillabery, where international backers have turned their attention, but remains limited in the Doutchi-Maradi strip due to lack of investment.

In the longer term, the state would benefit from making livestock farming a priority focus at the national level, particularly in the regions of Maradi, Tahoua and Dosso, in order to secure access to grazing areas and transhumance corridors. Backers, much like the Nigerien state, should develop preventive measures in high-risk regions such as these, rather than focus their support solely on regions in crisis. Nigerien authorities could also revise the rules for access to listed forests and development of grazing areas so that herders could benefit from partial, conditional or seasonal use of these protected spaces.

B. Preventing the Degradation of Communal Relations

To prevent communal violence, the approaches developed by the authorities in other regions of Niger should be extended to the border zone. For example, the High Authority for Peacebuilding (HACP), which has been tasked with the mission, should rapidly launch dialogue forums between Hausa and Fulani in the areas most exposed to banditry (Guidan-Roumdji and Madarounfa) or communal conflict (Bangui and Allela). Self-defence groups must take part if the creeping communal violence is to be halted. These dialogues or mediation measures, which flourish once conflicts have begun, would be much more effective if they were carried out preventively, before violence can create a wedge between communities. International partners could provide both financial and technical support to these efforts.

The authorities should also seek to more closely supervise the self-defence groups cropping up in the Maradi region since 2020. These groups are still at a sufficiently early stage to be effectively controlled. Their function is to secure rural areas when the state lacks the resources to do so, but their role must be strictly defined, including from a legal standpoint.

Crucially, these groups must be placed under the effective control of authorities, who must punish any abuses, notably to reduce the risks of communal violence. Local authorities should set up committees representing every community in a locality and headed by the mayor or prefect. This step would make it possible to limit the risk of these groups becoming locked in ethno-sectarian logic. The interior ministry must exercise strict oversight over weapons, based on background checks, excluding individuals previously involved in violence from carrying guns. The ministry should also enforce a stringent ban on possessing weapons of war. The authorities should task the self-defence groups solely with protection of and intelligence gathering in villages to avoid any punitive operations.[fn]In Uganda, the state defined the missions and limited the areas of activity of the Arrow Boys of Teso, a group formed to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion, which helped limit atrocities and facilitated their demobilisation. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°251, Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies, 7 September 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Securing the Territory and Demobilising Bandits

The efforts already undertaken to secure the border strip must be maintained and extended to other high-risk areas such as the Doutchi-Konni border section. At the same time, the authorities of both countries must strengthen their cooperation, in particular between the governors of Nigerian states and Nigerien regions. They must also bolster their intelligence-sharing efforts and step up joint operations to limit the possibility of bandits taking refuge in border areas. The authorities of Sokoto state and the Tahoua region must increase their cooperation, which is paralysed by the border closure.[fn]The Nigerian president officially reopened the borders on 16 December 2020. “Nigeria President Buhari orders immediate reopening of land borders”, BBC, 16 December 2020.Hide Footnote The more the authorities of the two countries can mobilise and display efficiency, the less communities will be tempted to arm themselves.

The more the authorities of the two countries can mobilise and display efficiency, the less communities will be tempted to arm themselves.

Defence and security forces must respect human rights while conducting their operations against armed men; they could otherwise prove counterproductive and fuel insurrection, as has occurred elsewhere. In particular, the Nigerien forces must avoid being associated with the abuses committed by Nigeria’s army.[fn]“War Crimes by Nigeria’s Military”, Amnesty International, 12 January 2018.Hide Footnote

A security approach should not prevent the authorities from simultaneously initiating measures to demobilise bandits. The main leaders are well known. Some may be willing to surrender following negotiations, something the HACP has already achieved in Tillabery and Tahoua, for example.[fn]In 2018, the HACP succeeded in demobilising highway bandits operating in this border area of Mali through income-generating actions. Crisis Group interview, HACP official, Niamey, May 2019.Hide Footnote Although they have not publicly proclaimed their grievances with the state, angles of negotiation could still be found. Men often take up arms due to frustration, a sense of injustice or when faced with an economic impasse, to which the state can provide answers. If the gulf between bandits and the authorities widens even more, certain armed men, whether militiamen or bandits, could cross over into jihadist insurgency, a scenario already observed in northern Tillabery.

VII. Conclusion

On the border between Niger and Nigeria, organised crime is intensifying and transforming in an alarming way, foreshadowing insurrections that could benefit jihadist groups in search of new territories. Niger can still limit the spread of banditry by supplementing its security approach with preventive measures, notably to mitigate feelings of injustice experienced by herders and to strengthen the increasingly weak ties between communities. For their part, Niger’s partners must take an interest in these areas before they face destabilisation. They could for instance fund a prevention program designed and run by the Nigerien authorities.

Niamey/Brussels, 29 April 2021

Appendix A: Map of the South-western Niger Border Zone

Residents of Zibane-Koira Zéno, a village in the Tillabery region (western Niger close to Mali) attend a meeting on 12 May 2020, after an attack by armed men on 8 May 2020. BOUREIMA HAMA / AFP
Briefing 172 / Africa

Murder in Tillabery: Calming Niger’s Emerging Communal Crisis

A spate of mass killings in Niger’s Tillabery region has raised the spectre of broader civil strife. Most worrying is the ethnic dimension to the crimes. Authorities should move quickly to prioritize civilian protection lest vigilantes take matters into their own hands.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? Recent massacres of villagers in Niger’s northern Tillabery region could mark a change in a conflict previously characterised mainly by fighting between jihadists and security forces. Authorities fear the growth of anti-jihadist vigilante groups could fuel more attacks on civilians.

Why does it matter? Tensions between jihadists and vigilantes, which often pit communities against one another, could lead to clashes that imperil civilians and pose new challenges for the state, as seen in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. Such clashes could fuel local grievances and provide the Islamic State with additional recruits.

What should be done? Niamey should discourage vigilante group formation, which has spurred violence, and mediate communal disputes that fuel armed group recruitment. It should also explore adding locals to the security forces’ ranks, directing them to focus on protecting villagers from banditry, and seek ceasefires with militants.

