[The post below comes from Jochen Stahnke, a staff writer at the German national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He traveled to Diffa, Niger in May of this year to report on the fight against Boko Haram. He has graciously agreed to share some of his reflections here. – Alex]
The first corpse comes into view lying in the dust two hundred metres behind the closed border between Niger and Nigeria. It is the body of a Boko Haram fighter, probably middle aged, dressed in Islamic male robes. A couple of metres further into northeast Nigeria, the next corpse lies decomposing in the sand. I walk with Lieutenant Issoufou Umara, who is in command of Niger’s 50 gendarmerie troops positioned just behind the bridge that crosses the border river Koumadougou. The soldiers close to Diffa city are tasked with curbing Boko Haram’s influx into the neighbouring states that has already been going on for long time. The army of Nigeria has fled some 30 kilometres into the province of Borno, Umara tells me. His last battle against the Islamist sect here took place at the end of February. “In the night they hung their flag in the tree over there,” Umara explains. The battle raged for more than an hour. Umara’s soldiers claim to have killed 100 fighters. But they do not bury their enemies. “These people are not human beings,“ declares Umara.
The impact of the war is visible at every corner in Diffa city. As the immediate border is closed, there are fewer goods to trade in the marketplaces. This region of Niger, probably the poorest of an already poor country, has been the worst afflicted. Diffa used to import almost everything from the big neighbour to the south. But instead of traders, soldiers now roam the streets in their pickups, machine-guns or anti-aircraft cannons welded onto their flatbeds. The soldiers belong to the armies of two countries: Niger and Chad.
Chad has deployed two Mil-24 helicopter gunships, now stationed on the airstrip at Diffa airport. French special forces patrol the airport area. But neither they nor the roughly 50 Canadian and US special forces fight Boko Haram directly. Mostly they share reconnaissance and intelligence data, predominantly gained from three drones that are operated in the region. The French and North Americans occupy two separate camps right in the middle of the garrison of Niger’s army. Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, the zone commander for Diffa province, would prefer to receive more than reconnaissance support, military advice and “non-lethal“ support. Niger and Chad run a joint operations center in Diffa. But cooperation with Nigeria was difficult – at least when I visited Diffa in May, just before Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as new president of Nigeria. At that time, Nigeria only gave Niger permission to have a single liaison officer in Maiduguri. Joint operations did not take place, even though Boko Haram has no regard for national borders.
In Diffa, the sect recruits young men mainly among the poor Kanuri population. Most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuri, the major ethnicity in this region. Indeed, says regional commander Salaou, Boko Haram is “a Kanuri thing as well.“ But not exclusively. “Over there in northern Nigeria there were a lot of bandits and gangs that fought for politicians – in return for money they intimidated political opponents.“ Upon assuming power, these politicians forgot their fighters. “And now they demand their share,“ says commander Salaou.
A couple of kilometres outside of Diffa city at the Koumadougou river lies Bagara, a small Kanuri village, where 30 or more young men have joined Boko Haram. A couple of others are detained at Diffa prison. Many of them have waited months there without trial. People in Bagara say Boko Haram pays new recruits 300.000 Francs-CFA, plus a motorbike and the promise of a bride. Often, Boko Haram issues threats via mobile phone and coerces locals in Bagara into buying food and fuel for them in Diffa city. At this time of year, the Koumadougou river is only a couple of metres wide and easy to cross. The rainy season has not yet started.
The army of Niger operates two checkpoints at the entrance to and the exit from the town of Bagara. People here are as afraid of the army as they are of the sect. There is a mandatory curfew after 6:00 pm. Recently, authorities have also banned the wearing of full-face veils. Local religious authorities are caught in between. An Imam in Bagara tells me that the boys who joined Boko Haram, while they were not his students, had not previously studied extremist ideology or attended anything like a salafi madrassa. Since the army has been operating the area, the Imam has not left his village. “I am afraid of the soldiers,“ he says.
Niger hardly spares its own population from harsh treatment. Ever since the Nigerian army has finally started entering Sambisa Forest to battle Boko Haram, a big share of Boko Haram fighters has withdrawn towards Lake Chad – a largely ungoverned area with hundreds of small islands where the sect has already suppressed the local population and controls a large portion of the fishery trade. In order to fight Boko Haram at Lake Chad, Niger has ordered all residents to leave – anybody still encountered at Lake Chad is going to be considered Boko Haram. (Chad is said to have issued the same order just this weekend). But Niamey did not prepare for what evidently had to follow: A mass flight of tenth of thousands, largely towards Diffa. Diffa city has been flooded with IDPs. To determine who is Nigerien or Nigerian is largely an academic question. Almost no one here has ID or passport. At first Niger did not allow UNHCR to set up refugee camps due to the fear that IDP settlements might become permanent and that Boko Haram could use them as hiding and recruiting grounds. But even after UNHCR was finally permitted to set up camps in Diffa, they largely remain empty. Most of the refugees and IDPs find refuge with relatives or leave Niger for Maiduguri and other Nigerian cities.
In Niamey, Niger’s Interior Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, who is considered a hardliner and close ally of president Mahammadou Issoufou, explains to me: “Soon“ there will be aerial attacks at Lake Chad. Therefore, in his view, “evacuating“ the population was inevitable. But to win the war, he says, it is absolutely necessary that Nigeria “pushes“ from south to north to prevent Boko Haram from retreating in the other direction. But can Boko Haram be fought with only military force? Massoudou explains: “Boko Haram are not rebels. They are criminals. When they raid a village, they kill almost everybody, enslave the young girls, and steal what is of value. You cannot see any logic to this mob. If they want to occupy territory, they will need to set up some kind of administration, to convince the population. But they do not do any of that.“ According to Massoudou, at least a thousand members of Boko Haram are imprisoned in Niger alone. “Many of them are also citizens of Niger.“ Boko Haram’s influence has long been spilling over from Nigeria into its neighboring countries, and this trend is not likely to end anytime soon. In fact, the most terrible part of the war, at least in the Lake Chad region, may be just about to begin. But will air raids be able to change what is also a problem of society?