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Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?
Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Niger Clash Kills U.S. and Nigerien Troops
Niger Clash Kills U.S. and Nigerien Troops
Report 208 / Africa

Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?

Suicide attacks on military and mining targets, followed by a violent prison break in the capital, revealed Niger’s fragile stability in a crisis-ridden neighbourhood.

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Executive Summary

The 23 May 2013 twin suicide attacks targeting the Agadez army barracks and an Areva mining site in Arlit, and the 1 June violent prison break in Niamey, cast a shadow over Niger’s stability. In a deteriorating regional environment, President Mahamadou Issoufou and his Western allies have favoured a security strategy that has significant limitations, as elsewhere in the Sahel. An excessive focus on external threats can overshadow important internal dynamics, such as communal tensions, a democratic deficit and the growing marginalisation of poor, rural societies. Security spending looks likely to increase at the expense of social expenditure, carrying significant risks for a country that faces serious demographic and economic challenges. The possibility of a terrorist spillover from its neighbours is compounded by a fragile socio-economic and political environment.

Niger, a focus of outside interest mainly for its uranium and newfound oil reserves, has recently received renewed attention. For several years, Western countries have viewed the Sahel-Sahara region as a particularly dangerous zone, characterised by the rise of insecurity, political crises and poorly controlled flows of people, arms and other licit and illicit goods. The 2011 Libyan civil war, the 2012 Mali crisis and the recent intensification of military confrontations between government forces and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria all affect Niger. Ideas, weapons and combatants circulate across borders. However, surrounded by crisis-ridden neighbours, Niger appears contradictorily to be fragile and yet an island of stability. Its Western and regional allies seek to contain perceived growing threats, in particular from violent Islamist groups such al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Since 2011, Nigerien security forces have been on alert with the support of Western militaries that have been present in the country ever since. They also contribute to the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), with a battalion deployed in the Gao region, close to Niger. The country has been included in security strategies that protect it, but over which it has little influence. Niger constitutes an important element of the French military operation in Mali; is pivotal to the European Union’s Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel; and also accommodates a growing U.S. assistance and presence. Encouraged by its allies to upgrade its security apparatus, the government has also substantially increased its military expenditure. But such a security focus could lead to a reallocation of resources at the expense of already weak social sectors.

The security strategy pursued in the Sahel over the last decade has proven weak in neighbouring Mali. In Niger, it will be of little help to President Issoufou in establishing a bond of trust between the state and the people. The current regime, which took over after a transition from military rule in 2011, is still fragile. The president’s “Renaissance” program, a high-level platform of reforms on which he was elected, raised hopes but has yet to show tangible results. Social protests are already on the rise. This situation stirs political ambitions, and tensions surrounding the formation of the new national unity government in August 2013 revealed a fragile democracy. Moreover, as in the rest of the Sahel-Sahara region, the state and security apparatus are suspected of being infiltrated by transnational criminal networks. The risks are high when deep socio-economic distress is added to insufficient democratic consolidation.

However, these weaknesses should not obscure a more nuanced reality. In 2009, the attempt by then-President Mamadou Tandja to forcibly remain in power showed that some institutions and civil society are willing to fight to protect democracy. The military admittedly intervened in political life to stop Tandja, but returned to the barracks after a relatively short transition. These gains are certainly still weak. The historically influential military could intercede again in the event of an institutional deadlock. Corruption and impunity remain endemic, and some civil society representatives have been co-opted by the ruling elites. As in Mali, frustration over democratic shortcomings feeds the expansion of an Islamic civil society that is particularly vocal in its criticism; it can represent either a radical, potentially violent protest movement or a peaceful attempt to “re-moralise” public life.

Finally, the Tuareg issue has not been fully resolved in Niger, though it appears better managed than in neighbouring Mali. Far from being homogeneous, Tuareg society is divided along generation, clan and social fault lines; some elites are well integrated into the administration and have little reason to turn against the state, while others raise the spectre of a resurgent conflict, out of conviction or to defend their privileged position as middlemen. The population has grown tired of rebellions that have failed to keep their promises, but many youths from the north have few alternatives to trafficking and armed activities.

