More Violence In The Sahel Region As Gunmen Kill 20 In Western Niger

At least 20 innocent civilians have been killed in a series of attacks across at least three different villages in Western Niger on Sunday evening. The raids were carried out by unidentified gunmen in the Tillaberi region of the country. The local governor, Tidjani Ibrahim Katiella, informed the national radio station that the violence was carried out by assailants on motorcycles. He described the unknown group as “armed bandits”. He went on to reveal they “pillaged shops” and looted cereal and cattle before withdrawing North towards Mali. A local source has suggested the ambushed villages were Gadabo, Zibane Koira-Zeno, and Zibane-Tegui. All of these villages are administered by a commune called Anzourou which lies 50 kilometres away from Tillaberi City and a further 100 kilometres away from the Malian border.

The attackers have been labelled “jihadists” by the New York Times, in what is another tragic development for a region already gripped by a deep seam of growing extremist violence. Attacks have become increasingly frequent across Western Africa’s Sahel region, taking place near the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, an area known to be populated by jihadists with links to the Islamic State and Al-Qaida. Indeed, some areas of the region are reported as ungovernable.

Local Anzourou authorities have already taken steps to try and stem the flow of violence and crime. In January, they launched a 24/7 restriction on motorcycle traffic (rather than just at night-time) in an attempt to halt some of the violence, with many militants using motorcycles to launch coordinated attacks. They have also shut down many food markets and stalls which were alleged to be supplying resources like food and fuel to the terrorists, according to one local governor. More broadly, the national government has recently extended a state of emergency in the region which was first introduced in 2017.

However, thus far military attempts to quell the extremist threat have just furthered the bloodshed. According to official statistics, 174 soldiers have been killed in three attacks in the zone since last December at Chinegodar. The Islamic state claimed responsibility for each attack. On an international level, France have led a joint military effort with Malian and Niger soldiers within the region, mobilising 5,000 troops as a part of “Operation Barkhane”. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, though, this force has been postponed.

A radical overhaul of approach is required to halt this tide of violence. And this must occur on a regional, national, and international level. Rather than punishing innocent civilians by the closure of public spaces, the local authorities must instead build trust within these communities. They must invest more socio-economic support into the areas which have been left behind and in doing so make themselves more visible to the civilians who feel most vulnerable. At present, the strategy of the local authorities’ risks playing directly into the hands of a jihadist propaganda machine.

Of course, this can only be achieved through support from central government. It is therefore imperative that Niger’s senior politicians acknowledge and react to this violence with real policy measures, and coordinate across local governments. But, perhaps most crucially, further cooperation is required between the governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The UN secretary-general has already warned that extremist groups could look to exploit the unique situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore essential that the three countries monitor their borders collaboratively to try and halt the free movement of extremists. Raising our sights a little further, developed countries such as France would do well to invest in the local communities affected by terrorism in this region, rather than the so-called quick fix of overseas military intervention.