Guest Post: An Account from Diffa, Niger about the War with Boko Haram

[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?

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken in Nigeria and Niger

Washington’s map of the world still gives Africa much less importance than it is due, but U.S. policymakers do pay substantial attention to Nigeria. The Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is in Nigeria and neighboring Niger this week. Blinken is there as part of a series of U.S. diplomatic engagements with the new Nigerian administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In particular, Blinken is there to help prepare the ground for Buhari’s visit to the White House on July 20. You can read a brief statement about Blinken’s agenda here, and a biography of him here.

If I learned anything in the year I spent on a fellowship at the State Department, it’s that from the perspective of the U.S. government, trips abroad by senior State Department officials are a big deal. I doubt that more than one in two hundred Americans could name the Deputy Secretary of State at any given time, but inside the U.S. government, that person is a demigod. Whether the Nigerians and the Nigeriens perceive the Deputy’s visit as a big deal is, of course, up to them – but Washington is attempting to send a signal that it cares about Nigeria a lot.

The shadow of Boko Haram will hang over the trip. The sect’s violence has been horrific in recent months, including a wave of shootings and bombings in just the past week. Southeastern Niger has been suffering as well, as has Chad, though the latter is not on Blinken’s itinerary. The violence has confirmed grim predictions that neither the election of Buhari, nor the destruction of Boko Haram’s would-be Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, would be sufficient to end the group’s violence.

Blinken is hosting a Facebook chat today at 10:45 am EST to take questions and comments on his Nigeria/Niger trip. Many people have already posted.

If I were advising Blinken, and if his trip is partly about scaling up U.S. assistance in one or more spheres, I would urge him to prioritize humanitarian relief over military aid. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering in the Lake Chad region, and I believe that it would be more appropriate – and more productive – for the United States to help feed and resettle people than to offer military training and equipment. If all it took to defeat Boko Haram was a few more helicopters, a few more guns, and a few more months of training, Boko Haram would already be defeated. The Nigerian government and its military clearly face a long-term, multi-faceted struggle against Boko Haram; it will take time and sophistication on their part to unravel the Gordian knot, and no outsider can slice through this problem in one stroke. In the meantime, the U.S. government should help Nigeria’s neediest citizens. How better to show that Boko Haram is wrong about the West?

Insights on Niger’s Economy

Niger is by some measures the poorest country in the world, yet its economy is growing rapidly. Several recent analyses are worth a read. All of them highlight both possibilities and constraints for the economy over the coming years:

  • IMF, May 18: “Despite a deterioration of the security context in the region, real gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 rebounded to 6.9 percent, from 4.6 percent in 2013. Growth was driven by agriculture and services. Average inflation receded to negative 0.9 percent in 2014 thanks in particular to an improved food supply in part due partly to the government’s food aid program, which helped to attenuate the increase of prices of food products. Weak revenue collections, unanticipated security expenditure and a shortfall in external budget assistance adversely impacted fiscal outcomes and, as a result, most of the program’s fiscal targets for end-2014 were missed. However, the economic outlook for 2015 and the medium-term remain favorable. Although real GDP growth is expected to recede to 4.3 percent in 2015, average growth is projected to average 7 percent during 2016-2018, mainly as a result of the expansion of the extractive industries sector and an increase in public investments.”
  • Facinet Sylla and Mansour Ndiaye, May 28: “Niger is very much a landlocked country, with two-thirds of its land mass desert. The population is concentrated in a narrow strip in the south, where its main activities are farming and herding. The population is doubling every 18 years, with a high birth rate entrenched in the culture. This is a real challenge for food security, education, healthcare, family planning, employment and social protection. The government has therefore made spatial inclusion one of its aims in its national development policy, the main tool of which is the creation of local development bodies. However, the policy’s impact is limited by challenges related to demographics and the transfer of resources, as well as by a relatively weak institutional capacity and regional bodies that are illequipped to bring about sustainable local growth.” The authors’ full paper is available in French here; it features additional discussion of different sectors (agriculture, extractive industries, and commerce), macroeconomic and fiscal policy, and other matters.
  • Adamou Louché Ibrahim (French), June 2, discusses three risks: climatic, physical insecurity, and energy insecurity. He argues that the high cost of energy constrains growth: “Even though Niger has been a net exporter of petroleum products since 2011, their high price (unleaded: 540 FCFA/liter; diesel: 538 FCFA/liter, more than half the daily salary of a salaried worker paid the minimum guaranteed salary of 30,047 FCFA monthly) makes them quasi-inaccessible for the majority of Nigeriens. So, contrary to what certain politicians in the country affirm, a drop in the price of energy would have a very significant positive impact on growth…boost[ing] internal demand, and our economy would enter a virtuous cycle. Thus the government would have everything to gain by renegotiating the contract that binds it to the China National Petroleum Corporation.”