Rather than a security state, the people of Niger need a government that provides services, an economy that creates employment, as well as the rule of law and a reinforced democratic system. President Issoufou should keep the initial focus of his agenda on these goals and recognise that national security and stability depend at least as much on those issues as on narrow counter-terrorism military responses.

Dakar/Brussels, 19 September 2013

Nigerien service members react to contact during Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa including African, European and North American Special Operations Forces, Niger, March 2017. Zayid Ballesteros (The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.)
Commentary / Africa

Niger Clash Kills U.S. and Nigerien Troops

A deadly ambush near the Niger-Mali border on 4 October claimed the lives of at least five Nigerien soldiers and marked the unprecedented killing of American forces in the region. In this Q&A, Deputy West Africa Project Director Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Research Assistant Hamza Cherbib say that jihadist violence cannot be divorced from deeper inter-communal tensions related to local competition over resources and illicit economic activity.

What happened and where?

According to U.S. and Nigerien security sources, on 4 October 2017 a mixed patrol of U.S. and Nigerien special forces was ambushed near Tongo Tongo, a village located in the Tillabery region (about 120km north of the capital, Niamey), a few kilometres from the border with Mali. The precise death toll is still uncertain but at least five Nigerien and three U.S. soldiers were killed. Several others are wounded or missing, and Nigerien sources say the patrol’s vehicles were looted or destroyed.

The patrol may have been attacked by jihadists operating in the region, but there was no early claim of responsibility and what happened may only become clear over time. U.S. troops are supporting Nigerien armed forces fighting jihadists in at least two locations in the country, Aguelal and Diffa. The U.S. also is present elsewhere in Niger (and the region): it is establishing a drone and airbase near Agadez (northern Niger) and its forces are present at Niamey airport where they share space with French and Nigerien forces.

This is not the first attack against security forces in the area. Indeed, Nigerien forces have suffered repeated attacks there since early 2017, including against the special counter-terrorism unit whose men are trained by the U.S. But this is the first attack to have claimed the lives of U.S. soldiers.

What is known about jihadist groups in the area?

In recent months, several attacks targeting security forces near the Mali-Niger border have been claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State’s local branch led by Abou Walid Al Sahraoui. This includes a raid on the Koutoukale prison in October 2016 that was fended off by Nigerien security forces.

Another recent attack was claimed by the Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam wal-Mouslimin (JNIM, the “Group for the support of Islam and the Muslims”), a jihadist coalition of militant groups with a history of cooperation that was established in March 2017. JNIM’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, a Malian Tuareg, declared his allegiance to al-Qaeda and other top leaders of the group have well established al-Qaeda ties.

What might be behind these attacks?

While international attention focuses on jihadists and sees their ideology as the source of the problem, there are other important dimensions. Indeed, attacks against military personnel represent only a small part of the problem as armed violence exacts a heavy albeit underreported death toll among civilians in the regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, especially among isolated nomadic communities.

In July 2017, alone, local representatives of the Fulani community – one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa comprised mostly of herders – claimed that militias of rival ethnic groups, the Tuareg and Doosaak (a nomadic group close to and often confused with the Tuaregs but with a distinct language) killed some 46 civilians, purportedly as part of counter-terrorism operations. Conversely, Tuareg representatives repeatedly accuse local Fulanis of murdering members of their communities with jihadist support.

Jihadist violence often intertwines with local intercommunal tensions related to competition over natural resources and trafficking

In reality, jihadist violence often intertwines with local intercommunal tensions related to competition over natural resources and trafficking, making it difficult to distinguish the real nature and motives of many incidents.

Is this a home-grown problem to Niger or one that is spilling over from nearby states of the Sahel?

Nigerien officials often claim that perpetrators of these attacks hail from neighbouring Mali and especially from the Menaka region where jihadist groups are entrenched. (Crisis Group commentary, “Forced Out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists Go Rural”, 11 January 2017). But there is far more to this than spillover from the Malian crisis. In addition to the intercommunal tensions just noted, and which reflect local Nigerien dynamics, most sources agree that jihadist groups have taken root in the northern Tillabery region, especially but not exclusively among young Fulanis looking for ways to counter their ethnic rivals or protect their businesses or communities.

