Inter-Ethnic Violence In Nigeria Pushing Thousands Into Niger

A rise in violence in North-Western Nigeria has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people across the border into Niger. The cause is believed to be an unprecedented rise in inter-ethnic violence, unrelated to the Boko Haram insurgency currently endemic to the region.

At a press briefing in Geneva on 28th May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) addressed the sudden rise in violence since April. Spokesperson Babar Baloch stressed that this violence was not linked to the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the West African region – which itself has already displaced over 2.4 million people in the Lake Chad area since 2009. “People are fleeing due to multiple reasons, as far as we understand, including clashes between farmers and herders of different ethnic groups, vigilantism, as well as kidnappings for ransom in Nigeria’s Sokoto and Zamfara states.” The majority of the displaced are understood by the UNHCR to be women and children, who upon reaching Niger’s Maradi region have described witnessing extreme violence, including machete attacks, kidnappings and sexual violence. An estimated 20,000 people are so far believed to have been displaced, with over 18,000 having gone through the initial registration process set up by Niger authorities and the UNHCR. Aid agencies are uncertain as to the cause of the rise in inter-ethnic violence, with Baloch stating, “We know there is a general sense of insecurity in these areas and that is the reason that this is out of reach for humanitarians so far. So we will need to try to analyse and understand. […] The worry is this adds a new dimension into the ongoing conflict that is already affecting Nigeria.”

The attitude of the government in Niger towards the influx of refugees is laudable; they provide a leading example in ensuring the safety of refugees fleeing from persecution and military conflicts across the African continent. The country has kept its borders open to refugees despite ongoing conflicts in Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso. Not only is Niger providing aid and safe refuge, but it is ensuring the UNHCR is actively able to support host families in the supply of resources and basic services. Despite the limited presence of such facilities, the Niger people have been exceptionally amenable in their continued welcoming of the displaced into their homes. While the example of the Niger people and government is one to be praised and followed by every nation in the world, it is one which can only be sustained if the rest of the international community plays a role in supporting them. With the escalation of violence across the region, it is highly likely that the Niger government –even with its continued show of solidarity towards the displaced populations – will eventually be overwhelmed by their needs.

Niger already plays host to over 380,000 refugees and asylum seekers from a plethora of nations – including Mali and Nigeria – as well as members of its own internally displaced population and some 2,782 asylum seekers temporarily airlifted from the ongoing violence in Libya. 250,000 of these refugees currently live in the Diffa region alone, many of them having fled the violence of Boko Haram. This has, however, resulted in the escalation of Boko Haram-instigated violence in the region, towards those who have fled. Many of the newly arrived refugees are also living in close proximity to the Nigerian border, putting them in danger of armed incursions from Boko Haram. The UNHCR is currently making arrangements with the Niger government to relocate these refugees further inland, and thus distance them from harm.

It is vital that these Nigerian refugees are relocated to a more sustainable and secure environment, in order to prevent any Boko Haram attacks which could cause mass casualties among the predominantly female and child refugee populations. Despite the current inaccessibility of Nigeria’s north-western regions, aid organisations must be allowed to enter the area in order to understand and help put an end to the current rise in inter-ethnic violence. A possible solution could be the formation of a joint military task force between Nigeria and Niger, which could play a non-combative role in securing temporary peace in the region while aid organisations tackle the cause of the violence.

Henry Whitelaw