I. Overview

Niger’s border region of North Tillabery, reeling from jihadist attacks on security forces, is now at risk of sustained communal violence. On three recent occasions, ethnic Djerma have been massacred, sparking fears of retribution spiralling out of control. An Islamic State affiliate has claimed two of the assaults. Djerma villagers talk of arming themselves against jihadists, who are locally perceived as mostly ethnic Peul and seen as primarily responsible for a surge in crime. As they weigh how to respond, Nigerien authorities should learn from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which have tolerated the emergence of communal militias, only to see the ensuing turmoil drive more civilians into the hands of either jihadists or self-defence groups. Niamey should continue to discourage the formation of militias, step up efforts to protect villages while defusing intercommunal tensions, and keep the door open to dialogue with local militant commanders. It should also address factors underlying the crisis, including land disputes and political rivalries due to decentralisation.

Recent events suggest that the Mali-Niger border area of Niger’s Tillabery region is headed for increasingly troubled waters. In the last two years, a local Islamic State branch, known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), has staged major attacks on security forces and bases along the Mali border to consolidate its grip on the area and its residents. Now, in the aftermath of shocking 2 January massacres in Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye, two villages close to the border, and a 15 March attack on people returning from a trade fair in Banibangou, in the same area, the risk that civilians are drawn into the conflict is growing. Both attacks came after villagers in North Tillabery, mostly ethnic Djerma, began organising as vigilantes to resist armed groups’ predation and extortion.

Niamey fears that more such attacks could whip up communal tensions. Already, communities from the two groups – the Djerma, who are mainly sedentary farmers, and the Peul, who are mostly semi-nomadic herders – frequently oppose one another in increasing competition over access to land and resources as intercommunal relations have deteriorated amid decades of farmers’ expansion toward the Malian border. After the 2 January massacres, some Djerma accused Peul ISGS members of attacking the villages to settle ethnic scores. Authorities have been keen to play down the fault line between Djerma and Peul, stressing that the leader of one attack was himself reportedly Djerma. But the potential for an escalation in ethnic violence remains. Although the jihadist group has been making inroads among Djerma as it seeks to broaden its reach, it relies primarily on semi-nomadic communities, mostly Peul but also Tuareg and Daosahak, as recruits.

The state has limited options for dealing with these problems. Its overstretched security forces seem unable to secure vast areas of Tillabery. Troops have partly retreated from the border after taking beatings from militants in attacks on military posts at Inatès and Chinegodrar, near the Malian border, in December 2019 and January 2020. They are accused of serious abuses against civilians, which has made some communities fearful of their presence.

Still, the answer to Tillabery’s problems is not for Niamey to encourage the vigilantes who are already mobilising in reaction to jihadist violence. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the security forces’ alliances with such militias have only spurred more killing. The formation of such groups in Niger seems to have led local jihadists to lash out with attacks on civilians. Beyond considering whether new troop deployments to help secure the region are feasible or – given rising abuses against civilians – even desirable, the government’s best option will be to pursue a strategy that seeks to calm communal tensions, better protect villagers from surging banditry and once again test prospects for dialogue with militants. In particular:

  • The government should step up efforts to defuse ethnic tensions, including through local messaging that plays to the idea that embracing inclusion and diversity has historically been one of Niger’s distinctive strengths.
  • Niamey should also expand on existing efforts to ease disputes over land rights, natural resources and local politics, which sharpen communal friction and heighten the risk of violence in the region.
  • Police and gendarmes, who have been pulled into the anti-jihadist fight, should help convince communities that they need not arm themselves by resuming their traditional role of upholding public safety, focusing on curtailing armed banditry.
  • State authorities should consider reaching out to local ISGS commanders to negotiate local ceasefires, in the hope that over the medium to long term success on this front could help coax them away from the group and even draw senior leaders to the table. Although the recent massacres could complicate dialogue efforts, the election as president of Mohamed Bazoum, one of few government officials to push for dialogue when he served as interior minister, may offer new impetus to start such talks.

II. Jihadists, Vigilantes, Mass Murder

The security and governance crisis in North Tillabery, an important base for ISGS, has taken an ominous turn.[fn]While this group is often called the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, and this report refers to it as such, the Islamic State’s own messaging refers to it as the Islamic State in West Africa Province, lumping it together with another group that operates in the Lake Chad basin. See also Crisis Group Africa Commentary, “The Islamic State Franchise in Africa: Lessons from Lake Chad”, 29 October 2020.Hide Footnote On 2 January, scores of ISGS militants on motorbikes stormed the villages of Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye in the Tondikiwindi commune bordering Mali. According to official estimates, they killed more than a hundred people, most of them Djerma.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local and national officials, January 2021. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported ten boys and seven girls among the victims. “Niger: plus de 10,000 personnes ont fui de récentes violences dans la zone des ‘trois frontières’”, UN News, 7 January 2021. See also “Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore on Attacks against Villages in Niger”, UNICEF, 4 January 2021. The two villages are about 10km apart. “Carte de reference: Région de Tillabéri, Département de Ouallam”, Reach, n.d.Hide Footnote On 15 March, masked gunmen stopped several vehicles returning from a trade fair in Banibangou, also near the Malian border, and killed an estimated 58 male Djerma passengers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nationals from Banibangou and Abala departments, Niamey, March 2021.Hide Footnote Days later, on 21 March, militants killed more than a hundred people in an attack on civilians in Tilia, a rural commune in the Tahoua region just east of Tillabery.[fn]While killings in Tahoua bear some connection to the escalating violence in North Tillabery, they involve different communities that have developed a different relationship to armed self-defence groups. Hence, this briefing will not address them in detail.Hide Footnote In May, ISGS, which has been making inroads into the area since 2015, claimed credit for the attacks in Tchomabangou, Zaroumdareye and Tilia.[fn]See al-Naba, no. 287, 20 May 2021, p. 6. While all sources interviewed by Crisis Group held ISGS responsible for the Tondikiwindi attack, there is more uncertainty around the Banibangou massacres. Some sources suggest that armed bandits loosely affiliated with the ISGS decided to punish the village of Darey-Daye for previously killing or torturing Peul herders.Hide Footnote Repeated murders on this scale have raised fears that the crisis in Tillabery could be entering a new phase, with civilians at greater risk.[fn]New attacks in May confirmed the rising risk to civilians, while highlighting the dangers to security forces. A 4 May attack on Intoussane (Banibangou) by ISGS militants killed at least sixteen soldiers and four civilians. See al-Naba, op. cit., p. 5. On 9 May, militants raided several villages in Anzourou, killing at least twenty civilians, stealing animals and giving residents three days to leave the region or be killed. Over the next few days, more than 10,000 villagers fled the zone. See “Niger, rapport de situation”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 17 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Repeated murders on this scale have raised fears that the crisis in Tillabery could be entering a new phase, with civilians at greater risk.