Ethnic and counter-jihadist agendas mix, at times to highly damaging effect. Authorities suspect Fulani communities in particular of having ties with jihadist groups. In turn, the Nigerien government reportedly authorised Malian Tuareg Imghad and Doosaak armed groups to hunt jihadist elements; under that pretext, those groups are said to repeatedly have targeted Fulanis from the Tahoua and Tillabery regions. Fulani representatives told Crisis Group they suspect that France – through its operation Barkhane, a military mission centered on fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel and with troops deployed in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali – also provided support to these groups. In July 2017, Malian armed groups reportedly killed dozens of Fulani herders.

But does the Fulani community in fact have close ties to jihadist groups?

Jihadist groups do tend to recruit among Fulani youth, part of a strategy that aims to capitalise on intercommunal conflicts, local grievances and frustration with the state about bad governance, lack of services, unemployment and corruption. Crisis Group examined this dynamic in a previous report (Central Mali: an uprising in the making?, 6 July 2016). However, the notion of a “Fulani jihad” is dangerously misleading. It distracts from the reality that Fulani often are drawn to jihadist groups because of underlying communal tensions, not out of ideological affinity.

A similar situation exists in other West African countries (Herders against Farmers: Nigeria’s expanding deadly conflict, 19 September 2017). A central problem is that this overall dynamic paves the way for Sahelian states such as Niger, whose security apparatus already is overstretched due to threats emanating from the north (Libya) and south east (Boko Haram), to enlist ethnic-based militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. This in turn risks aggravating intercommunal tensions and thus, in a vicious cycle, encouraging more young Fulani to seek protection from jihadist groups. Such groups adapt accordingly, forging relations with local rural and semi nomadic communities based on matrimony, business ties or the provision of protection and dispute resolution mechanisms to marginalised communities.

Do you think this attack will lead the U.S. or other powers to change their policy toward Niger and the greater Sahel region?

As noted, the attack against U.S. soldiers was a first for this region. It is likely to lead to increased military operations against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the JNIM and other associated groups, with both French and U.S. support. Whether it will persuade the U.S. to switch its position on the G-5 Sahel, a French-backed regional military operation comprising forces from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad is unclear. That force is intended to fight terrorism as well as trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs in the Sahel and expected to be deployed later this year. However, it faces a substantial funding shortfall. The French have sought funding through the UN, but thus far Washington has resisted such efforts, preferring to channel any support to the countries involved bilaterally.

Deployment of a regional counter-terrorism force in the Sahel could be a welcome first step toward ensuring African states take responsibility for their security. But myriad questions surround the G5’s putative role and mandate, particularly its relationships with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French Barkhane operation already deployed in the region. Nor is the enemy well defined: many armed groups in the Sahel – and certainly not only jihadists – are involved in trafficking. Failure to clarify its mandate, which armed groups it will fight and its relationship with other forces risks stirring up further instability and could lead to a security traffic jam in the region.

What can the Niger government and Western partners do?

There will be a natural temptation to up the tempo of military operations. Clearly for Niger and its Western partners, such operations are a critical component of their response to militant groups that attack security forces and whose violence and intolerance threaten state and society alike.

What is urgently needed is to end the cycle of violence that is harming civilians far more than Western or Nigerien soldiers

Focusing only on military action would be shortsighted, however. Instead, what is urgently needed is to end the cycle of violence that is harming civilians far more than Western or Nigerien soldiers and is creating propitious conditions for the spread of jihadist groups. That entails above all addressing problems related to the management and sharing of natural resources and providing dispute resolution mechanisms and security for all communities. 

Opening channels of communications with armed groups is another necessity. Earlier this year, the government of Niger reportedly established contacts but nascent discussions were challenging because of mutual distrust and ultimately were aborted after militant attacks on its security forces. Officials told Crisis Group that no serious negotiation could begin with these groups at this point and that the only option was military.

This too is likely to be self-defeating. Rather, the goal ought to be to try to disentangle hardcore militants from others who join these groups out of despair or for lack of viable alternative options. The government should prioritise efforts to rebuild relations with nomadic communities in the northern Tillabery area, especially with the Tolebbe (a Fulani subgroup), one of the few remaining Nigerien communities that lack a district chief (“chef de canton”) recognised by the state.


Deputy Project Director, West Africa
Research Assistant, West Africa