Conflict Alerts # 353, 25 March 2021
In the news
On 23 March, a three-day mourning began in Niger in memory of the 137 who were killed in a raid by unidentified gunmen. On the same day, the African Union chairman said the fight against terrorism in the Sahel has to be strengthened urgently.
On 22 March, the Nigerien government confirmed the incident, which took place across three villages in the southwestern part of Niger on 21 March. The government statement read, "In treating civilian populations systematically as targets now, these armed bandits have gone a step further into horror and brutality." Further, the statement said the government had launched an investigation "to find the perpetrators of these cowardly and criminal acts, and bring them before the courts."
On 21 March, the Constitutional Court confirmed the victory of Mohamed Bazoum as the new President of Niger after elections were conducted in February.
Issues at large
First, the continuing attacks in Niger. The latest attack comes less than a week after at least 58 people were killed in a similar raid by gunmen on 15 March in a neighbouring village. Prior to this incident, on 2 January, as many as 100 civilians were killed in two separate attacks in the same region. As of 23 March, BBC reported that close to 300 people were killed in "jihadist violence."
Second, the lack of clarity on the perpetrators. As of 24 March, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The BBC quotes a Sahel researcher who said the perpetrators in the latest attack are believed to belong to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Apart from the ISGS, groups like al Qaeda also operate in countries across the Sahel region, especially in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. However, some instances of violence have been linked to ethnic Fulani tribes and their conflict with other communities for access and control over resources.
Third, the victims. Apart from civilians, security forces have also been targeted by the perpetrators. In January 2020, 89 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack on a military base. Further, the tactics of violence are similar in neighbouring countries like Mali; a similar attack was targeted at a military base in Mali. Here, 33 soldiers were killed and 14 were injured during the attack for which the IS had claimed responsibility. Among the civilians, children too have been killed during the raids by gunmen.
Fourth, failure of government and regional security forces. The government, in cooperation with neighbouring countries, has deployed several forces to address the threat. Further, Bazoum ordered army reinforcement in the region following the attacks on 15 March. However, these operations have not yielded the necessary results.
First, the increased frequency and scale of attacks and failure of the government to address the issue have caused insecurities among the populations living in the border areas. It is questionable that armed forces are unaware of or unwilling to monitor the movement of hundreds of gunmen towards civilian areas.
Second, the onus of introducing measures to curb the violence now lies on Bazoum, who will be sworn in on 2 April. He was elected on his promises to address the insecurity in the region; whether he will be able to walk the talk remains to be seen in the coming few months.