Niger and Boko Haram: Violence, Refugee Repatriation, and Regional Politics

WFP food distribution in Bosso, funded by ECHO

WFP Food Distribution in Bosso, Niger


On April 25, Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect seized the island of Karamga, Lake Chad, leading to a protracted battle with soldiers from Niger. This attack was Boko Haram’s second assault on Karamga, following violence there in February. The aftermath of the recent attack highlights not only Niger’s continued fight against Boko Haram within its territory, but also how the violence is affecting the complicated politics surrounding the displaced.

As part of the response to the violence on Karamga, Governor Yacoubou Soumana Gaoh of Niger’s Diffa Region ordered an evacuation of civilians from the island. As many as 25,000 people may be displaced within Niger as a result of the evacuation. In addition to the scale of the displacement, there is an international dimension. Last week, Niger’s government began to deport some 6,000 Nigerian refugees and migrant workers back to Nigeria, with more likely to follow. At least 4,000 of these were removed from Karamga. Many of the returnees are fishermen and their families who were displaced by Boko Haram’s violence around Lake Chad.

Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have expressed concern over Niger’s approach. Some refugees have died during the return journey. So far the Nigerian-Nigerien cooperation on the repatriations seems to have been amicable: The Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) welcomed the returnees in Yobe State and sent some on to Sokoto, Kebbi, and elsewhere. 1,200 refugees were returned to Borno over the weekend, with another installment of 1,200 coming soon; Borno authorities were reportedly ready to receive them. Nevertheless, there are underlying tensions and conflicting incentives for Nigeria and Niger: Niger is desperately poor and can ill afford to host refugees, especially amid a fight with Boko Haram; Nigeria is re-establishing territorial control in a halting fashion; and Nigeria and its neighbors have had tensions over who bears what responsibilities in the fight against Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, the deportations add to a trend of repeated displacement for victims of Boko Haram, partly driven by the violence inside Niger itself. In February, after violence in Diffa, many of the displaced there fled north, or headed west to Zinder and other regions in Niger. Diffa itself became a “ghost town” at points. For those civilians who have been displaced multiple times, rebuilding could be even harder, especially given food insecurity in Niger.

Finally, one important detail: Reuters reported on Friday that Boko Haram had attacked a village in the Dosso Region of southwestern Niger. If true, that would mark one of Boko Haram’s furthest attacks west – even in Nigeria, the center of gravity for violence has been the northeast, and attacks anywhere west of Abuja have been somewhat rare. If Boko Haram is now raiding in southwestern Nigeria, that might – as with the attack on Karamga – reflect that the group is becoming scattered and desperate. At the same time, though, it might mark a stage of further unpredictability in the conflict.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.


Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 map.

Thoughts on Chad in Nigeria

Bloomberg published an article yesterday on dynamics surrounding Chad’s involvement in fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. I am quoted in the article, and I thought I’d expand on my comments here.

First, some context: in 2014 and into this year, Boko Haram has sought to hold territory in the northeastern part of Nigeria, even as the sect continues to perpetrate urban terrorism and extreme violence against rural populations. Nigeria’s neighbors to the north and east – Niger, Cameroon, and Chad – are directly affected by the violence. Boko Haram has disrupted trade and sent thousands of refugees fleeing across borders. Increasingly, Boko Haram has affected the security of its neighbors, with attacks in northern Cameroon and more recently in southeastern Niger.

Nigeria’s neighbors have become more and more frustrated with Nigeria. Boko Haram’s current campaign of violence began in 2010, and as the violence has dragged on, nearby African countries have pressured Nigeria to cooperate with them, including at major multilateral meetings last year in Paris and London.

Cameroonian soldiers began to clash regularly with Boko Haram last year, but it is only this year that Chad (and now Niger, as part of an African Union-backed regional force that will also include Nigeria’s western neighbor Benin) has become heavily involved in the fighting. In the past few weeks, Chad has reportedly pushed Boko Haram out of several towns and villages on the border and inside Nigeria.

Chad’s role in the fight against Boko Haram deserves special attention for a few reasons, including the Chadian military’s reputation for toughness and the Chadian government’s multifaceted incentives for participating in the fight. Another reason is the juxtaposition of Nigeria’s wealth and Chad’s poverty. As Bloomberg points out, Chad is one of the poorest countries on the planet (while Niger is, by the same measure, the poorest). Hence Bloomberg’s headline, “African Giant Relies on Poorer Chad to Fight Boko Haram.”

In terms of toughness, Chadian soldiers most recently distinguished themselves in northern Mali in 2013 as participants in the French-led intervention against a coalition of jihadists. Although Chad ultimately partially withdrew its troops, during the initial fighting they joined in some of the toughest combat. Chad’s strong performance in Mali partly reflected Chadian soldiers’ experience fighting in desert conditions, but Chad has also projected military power into non-desert areas like the Central African Republic (where they were, however, accused of taking sides in the civil conflict). Despite some complications, Chad has become a valued partner for the United States and particularly France, with the latter basing its Sahel-wide security mission Operation Barkhane in Chad – for both logistical and political reasons.