When they first began operating in Tillabery, local Islamist militants, including ISGS, which has become the leading jihadist organisation in the border area, focused on attacking security forces, largely (though not entirely) sparing civilians as they attempted to woo them to their cause.[fn]In recent years, ISGS has developed the capacity to mount large-scale operations against Nigerien security forces. In December 2019 and January 2020, militants staged the deadliest attacks ever on those forces, killing over 150 soldiers in the two incidents combined. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°289, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, 3 June 2020; and Hannah Armstrong, “Behind the Jihadist Attack in Inatès, Crisis Group Commentary, 13 December 2019.Hide Footnote These groups recruited in particular from among Peul pastoralists, whose grievances against the state and neighbouring ethnic groups had been deepening for decades. Militants’ acts of violence against civilians were at first sporadic, but they increased as jihadists began targeting local leaders in an effort to compel their acquiescence. Throughout the border zone, ISGS has applied steady pressure upon these leaders, assassinating or abducting those who refused to comply with its dictates or whom it suspects of being state informants.[fn]On rare occasions, ISGS targeted civilians as well during this period. Notably, the group killed eighteen people in Tillabery’s Anzourou district in May 2020. See Moussa Aksar, “Region de Tillabery/Commune d’Anzourou : 18 civils tués dans une attaque armée”, L’Evenement Niger, 10 May 2020. See also Crisis Group Report, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, op. cit.Hide Footnote For instance, in November 2019, its fighters executed the Djerma village chief of Tchomabangou because he allegedly refused to pay zakat (an Islamic tax).[fn]Accounts differ as to the number of village chiefs killed in Tondikiwindi in November 2019. According to the Armed Conflict & Event Data Project (ACLED), militants killed three village chiefs and abducted two others on 22 November 2019. Some local sources told Crisis Group that militants killed the village chiefs of Tchomabangou and Zaroumdaray that day, but other reports received by Crisis Group suggest that the two villages had a single chief. Crisis Group interviews, local officials, January 2021.Hide Footnote

By early 2020, ISGS had imposed itself as the dominant force in the border area after inflicting heavy losses on the Nigerien army with large-scale attacks on the Inatès and Chinegodrar barracks at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Over the course of 2020, however, the situation changed. Fighting with rival jihadists and French airstrikes significantly weakened ISGS. In central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, ISGS lost ground and fighters to an al-Qaeda-aligned outfit, Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). During the year, an estimated 400-500 of its total fighters were killed by French strikes and in fighting with JNIM.[fn]Héni Nsaibia, The Conflict Between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel, A Year On”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 3 March 2021.Hide Footnote Despite those losses, however, none of the three Sahelian states redeployed substantial forces to areas previously under ISGS control.

The Mali-Niger border thus remains the group’s stronghold but, even there, it seems worried about losing its grip. Whereas ISGS once sought to cultivate good relations with locals, its efforts to extract zakat from residents have become increasingly undisciplined, aggressive and chaotic.[fn]The tax collection has aggrieved pastoralists and farmers alike. One Fulani herder said three different militants had levied zakat from him in one year. Two were rival commanders competing for influence over the same zone and the third claimed to work for a commander who later denied having sent this collector. Crisis Group interview, Tondikiwindi resident, Niamey, February 2021.Hide Footnote With armed bandits also increasingly shaking down locals, the toll on civilians is growing. It could be that a weakened ISGS is eager to gather more resources to relaunch its activities.[fn]The weakening of ISGS appears relative or temporary. Indeed, in May the group seemed to be leading a new offensive against state forces, claiming two attacks that killed at least 40 Nigerien soldiers and national guardsmen. See al-Naba, op. cit.Hide Footnote Local commanders may also be taking advantage of the lull in oversight to take matters into their own hands.[fn]In the Tondikiwindi commune, for example, local commanders appeared to increasingly compete with one another to levy zakat. Crisis Group interview, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Whatever the reason behind it, zakat, now being extracted at higher rates and several times throughout the year, has fuelled local resentment. This predation, along with the sense that ISGS may be weakening, has pushed more villagers toward organised resistance. According to local sources, by the end of 2020, rural communities increasingly sought to protect themselves by setting up vigilante groups.[fn]In addition to the group that formed in Tchomabangou, discussed immediately below, in Garbey (about 100km east of Tchomabangou), a Djerma trader had started funding a vigilante group before he was murdered by alleged ISGS militants on 27 November 2020. In retaliation, armed villagers ambushed and killed six to seven jihadists, alternatively described as Peul herders by a member of a pastoralist group in Niamey. In Mogodiougou (more than 50km east of Tchomabangou), villagers killed two ISGS militants who came to levy zakat on 8 December. A few days later, militants fought with armed villagers, killing about eight and losing an unknown number of their own combatants. ACLED database. Crisis Group interviews, Tondikiwindi commune resident, February 2020; Tondikiwindi resident, February 2021.Hide Footnote In late 2020, the Comité Union Tillabéri pour la Paix, la Sécurité et la Cohésion Sociale, a Djerma-dominated organisation, included a call to develop self-defence groups under the command of retired military officials in a document listing eighteen recommendations for stabilising the Tillabery region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, leader of the Comité Union Tillabéri, Niamey, March 2021. “Suggestions du Comité Union Tillabéri pour le retour de la Paix”, document consulted by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

By the end of 2020, rural communities increasingly sought to protect themselves by setting up vigilante groups.

