At Least 15 Killed in Southwestern Niger During Friday Prayer

An anonymous gunman opened fire during the Friday prayers in the village Thiem in the Tillaberi region, killing 16 people and injuring five. This attack comes just days after a previous attack took place in the same area. On August 16th, armed men on motorcycles attacked people working in the field outside the village Darey Day. In the attack, 37 people, including 14 children, were killed. Even though the attackers are unknown, both these incidents are being linked to violent extremist groups. The Tillaberi region, which borders Mali and Nigeria, has been particularly hit hard by extremist groups.

These sorts of attacks are becoming more frequent. Anonymous gunmen attacking from commercial motorcycles (Okada) is a tactic used by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the local subgroup of Islamic State West Africa Province. Islamic extremist groups have increased their activities in Niger since 2014 and became increasingly violent towards the local population in 2019. A report from Human Rights Watch earlier this month estimated that 420 civilians have been killed in Tillaberi and Tahoua by extremist groups this year. On January 2nd, attacks took place in the villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye, and 105 people were killed in retaliation for the killing of two militants. One of the survivors told Human Rights Watch “I heard the crack of gunfire, cries of ‘Allahu Akbar,’ people begging for mercy, and the sound of walkie-talkies. After they fled, I saw the bodies…in and outside houses, in the street, next to walls.”

Corinne Dufka, the Sahel director of Human Rights Watch, has noted that “Armed Islamist groups appear to be waging war on the civilian population in western Niger.” Groups allied to ISIS or Boko Haram have destroyed schools, churches, and homes. They are also increasingly imposing rules based on sharia law and persecuting people who do not follow them. They force the local population to pay higher and more frequent Zakat, a form of Islamic tax. Because of the increased attacks, and the imposed Zakat, there is a risk that the local population will arm themselves and start vigilante groups. However, the International Crisis Group has warned that if that happens there is a risk that the situation will result in ethnic conflicts, as it has in neighboring countries. Previous grievances and ethnic issues have been utilized by armed groups to gain recruits. ISGS has recruited from the Peuls (Fulani), a semi-nomadic herding group that has issues with other ethnic groups. This suggests that the conflict with extremist groups is being connected to previous ethnic conflicts, like issues around land rights between semi-nomadic ethnic groups and sedentary ethnic groups.

The government has previously promised increased security, but so far failed to deliver. Instead, it has banned the use of Okada, regulated the sale of petrol, and closed certain markets believed to supply extremist groups. These are cursory measures that fail to address the root causes of the issue. What is needed is the prompt and organized effort, at the international level, towards the protection of the region’s population. Many of the armed groups are operating along the border, crossing from one territorial jurisdiction to another, giving rise to the need for an international effort. Niger is part of the security cooperation G5 Sahel that includes France and neighboring nations. Unfortunately, both France and Chad have recently announced that they are withdrawing some of their soldiers from the area. The International Crisis Group suggested earlier this year that the government needed to attempt to resolve local ethnic conflict before extremist groups exploit them, urge locals to not form vigilante groups, and attempt to enter a dialogue with armed groups. The presence of French and Chadian troops could potentially be an important element in the realization of these prescriptions. The G5 Sahel must remain firm as inter-state cooperation is critical in securing regional stability.