On the Prison Attack in Niger

On June 1, violence occurred at a prison in Niamey, Niger. Initial, and partly conflicting, reports suggested that the violence came either from inmates or from external attackers, but the consensus now seems to be that inmates were responsible. Perhaps three or four inmates held on terrorism charges attacked guards at the prison, some reports say. AP has reported that 22 prisoners escaped during the incident.

While some news outlets initially blamed the Mali-centric Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) for the attack, suspicion now centers on the Nigeria-centric Boko Haram sect. Some accounts implicate both Boko Haram and the Islamist coalition that controlled parts of northern Mali in 2012-early 2013; one of the escapees, AP reported, was a member of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

If we assume that Boko Haram was involved, there are three basic points I would make:

  1. Reports of Boko Haram operating in Niger are not unprecedented. News outlets have in the past reported suspicions of Boko Haram activity in Niger, such as the arrest of suspected Boko Haram members in Diffa, Niger in early 2012. Some analysts have posited an increasing presence of Boko Haram in Niger.
  2. As always, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully. A moment like the present, when conflicting theories and reported information are swirling, reminds us that the story that gels later – “Boko Haram attacked a prison in Niger to free AQIM members” – can mask ambiguities and uncertainties about what really happened in a given incident. 
  3. Prison breaks have been an important part of Boko Haram’s approach inside Nigeria. The attacks serve to free imprisoned sect members, but also possibly as an opportunity to recruit other convicts. A prison break near Cameroon in March of this year underscored the possibility that Boko Haram might employ this tactic in Nigeria’s neighbors. As we strive to discern what really happened in Niamey, the past pattern of prison breaks in Nigeria casts its shadow over this incident – and highlights the cycles of violence that may take hold when Boko Haram perceives itself as a victim of state authorities, be they Nigerian or non-Nigerian.
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