Villagers in Tchomabangou answered the call, gathering men from various neighbouring settlements to form a community defence group, allegedly with the assistance of a successful trader who also mobilised and armed young gold miners (known as orpailleurs) from the Téra area.[fn]According to other local sources, the vigilante group was organised after the killing of the village chief. Crisis Group interview, villager from Tchomabangou, February 2021.Hide Footnote On 15 December 2020, local sources say, these vigilantes killed two, or by some accounts three, ISGS representatives who had come to the village to levy taxes, steal cattle or buy supplies.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers from Tchomabangou, local officials, Niamey, February 2020.Hide Footnote Villagers then refused to cooperate with an ISGS delegation investigating the deaths. The militants responded first by kidnapping the village’s new chief and declaring Tchomabangou an enemy settlement. The assailants on motorbikes arrived a few days later, perpetrating the mass murder of 2 January.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local sources from Tondikiwindi, January and February 2021. The presence of young orpailleurs-turned-militiamen in the two villages could explain the unusually high number of people killed in the 2 January attack.Hide Footnote While their initial target was the loosely armed militia in training, the attackers also shot villagers dead. An Islamic State communication claimed the attack aimed to put an end to villagers’ organisation into state-sponsored self-defence groups.[fn]See al-Naba, op. cit., p. 6.

In the case of the Banibangou massacre, locals’ accounts diverge as to what triggered the killing, but most who spoke to Crisis Group mentioned a fledgling resistance movement in villages around Chinegodrar and Darey-Daye.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of pastoralist associations, former ISGS sympathiser, resident of Banibangou and former elected representative from Banibangou, Niamey, March-April 2021.Hide Footnote After village chiefs and religious leaders encouraged young Djerma villagers to arm themselves with bows or guns, militants set out to punish the village of Darey-Daye, killing seven people in the process. Forced to retreat in the face of armed resistance, the militants subsequently ambushed several vehicles transporting passengers back from a trade fair to Chinegodrar and Darey-Daye, singling out Djerma men for execution.

The escalating violence in North Tillabery contrasts with trends in neighbouring Mali’s Macina area, where the jihadist Katiba Macina insurgency has managed to impose its rule and curb levels of violence against civilians. In North Tillabery, however, ISGS does not presently have the capacity and may not even have the ambition to govern the region and its population. Instead, the group may have decided that excessive violence is the best tool to suppress burgeoning opposition and thus retain its position as the dominant armed group in the area.[fn]According to a former ISGS supporter, at the end of 2020, the organisation’s central command issued an order to quell any and all resistance. Interestingly, some commanders initially resisted this order. In Banibangou, a Peul commander refrained from punishing villages who refused to pay the zakat, allegedly because he grew up among Djerma villagers. He was later killed in a fight with Daosahak militiamen in March, shortly before the killing of Djerma passengers in the Banibangou area. He may have been replaced by commanders who are less hesitant to use force against Djerma villagers. Crisis Group interview, former ISGS supporter, Niamey, March 2021.Hide Footnote

III. Violence Takes an Ethnic Turn

Like the conflicts in Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis in North Tillabery is increasingly fraught with ethnic undertones. While the massacres in the communes of Tondikiwindi and Banibangou appear to be the result of a jihadist bid to quell resistance among villagers and assert control, the presence of the militants is aggravating intercommunal tensions. These tensions, in turn, risk fuelling a worrying cycle of retaliatory attacks and ethnic strife.

The risk of escalation is fuelled by at least two longstanding sources of friction among the region’s ethnic groups. First, population growth among farming communities has intensified their competition with nomadic pastoralists over resources in an area where land rights are already precarious for many because they were often established in parallel with the recent creation of villages, and therefore unevenly enforced and often contested. Secondly, decentralisation efforts such as the 2004 creation of rural communes, which the government rolled out to provide villagers with more rights and resources, have aggravated existing political rivalries, as chiefs now have to contend with elected officials and new demands from stigmatised classes.[fn]See Rahmane Idrissa and Bethany McGann, “Mistrust and Imbalance: The Collapse of Intercommunal Relations and the Rise of Armed Community Mobilization on the Niger-Mali Border”, Resolve Network, April 2021.Hide Footnote Relations among communities then deteriorated in the wake of Mali’s 2012 rebellion, which prompted various groups in Tillabery to take up arms. Most hailed from semi-nomadic communities, and many mobilised along ethnic lines.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°261, The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote

The infiltration of jihadists made things worse. Before their entry into the region, communities and authorities were able to calm periodic flare-ups, albeit without offering long-term solutions to local disputes.[fn]The most serious episodes opposed ethnic Djerma and Peul mostly in the Banibangou and Ouallam departments in 2008-2009, resulting in dozens killed. See Gandou Zakara et al., “Les Violations Collectives des Droits Humains Fondamentaux : Cas des Régions de Tillabéri et Dosso Niger”, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2011.Hide Footnote Since 2015, the presence of militants, as well as counter-terrorism operations locally perceived as targeting particular ethnic groups, have sharpened existing tensions and powered far more lethal forms of violence.

Social media messaging risks further widening divides. After the Tchomabangou attack, anonymous messages on social media networks blamed Peul for the killing, and called upon Djermas to take revenge.[fn]Audio message on file with Crisis Group, 5 January 2021.Hide Footnote While many interpreted the massacre as an ISGS attempt to discourage armed resistance from villagers who baulk at tax collection, others blamed Peul members specifically, viewing Peul land disputes with Djermas as a driver of violence.[fn]In late 2020, the village’s Djerma vigilante group allegedly killed Peul herders and stole their cattle, aggravating local tensions and setting the stage for conflict. Crisis Group interview, villager from Tchomabangou, February 2021.Hide Footnote In the Banibangou incident, ISGS most probably sought to punish villages that had started to mobilise resistance and to spare those who did not join self-defence groups.[fn]Several village chiefs, fearing ISGS retaliation, declined to join. Crisis Group interviews, resident of Banibangou and former ISGS supporter, Niamey, March 2021. According to one unconfirmed account, some village chiefs wrote a letter to ISGS command to make clear that they would not join the resistance movement.Hide Footnote Still, what most Nigeriens noticed and shared on social media was the fact that the militants killed the Djerma passengers, but not the others.

