Seven poll workers were killed during Niger’s presidential vote when their vehicle struck a landmine in the western region of Tillaberi, an election official said. The Tillaberi region is comprised of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali land. The tragedy occurred as Niger held a presidential election runoff between frontrunner Mohamed Bazoum and former President Mahamane Ousmane. This is Niger’s first democratic transfer of power since 1960 when Niger first gained independence from France.
Harouna Mounkaila, vice president of a local election commission’s branch, said the mine was in a rural commune of Tillaberi. Mounkaila told Reuters news agency that the workers were “leaving to drop off the ballot boxes and the members of the polling station.” Mounkaila added that three other workers were seriously wounded in the explosion.
This disaster adds to an already mounting death toll in Tillaberi due to militant activity. In January of 2021, an attack on two villages near the commune killed at least 100 civilians. The armed groups responsible for recent attacks are linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS). They are increasing their dominance through frequent violence, rendering the government powerless in some regions of Tillaberi. In addition to al-Qaeda and ISIL-related groups in Niger’s south-western border, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is active in Niger’s south-eastern border.
Why are there so many militant Islamist groups at Niger’s borders? Poverty is, to a large degree, the cause for their growth. Niger is one of the world’s poorest nations, and recent drought, floods, and coronavirus outbreaks have worsened the country’s condition. The World Bank recorded that 41.4% of the population lived in extreme poverty in 2019. Due to Niger’s poverty, the government fails to provide services and governance to communities, and services at the border of Niger are especially insufficient. According to the International Crisis Group, militant groups exploit this weakness for economic, personnel, and political gains.
ISWAP, for example, has recruited personnel and developed economic and political support by providing governance for communities on Niger’s south-eastern border. ISWAP members dig wells, watch over cattle rustling, and provide extremely limited health care, which is still more than the government provides. In the communities it controls, civilians generally accept ISWAP’s taxation and credit the militants for creating an environment where citizens can trade. This relationship with locals has allowed ISWAP, as well as other militant groups, to strengthen military forces. This growing power coincides with an increase in insurgent activity throughout Niger over the past few years. Records from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project show a total of 167 conflict-related events in 2018, which resulted in 506 fatalities. The numbers grew in 2020 to 476 conflict-related events resulting in 1046 fatalities.
To bring an end to the increasing violence and death, Niger’s government must ameliorate the root cause of the increased insurgency. State authorities must prioritize economic revival and public services to bring relief to impoverished populations.
Niger’s government must also remain open to negotiations with militant groups. The discussions must focus on diminishing the citizen reliance on militants for basic needs. One such goal of discussions, for example, could be increasing humanitarian aid to communities in need. This will weaken militant groups’ ties to locals and prove that the government can in fact provide services and governance. These actions will improve Niger’s ability to non-violently conduct counter-terrorism efforts.
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