Chad’s incentives for fighting in Nigeria are simple. First, Chad has genuine security concerns. An escalation in Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding areas spells trouble for Chad.

Second, there is a political dimension. Chad can hope to continue to distinguish itself as a partner for the West by asserting a role as a guarantor of regional security. Chadian President Idriss Deby, who took power in 1990, needs France’s support – when he faced severe rebellions in 2006 and 2008, France’s help was reportedly critical to his ability to weather those storms. Deby may have partly re-consolidated his grip on power since 2008, but he remains vulnerable. Protests last year in Chad did not rock the regime, but the fall of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore last year can only make Deby nervous – and armed rebellion still looms as a possibility.

Chad’s involvement in the fight against Boko Haram, it should also be added, parallels France’s increasing engagement with Nigeria – France’s President Francois Hollande, on a visit in February 2014, told Nigerians that “your fight against Boko Haram is also ours.” So Chad’s involvement in Nigeria helps to support French policy as well – and the French are supporting Nigeria’s neighbors logistically.

Where is all this headed? So far, Nigerian authorities have presented Chad’s presence on their soil as part of a larger, well-coordinated plan. But Nigeria, like many other countries, is keen to protect and assert its sovereignty. Nigeria and its neighbors – for example Cameroon – have disagreed in the recent past about just how it should work when one country pursues Boko Haram fighters into another’s territory. We will see how the African Union-backed regional force shapes up; the idea of a multinational force is not new, but the level of urgency the players feel is. In the short term much of the spotlight might be on Chad.

Niger: Droughts, Floods, and Locusts

This year, as last year, a cruel cycle has taken shape in the Western Sahel: drought, floods, and locusts. This cycle affects Niger strongly, with rainy seasons bringing floods and pests after months of hunger. For overviews of the Sahelian food crisis, see here and here. In this post I look quickly at the problems of flooding and locusts.

As IRIN writes, “In 2012 Niger experienced the worst floods on record since 1929, with almost half a million people displaced and at least 68 deaths, affecting 70,000 households in total.” This year’s rainy season brought renewed flooding:

Severe flooding since the start of August in drought-prone Niger has killed at least 20 people and left around 48,000 homeless, the United Nations and local media reports said Wednesday.

The central Maradi region [map showing location of Maradi city] is the hardest-hit, with nine deaths and 19,425 people displaced.

Last year, heavy and premature rains contribute to a locust infestation in Mali and Niger.

Swarms of locusts encouraged by early rains are breeding in the north of Mali and Niger, bringing a second generation of insects that could increase 250 fold by the end of this summer and put the livelihoods of up to 50 million people in the region at risk.
The new generation is expected to spread from rebel-held northern regions of the two West African states, where pest control is difficult, to neighbouring countries.
The locusts migrated to Mali and Niger in June from Algeria and Libya, and rains that began in the region in May, almost two months earlier than usual, are helping spawn a fresh lot of desert locusts whose numbers are expected to significantly increase by October.

The United Nations now predicts that this year, too, will see a locust invasion. For a primer on locusts, see here.

As these problems recur on an annual basis, they became chronic if not permanent. And the untreated human toll from one year – the displaced, the hungry, the sick – exacerbates the toll from the next.

In Niger, a Divided Unity Government

On August 13, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou authorized a cabinet reshuffle in order to create a government of national unity. The new cabinet comprised thirty-seven ministers, up from twenty-six, and dismissed ten members while bringing on eighteen. Jeune Afrique (French) profiled Issoufou’s first cabinet here.

The unity cabinet includes members of opposition parties, but Issoufou retained key officials such as Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed, and Defense Minister Karidjo Mahamadou. One source reports, “Among the prominent opposition leaders who joined the government are Albadé Abouba, who becomes senior minister assigned to the President’s office, Wassalké Boukary as minister of Water and the vociferous Alma Oumarou, now minister of Trade.” An official list of the new cabinet members can be found here (French). The government’s formation, in Issoufou’s words, responds to heightened regional and domestic insecurity, especially the crisis in neighboring Mali and the bombings of May 23 in northern Niger.

Division appeared swiftly. On August 17, seven ministers from the Nigerien Democratic Movement (French: Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien, or MODEN), a party allied with the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French: Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme, PNDS) suspended their participation in the government, complaining that their party had received sub-optimal posts. Six posts (French) remain in the hands of new cabinet members from the opposition. On August 23, MODEN announced its withdrawal from the entire governing coalition, called the Movement for the Renaissance of Niger (MRN). In the wake of these disruptions, Issoufou on August 26 (French) gave some ministers additional portfolios and made several new appointments. What long-term effect MODEN’s withdrawal will have on Issoufou’s government I cannot predict, but in the short term the partial collapse of the unity government is a defeat for the president.