Civilians in Niger have been the victims of multiple attacks since the start of 2021. On 21 March, 137 civilians were killed in coordinated raids on villages in Niger’s southwest. The week before, on 15 March, another 58 were killed on their way home from the local market and an earlier attack in January resulted in 100 civilian casualties. The 2021 attacks have been among the country’s worst civilian casualties recently, especially in the southwest Tillabéri region which has seen civilians increasingly become the victims of attacks in the past two years. Many have attributed the violence to Islamist groups, as the attacks are occurring in the midst of a broader security crisis due to the activity of Islamist militants in Niger as well as the wider West African Sahel region.
According to CNN, local civil society activists have voiced concerns about the rising death tolls due to Islamist militias. Harouna Abarachi, who leads peace initiatives in southwestern Niger, calls this area a “fragile zone.” He has seen conflicts in the past but says the more recent targeting of civilians is worrying for the region’s stability. Many of these attacks have been coordinated raids that systematically target civilians; a new level of violence constituting grave human rights violations.
Following these deadly attacks, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres has declared his support for Niger. He has called on Niger’s authorities to “spare no effort” in bringing the perpetrators to justice, while calling on other countries in the West African Sahel to continue collaborating with each other and with international organizations to address these security threats. Guterres has also called for better protection of civilians in the area, which has been echoed by Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa. In a statement responding to the March 21 attack, in which 22 of the victims were children, Poirier said “UNICEF is deeply shocked and outraged by the terrible attacks directed against families and children.” She highlighted that this is a severe violation of human rights and echoed UNICEF’s plea to all parties involved to protect children. In the wake of this attack, UNICEF has reiterated its commitment to support the Niger government in efforts to ensure children’s safety.
Niger has been deeply affected by Islamist violence for several years. Since rebels and Islamist militias took control of cities in the neighbouring country of Mali in 2012, similar threats have spread across the Sahel. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, loosely tied to Islamic State, has conducted attacks on the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, resulting in the security crisis in the West African Sahel. Niger’s efforts to contain the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have been unsuccessful so far, evidenced by the escalating attacks on civilians. In addition to causing casualties, Islamic militants have set classrooms on fire, stolen livestock and looted health centres, leading to further destruction of the communities they target.
These violent attacks also have broader implications. According to the UN, 3.8 million people in Niger are in need of assistance, including 2 million children. UNICEF has identified insecurity, restricted access and repeated violence as factors making it more difficult for them to reach the region’s vulnerable populations. The recent and ongoing violence is not only devastating to the communities in which it occurs but also severely impacts Niger’s broader population, as it hinders the distribution of humanitarian assistance.
Responding to this security crisis will be a main challenge for the newly inaugurated President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum. Addressing these attacks and the greater threat they pose to the Sahel’s security and stability will require effective regional cooperation and collaboration with international organizations.