Mounting Death Tolls in Niger

Thirteen people were killed in western Niger after armed men on motorbikes raided three villages near the Malian border. An AFP source close to one of the village chiefs stated that the assailants “encircled the villages” and killed people who tried to flee. The attackers also stole animals, looted a health center, and set fire to a school. 

 It is not yet clear who carried out the attacks, but the raid comes as ethnic militias and militant groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda threaten the security of Niger and its neighboring countries. The governor of one Nigerien region recently told public television that there has been an “escalation of violence and insecurity” with militants increasingly imposing taxes on communities, stealing livestock, and committing violent acts against civilians. Just days before the raids near the Malian border 137 people, all Tuaregs, were killed in the Tahoua region by armed men on motorbikes. Before the attack in Tahoua, 100 Nigerien civilians were killed by suspected militants in Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye. These raids, among several others, have caused the deaths of more than 300 civilians since the start of this year.

Unfortunately, Niger is not the only country facing violent raids. The Sahel region, which includes Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan, and Eritrea, has seen a steady widespread rise in violence from armed militias and militant groups. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the Sahel region is now the epicenter of the fastest-growing displacement crisis globally, driven by years of violent attacks by armed insurgent groups and criminal gangs. 

Removing these insurgents through military campaigns has proven difficult, if not impossible. France sent military forces to Mali in August 2014 to do so and expected the campaign to last a few weeks. Since then, the war has become a regional counter-terrorism effort by France and five African nations nearing its 7th year in effect. The effort is called Operation Barkhane, and currently, over 5,000 French soldiers are involved. The soldiers operate across the entire southern Sahara region and work alongside various allies in Africa and beyond. Since the start of the war, the New York Times reports that more than 10,000 West Africans have died, over a million have fled their homes, and military forces from West Africa and France have suffered many losses. Despite these tragedies, the battle is hardly coming to an end. In fact, a recent article from the New York Times reports that in the past four months, militants raided four major military outposts in Mali and Niger and killed 300 soldiers. Militants also recently kidnapped the head of Mali’s main oppositional party. 

So, why are militants so powerful in the Sahel region? The answer is complex, but according to the Atlantic, the armed groups have enjoyed success largely because they have exploited the deep anger civilians have against their government. Many communities in the Sahel region feel that their government is hostile, self-interested, and corrupt. The militaries of these countries only fuel discontent by committing human rights abuses against the population. Military operations are unsuccessful because they do not mitigate these frustrations aimed at the government, in fact, they may exacerbate civilian anger towards state authorities and thus worsen the problem of militant activity. Military operations often seek to reinstate or restore state governments, but citizens do not see the restoration of corrupt, or predatory authorities as desirable, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Furthermore, the restoration of government alone is not sufficient for uprooting militant groups. Instead, counter-militant efforts must promote significant social reform that supports democratization and strengthens public trust with local and federal government service providers. This can be done through local governments being transparent and enforcing strict consequences for the misconduct of public officials and military personnel. Furthermore, all of Sahelian society must be included in peace and governance decision and enforcement processes. This includes involving citizens in restoring governments and ensuring that civilians will continue to be involved even after governments are installed. Finally, there must be robust dialogue with citizens in every locality to address the underlying reasons for unrest. This includes dialogue with jihadist-aligned communities. These discussions with diverse Sahelian groups will form a more comprehensive road map for ending violence.

In short, violent activity in the Sahel region, and the increasing spread of that violence into Niger, must be ended. To do so, efforts must prioritize mending civilian-government relationships- not fueling frustrations with campaigns that overlook the ever-deepening civilian mistrust of the government.