Officials now fear that Niger could follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali, where the rise of jihadist and vigilante groups, often both recruiting on an ethnic basis, has led to a vicious spiral of intercommunal killings.

Officials now fear that Niger could follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali, where the rise of jihadist and vigilante groups, often both recruiting on an ethnic basis, has led to a vicious spiral of intercommunal killings. The violence is self-perpetuating, as each incident pushes more locals to join an armed group for protection.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°293, Enrayer la communautarisation de la violence au centre du Mali, 5 November 2020; and Crisis Group Africa Report N°287, Burkina Faso : sortir de la spirale des violences, 24 February 2020.Hide Footnote In central Mali, the epicentre of that country’s conflict, fighting between Peul herders and Dogon farmers has killed thousands since 2016. It has been fuelled partly by the enlistment of numerous Peul in JNIM and Dogon in the Dana Ambassagou vigilante group.[fn]In March 2019, a chiefly Dogon self-defence group murdered over 150 Peul villagers in the Ogossagou village in central Mali. The attackers accused the villagers of having ties to jihadists. Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “Central Mali: Putting a Stop to Ethnic Cleansing, Crisis Group Commentary, 25 March 2019. A similar massacre of 35 Peul by Dogon militiamen took place in Ogossagou on 14 February 2020. See “Mali: Army, UN Fail to Stop Massacre”, Human Rights Watch, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote In northern Burkina Faso, the emergence of Koglweogo, vigilante groups created in the 2010s mostly by ethnic Mossi as well as Gourmantche, Bisa and Foulse, has resulted in more intercommunal killings amid a concurrent rise in jihadist activity.[fn]Koglweogo killed scores of Peul villagers in Yirgou, northern Burkina Faso, in January 2019, accusing them of harbouring Islamists who had allegedly killed a Mossi chief. In a March 2020 attack, a Koglweogo self-defence group killed at least 43 Peul civilians when it opened fire on another village in northern Burkina Faso. See “Burkina Faso: Witness Testimony Confirms Armed Group Perpetrated Mass Killings”, Amnesty International, 20 March 2020; and “Burkina Faso: New Massacres by Islamist Armed Groups”, Human Rights Watch, 23 April 2020.Hide Footnote

In Niger, state officials are reluctant to talk publicly about ethnic tensions, an extremely contentious issue. The Haute Autorité à la Consolidation de la Paix (HACP), a council mandated by the Nigerien government to tackle the roots of instability in Tillabery, has done well to play down the role of communal animosities in fuelling the recent killings.[fn]The HACP, first named the High Authority for Restoring Peace, is a council founded in 1995 by the Nigerien government to ensure implementation of the peace deal ending the Tuareg rebellion in 1995. The institution was successful in securing representation for Tuareg leaders as well as in disarming and reintegrating former rebels. In the 2000s, the HACP’s mission gradually turned toward tackling the roots of insecurity in several regions including Tillabery. In 2018, it conducted negotiations with prominent Peul leaders in this region in an effort to curb the Islamic State’s influence, though with limited success. The HACP notably receives funding from the UN and European Union, among other donors. Crisis Group Report, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, op. cit.Hide Footnote On 9 January, the HACP’s president, General Mahamadou Abou Tarka, gave a speech near Tondikiwindi, stressing that ISGS leaders in Tillabery, while initially all Peul, now include several Djerma commanders, such as Hamidou Hama, who authorities say led the assailants in Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye.[fn]Général Mahamadou Abou Tarka, “Allocution du Président de la Haute Autorité à la Consolidation de la Paix, Forum de dialogue Administration-Population de Ouallam”, Ouallam, 9 January 2021. Abu Tarka named nine Djerma ISGS commanders and six Peul. He made sure to specify each commander’s ethnicity. See also “‘They came to kill everyone’: Niger massacre survivors tell of horror”, AFP, 11 January 2021; and “Déclaration du Général Abou Tarka: la polémique enfle sur les réseaux sociaux; où est la part de verité?”, Niamey Info, 11 January 2021.Hide Footnote The fighting was not primarily intercommunal, he implied.

Nevertheless, many perceive ISGS as dominated by Peul, and most known commanders are Peul. The organisation’s recruitment among the Djerma – by far the largest ethnic group in the Tillabery region – is still fairly limited.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tondikiwindi resident, February 2021. Djerma accounted for almost 64 per cent of the population in Tillabery, while Peul accounted for about 13 per cent, according to the most recent data, which nevertheless dates from 2001. “Répartition de la population résidente de nationalité nigérienne, selon l’ethnie et la région, en 2001”, Annuaire statistique des cinquante ans d’indépendance du Niger, INS, 2010.Hide Footnote

The widely accepted assertion that a Djerma led the killings in Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye, however, does suggest that ISGS has become adept at recruiting across communal lines in Tillabery and at exploiting intra-ethnic splits. For example, Hamidou, also known as “Maitouwo”, joined ISGS amid violent tensions between two rival Djerma communities. From November 2018 to January 2019, as a decades-long dispute over agricultural rights heated up, members of Hamidou’s community, known as Tingara 1, clashed with their neighbours in Tingara 2, resulting in several deaths and displacement of civilians.[fn]At least six people died in or near Tingara from November 2018 to January 2019. ACLED data.Hide Footnote Hamidou had by that point reportedly developed business links with ISGS, but made the jump to active militancy after Tingara 2 villagers allegedly denounced his ties to the jihadists and security forces attempted to arrest him.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villager and local sources, January 2021. Crisis Group interviews, local and national officials, January 2021. Crisis Group has previously urged Nigerien authorities and NGO partners to redouble efforts to make peace between the two Tingara villages as a means of weakening jihadists’ ability to exploit local grievances and demonstrating the state’s usefulness as an ally. See Crisis Group Report, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, op. cit.Hide Footnote From 2019 to 2021, he rose as a commander in the jihadist movement, entrusted with overseeing its recruitment and taxation efforts in Djerma areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local official, villager, January 2021.Hide Footnote

The absorption of Djerma into ISGS ranks signals a strategy for expanding influence by drawing in recruits from across communal lines.[fn]Recruiting among non-pastoralist groups seems more advanced in the northern Zarmaganda area, which coincides with the western-central part of the border with Mali. On the eastern border (toward Abala and Ikarfane), all local commanders are either Peul or Tuareg/Daosahak, but sources also mention the presence of renowned Djerma and Hausa junoud (Arabic for soldiers) in the unit. Crisis Group interview, resident of Abala, Niamey, March 2021.Hide Footnote For example, the group has exploited conflicts among Peul, Tuareg and Daosahak nomads to bring disaffected members of all three groups into the fold.[fn]Armstrong, “Behind the Jihadist Attack in Inatès”, op. cit.Hide Footnote But while recruitment of nomads has helped the organisation in controlling the sparsely populated Mali-Niger border zone, the inclusion of more Djerma could give the group greater reach into more densely populated areas of central Niger. Although communal tensions sometimes reverberate among the jihadists themselves, for the time being ISGS has managed to keep them in check through internal diplomacy.[fn]For example, there are a few accounts of tensions between Peul and Djerma ISGS commanders over control of taxes, particularly in villages where both Peul and Djerma live. Crisis Group interview, Tingara resident, January 2002.Hide Footnote

IV. The Authorities’ Track Record

Rising violence in and around Tondikiwindi and Banibangou since late 2020 is a stark illustration of the twin crises faced by the Nigerien authorities, who seek to counter ISGS and protect civilians while also managing the deterioration of communal relations in North Tillabery.

At present, state security forces are simply not able to protect every part of this remote area. They have retreated from several key border outposts following the devastating attacks on the Inatès and Chinegodrar barracks in December 2019 and January 2020, and authorities remain reluctant to redeploy fully along the border.[fn]See Armstrong, “Behind the Jihadist Attack in Inatès”, op. cit., for details of the Islamic State attack on Inatés in December 2019. In January 2020, Islamic State militants killed scores of military personnel in an attack at Chinagodrar. See “Death toll in Niger army base ‘rises to 89’”, Al Jazeera, 12 January 2020.Hide Footnote A local official described the entire northern stretch of Tondikiwindi, which is home to pastoralists and farmers, as “unreachable” due to the danger posed by ISGS militancy.[fn]This area is infamous as the site of the Islamic State attack that killed five Nigerien soldiers and four U.S. special forces personnel in October 2017.Hide Footnote Security personnel who do patrol this area restrict their visits to far-flung villages to a few days or even hours. The 2 January massacre came just one day after a Nigerien army unit patrolling the surrounding area withdrew, suggesting that jihadists monitor military movements and time their attacks accordingly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local leader, January 2021. See “Rapport de la mission conjointe dans la zone de Ouallam”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5 January 2021.Hide Footnote

To address the security vacuum in North Tillabery, the national guard last year recruited 500 young men from various local communities for deployment to their own regions as part of mixed units.[fn]Crisis Group interview, President-elect Mohamed Bazoum, Niamey, April 2021.Hide Footnote The state is also trying to better separate the duties of the military and police, which would free up the internal security forces to tackle banditry rather than fight the insurgency. President Mohamed Bazoum seems sensitive to the need for this change; in his 2 April inauguration speech, he stressed the need to better enforce the distinction between the two forces.[fn]In his inauguration speech, President Bazoum stated: “Tirant les leçons de ce combat que nous menons depuis bientôt 10 ans, je mettrai un accent particulier sur la rationalisation de notre action qui doit résulter d’une distinction intelligente entre les missions de l’armée et celle des forces de sécurité intérieure”. Presidency of the Republic of Niger, 2 April 2021.Hide Footnote But these measures will take time to bear fruit. Attempts to improve recruitment and training of internal security forces may yield mixed results as long as they remain under military command in North Tillabery, which limits their operational capacity.[fn]This is the case for Operation Almahahou, the main military operation in North Tillabery. Crisis Group interview, security forces officer, Niamey, March 2021.Hide Footnote

Moreover, even when the Sahelian states have been able to mount military action, it has sometimes come with disastrous consequences for civilians. Sometimes problems have arisen because security forces outsourced their work to ethnic-based armed groups.[fn]Such militias are increasingly active in Burkina Faso and in Mali. Dana Ambassagou militiamen have fought jihadist groups in central Mali’s Mopti region. On 16 September 2020, they reportedly repelled a JNIM attack on the village of Niangabo (Bandiagara cercle). (A cercle is an administrative unit.) Two months later, Dana Ambassagou militiamen routed JNIM fighters attempting to raid the village of Guimini on 14 November (Bandiagara cercle). Likewise, Koglweogo members have also notched a few victories over jihadist groups operating in Burkina Faso. On 9 February 2019, they repelled presumed JNIM or ISGS militants from the village of Wondo (Arbinda district, Soum province, Sahel region), after those gunmen attacked the local chief’s residence. On 20 March 2020, Koglweogo militiamen reportedly defeated a group of suspected ISGS or JNIM militants present in Pobe Mengao (Pobe Mengao district, Soum province, Sahel region).Hide Footnote In 2017 and 2018, Nigerien authorities authorised Malian ethnic militias, mainly Tuareg and Daosahak, to take on ISGS on the Nigerien side of the border. These militias in turn unleashed indiscriminate violence against Peul, driving many Peul to seek alliances with ISGS.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Fear and low morale among the country’s overstretched, under-resourced security forces, who have suffered their own great losses in this zone, may make them increasingly prone to using heavy-handed tactics.

Nigerien state forces are suspected of abuses as well. Anti-jihadist operations following the December 2019 and January 2020 attacks resulted in the killing or disappearance of 102 civilians, allegedly at the security forces’ hands.[fn]At least 71 bodies were found in six mass graves. Many of the dead were last seen being arrested by security forces. Others who were arrested remain missing. Most of the victims were reportedly Tuareg and Daosahak. See “Mission d’Enquête, d’Investigation, de Vérification et d’Etablissement des Faits en cas de Violation des Droits Humains dans la Commune Rurale d’Inatès, Département d’Ayorou, Région de Tillabéri”, CNDH-Niger, 2020.Hide Footnote Fear and low morale among the country’s overstretched, under-resourced security forces, who have suffered their own great losses in this zone, may make them increasingly prone to using heavy-handed tactics. In the early hours of 30 April, Nigerien soldiers killed more than twenty ethnic Daosahak detainees they had arrested near Chinegodrar. The defence ministry claimed they were planning a new attack on Banibangou and died trying to escape detention.[fn]“Niger : une vingtaine de terroristes présumés tués dans l’ouest du pays (officiel)”, Xinhua, 3 May 2021.Hide Footnote A Daosahak community group, however, said they were ordinary citizens and called for an investigation, listing the victims’ names.[fn]“Niger : une tuerie, deux versions sur l’identité des victimes”, Dakar Actu, 3 May 2021.Hide Footnote

The state’s political efforts to calm tensions have also faced problems. Previous government-led forums aiming to address grievances and build trust between locals and security forces have not stemmed the violence in the Tondikiwindi commune or elsewhere in Tillabery. A late 2019 forum intended to reconcile the two Tingara villages was disrupted by the fresh fighting between jihadists and security forces that followed the Inatès and Chinegodrar attacks. An emphasis on defeating jihadists militarily has often meant that local mediation and dialogue initiatives lag behind in terms of the authorities’ attention. Many such initiatives, including those attempting to find or implement consensual solutions for the management and allocation of natural resources, have suffered from a lack of consistent investment by the state.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°154, The Central Sahel: Scene of New Climate Wars?, 24 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Authorities are aware that the Tillabery crisis requires political engagement, but their attempts so far have fallen short. On 4 January, two days after the Tondikiwindi massacre, senior officials in Niger’s national security council met, vowing to better protect the border zone and support residents who lost food supplies in fires set by jihadists. On 9 January, the HACP hosted a forum involving a wide range of community leaders and elected officials in Ouallam, the capital of the Ouallam department that includes Tondikiwindi, to address the risk of intercommunal conflict. The forum seemed more focused on preventing immediate violence than on resolving underlying disputes, however. While these efforts are a step in the right direction, more concrete follow-up is needed.

V. Options for Calming the Crisis

Given the challenges of defeating the local Islamic State branch militarily, at least as long as the jihadists can dart across the border into Mali, authorities will have to look to a diversified set of strategies for containing its spread, protecting civilians and stabilising Tillabery. Different sources of violence become dangerously entangled – from banditry and land disputes to jihadist activities. Most worryingly, recent events are showing that violence is taking an ethnic turn, with civilians increasingly at risk of slaughter on the basis of belonging to a particular ethnic group or village.

Niamey should discourage the creation of new self-defence groups that are forming in response to jihadist, bandit and communal violence.

To address the growing risk of ethnic violence and prevent it from developing further, one thing Niamey should do is discourage the creation of new self-defence groups that are forming in response to jihadist, bandit and communal violence. Such groups would likely make the already fraught situation in Tillabery even worse. A number of local politicians, village chiefs and businessmen are pushing for the creation of these groups with or without state support. But for Nigerien authorities to sanction this approach would be to ignore the hard-won lessons of neighbouring states. Collaboration between the state and Dana Ambassagou and Koglweogo vigilantes in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, respectively, has accelerated ethnic violence against civilians in these areas.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, Enrayer la communautarisation de la violence au centre du Mali and Burkina Faso : sortir de la spirale des violences, both op. cit.Hide Footnote Moreover, the recent massacres in North Tillabery suggest that the creation of self-defence groups can wind up putting Djerma civilians in even greater peril. In Tchomabangou and Darey-Daye, villages were punished precisely for launching self-defence groups.

Thus far, except for its above-referenced alliance with Mali-based groups in 2017 and 2018, Niamey has wisely resisted the temptation to rely on ethnic militias to play a role in securing North Tillabery, aware that they can feed wider communal violence. It should continue to discourage the formation of these groups by dissuading communities from mobilising to arm themselves.[fn]In June 2020, during a meeting at the prime minister’s office, some leaders of northern Tillabery sedentary communities, mostly Djerma, voiced their distress regarding rising insecurity in their area and urged the government to protect them or allow communities to protect themselves. Similar calls were voiced during the Ouallam forum in January following the Tchomabangou attacks. Crisis Group interviews, meeting participants, Niamey, February 2021.Hide Footnote It should also, in an effort to prevent ethnic tensions from spiralling out of control, build on recent HACP messaging to formulate a persuasive state narrative condemning communal violence. Ethnic diversity and inclusivity have traditionally been central to Niger’s national identity, and many Nigeriens view them as something that sets the country apart from its neighbours. Now, however, social media posts propagating an ethnic interpretation of recent killings are fuelling hostility among communities. To counteract this effect, state authorities should look for ways to stress the need for reconciliation between communities and offer a more nuanced narrative of the spiralling violence in North Tillabery.

At the same time, if the government wishes to persuade villagers not to arm themselves in self-defence, they will need to pursue a mix of short- and long-term efforts to demonstrate that the state can protect them. Military authorities could, for example, consider reassigning troops to border posts, including Inatès and Ikarfane, and conducting counter-terror operations along the Malian border. Should they choose this option, they should exercise careful oversight given the now-known risks of soldiers committing abuses against civilians in this area. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has played a key role in investigating and publicising military abuses against civilians in the last year. It should continue to shine a light on abuses and push for accountability.

Meanwhile, Niamey should direct the police, gendarmes and national guard to become far more active in countering rising banditry, especially when it comes to arresting criminals and returning stolen cattle or goods. Doing so would not only go some way toward rebuilding trust between security forces and rural communities, but also demonstrate the state’s readiness to protect rural dwellers, provide other basic services they value and help stem escalating communal frictions.

Civil and military authorities should continue working together to make the security forces more locally representative, which could help reduce friction with locals over the long term.

In the longer term, Nigerien authorities should take advantage of ISGS’s apparent weakening to carry out security reforms. One such reform might involve disentangling the military and internal security forces, which have different missions but are under a single military command patrolling the border. Civil and military authorities should also continue working together to make the security forces more locally representative, which could help reduce friction with locals over the long term. State security forces will continue to be the primary protection that these communities have, however imperfect. A force that relies more heavily on local recruits might find it easier to win residents’ trust, would likely have valuable knowledge of the terrain and could for these reasons be better positioned than it is now to deliver on promises of civilian protection. While, as Crisis Group has previously noted, this approach would involve risks that would have to be managed, it remains a better option than relying solely on security forces from elsewhere.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery, op. cit. As noted in this report, amid rising intercommunal tensions, some new recruits might seek to pursue local agendas wearing government uniforms. Additionally, if some communities are left out of the recruitment drive, they may perceive the state as biased against them. If the authorities choose to pursue this option, they should be careful to recruit from among all local ethnic groups, form mixed units and take the time to properly train, equip and deploy them.Hide Footnote

Pursuing local ceasefires through dialogue is a further measure that Niamey could consider to shield civilians from the violence. President Bazoum could – publicly or privately – designate a special office, attached to the presidency, to reach out to local jihadist commanders and start conversations appealing to their community-based and socio-economic interests. Authorities would most likely need to offer a range of incentives similar to what was offered to Niger’s Tuareg rebels in the 1990s, such as commitments to integrate fighters into security forces, bring rebel leaders into regional positions of influence, protect vulnerable minorities and invest in regional development. The ceasefire should include an end to zakat extraction at gunpoint for those living in the affected areas.

Such discussions will create risks for those involved and it will be important for state authorities to allay militants’ potential fears that the state and its foreign partners are using mediators to track and kill them.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote To improve coordination between military and political efforts, and prevent a scenario where the two act against one another’s interests, President Bazoum should give this office the authority to rein in military operations in parts of the border zone should they need a lull to move forward with negotiations, and should a non-aggression pact become reality.[fn]Ibid., for more on the coordination issue.Hide Footnote

While it is almost certainly premature to try to bring the ISGS commander, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, to the table, that would be the ultimate goal of a dialogue-focused strategy.[fn]Ibid., for more on luring Sahraoui to the table.Hide Footnote If Niamey can begin to peel border zone commanders away from ISGS, and reverse some of the group’s momentum, then perhaps Sahraoui’s calculations will change. He did, after all, begin negotiations with senior officials in 2017 before they were derailed.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote If Sahraoui is willing to resume talking, authorities could consider offering the non-aggression pact they discussed with him in 2017.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The timing may seem terrible for dialogue with ISGS militants, coming so close on the heels of horrific massacres. Niger’s most important foreign partner, France, remains steadfastly opposed to such dialogue. At a 15 February summit in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, President Emmanuel Macron, a strong proponent of French military intervention in the Sahel, reiterated this opposition.[fn]In a press statement at the N’Djamena summit, Macron said: “Concrètement, nous avons ces dernières semaines consolidé une convergence avec nos interlocuteurs du G5 Sahel pour considérer que Iyad Ag Ghaly et Amadou Koufa sont des ennemis et en aucun cas des interlocuteurs”. “Afrique : conference de presse d’Emmanuel Macron au terme du Sommet du G5 Sahel”, Universal TV, 15 February 2021.Hide Footnote The notion of talking to militants likewise remains controversial in other Sahelian states.

Bazoum has the authority to pursue dialogue with jihadists as part of efforts to stop intercommunal violence in Tillabery.

Nevertheless, in Burkina Faso, where Prime Minister Christophe Dabiré publicly ruled out dialogue, covert meetings between senior officials and jihadists beginning October 2020 produced a makeshift ceasefire that considerably slowed violence in the months that followed.[fn]“Burkina Faso : les autorités prêtes à négocier avec les groupes jihadistes?”, RFI, 5 February 2021.Hide Footnote In Mali, public support is coalescing around efforts to strike a deal with jihadists after years of destructive fighting between insurgents and self-defence groups.[fn]“Moctar Ouane, 1er ministre du Mali: dialogue avec les jihadistes ‘en cours’ en ‘prolongement de l’action militaire’”, RFI, 20 December 2020.Hide Footnote Niger, the first Sahelian state to explore the dialogue option when Bazoum was interior minister in 2016-2017, should not lag behind. Now that he is president, Bazoum has the authority to pursue dialogue with jihadists as part of efforts to stop intercommunal violence in Tillabery from escalating further.

Finally, authorities should also place a higher priority on measures to resolve disputes within and between communities, over resources in particular, to address drivers of violence and show that the state has a useful role to play in governance. The HACP, for example, could, with support from foreign partners or NGOs, put a more systematic effort into peacebuilding endeavours to address and ease tensions, whether over land use grievances or among local authorities, villages or communities, starting with villages where tensions are high and where jihadists have already started to actively recruit fighters.

VI. Conclusion

Niger is at serious risk of seeing more mass killings like those that have traumatised neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. As jihadists continue to recruit from and prey upon local communities, forming self-defence groups may seem like a solution for the civilians who live there, but forming such militias risks triggering new cycles of violence that may ultimately strengthen ISGS. While Niger’s authorities, struggling to overcome the jihadists militarily, have thus far set a positive example in the central Sahel by avoiding the use of proxy homegrown militias for counter-terror operations at the border with Mali, they are under pressure to protect their people. Niamey does not have any easily actionable solution at hand. Yet, through a mix of calibrated security measures, messaging to calm ethnic tensions, efforts at dialogue with militant groups and initiatives to manage community-level disputes, Niger’s authorities will be best able to move toward their security goals and stop a trend of terrible violence against civilians from getting yet worse.

Dakar/Niamey/Nairobi/Brussels, 28 May 2021

Appendix A: Map of the Deadliest Attacks on Civilians, March 2020-March 2021

Appendix B: Security Forces and Civilians Killed in Tillabery Between January 2020 and March 2021

As the number of security forces killed declined during this period, the number of civilians killed rose dramatically. Source: ACLED (Armed Conflict & Event Data Project), as of 3 April 2021. Reported fatalities are as defined by the ACLED codebook.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.