 

Nigeria: President Buhari’s Trip to Niger and Chad

On June 3 (yesterday), Nigeria’s President Buhari started his first trip abroad since taking office, visiting Niger (June 3), Chad (June 4), and then heading to the G7 Summit in Krün, Germany. As Jeune Afrique (French) points out, the trip signifies the importance Buhari attaches to the fight against Boko Haram, and particularly to his relations with Niger and Chad, both of which have been deeply and increasingly involved in the Boko Haram effort.

The trip, in my view, is meant to signal appreciation for these countries’ efforts and convey a continued willingness to work with them, but also to re-assert Nigeria’s leadership.

Here are some key moments from Niger and Chad:

Niger

  • Speech in Niger. Key quotes:
    • “I would like to convey the appreciation of Nigeria for the sacrifices by Niger in the on-going efforts to counter the menace of the Boko Haram insurgency.”
    • “I wish to reassure that with the new impetus [in the fight against Boko Haram] and resolve to seek for closer collaboration with our neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroun, Boko Haram insurgency will soon be defeated, insha Allah.”
    • “Another issue of concern to us which is closely associated with the insurgency in the region is the influx of refugees and other displaced persons. We are aware that currently, there are over one hundred and fifty thousand (150,000) displaced persons comprising refugees and returnees taking refuge in various parts of Niger…Our administration will work closely with governments of the affected States to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced persons and their host communities. The ultimate objective however, remains to end the insurgency and facilitate their return to their homes.”
  • News:
    • Reuters: “Nigeria’s army will take a bigger role in the effort to crush Boko Haram, by taking over from soldiers from Niger in occupying towns liberated from the Islamist militant group, President Muhammadu Buhari said on Wednesday.”
    • Premium Times: “President Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday he will review a report by the human rights group, Amnesty International, alleging widespread torture and extrajudicial killings by Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram.” Official readout of Buhari’s comments here, Amnesty report here.
  • Photographs of Buhari with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou.

Chad

  • Speech and final communique (unverified). Key quote:
    • “Your Excellency, permit me to note that our security is intricately linked. This compels us to cooperate fully on security issues in a robust and sustained manner. To this end, we must redouble our efforts to operationalize the Multi-National Joint Task Force with its Headquarters in Ndjamena. I believe the Task Force will stabilize the areas that have been ravaged by the Boko Haram insurgency when it becomes fully operational. I am very confident that, Insha Allah, this insurgency will be brought to an end soon.”
  • News:
    • AFP: “Buhari on Thursday praised Chad for joining the fight against Boko Haram, saying further cooperation was essential in the future…Deby for his part ‘reaffirmed Chad’s involvement and availability’ to work with Nigeria, according to a statement from his office.”
    • Premium Times: “President Idris Deby of Chad has praised President Muhammadu Buhari for his ‘wise decision’’ to relocate the Nigerian Military Command center from Abuja to Maiduguri, to speed up the defeat of the insurgent group, Boko Haram.”
    • Channels: “While in the Chadian capital, President Buhari also held a closed-door meeting with Major-General Tukur Buratai of Nigeria, who was recently appointed Force Commander of the MNJTF, with headquarters in N’Djamena.”
  • Photographs of Buhari with Chadian President Idriss Deby.

What are your impressions of the trip?

Key Passages from President Buhari’s Inauguration Speech

Today, Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as Nigeria’s new president. He enters office facing high expectations regarding security, anti-corruption, and job creation. Here are a few key passages from the speech he delivered at his inauguration:

  1. “Our neighbours in the Sub-region and our African brethren should rest assured that Nigeria under our administration will be ready to play any leadership role that Africa expects of it. Here I would like to thank the governments and people of Cameroon, Chad and Niger for committing their armed forces to fight Boko Haram in Nigeria.” This acknowledgment of outsiders’ help is important: Chad in particular has complained that in the Jonathan administration’s late-game offensive against Boko Haram, Chadian and Nigerien soldiers received little cooperation from their Nigerian counterparts. It is also important that Buhari spoke Boko Haram’s name without fuss or euphemism; that signals that he is not afraid of the group.
  2. “Our founding fathers, Mr Herbert Macauley, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Malam Aminu Kano, Chief J.S. Tarka, Mr Eyo Ita, Chief Denis Osadeby, Chief Ladoke Akintola and their colleagues worked to establish certain standards of governance. They might have differed in their methods or tactics or details, but they were united in establishing a viable and progressive country. Some of their successors behaved like spoilt children breaking everything and bringing disorder to the house.” Here Buhari invokes the independence generation as his model of political leadership. It is important to note the ethnic and political diversity represented by this list. Take two examples: J.S. Tarka was a prominent Middle Belt politician, while Aminu Kano was a major northern leftist who spent much of his life in opposition to more conservative figures like Bello. Invoking this diversity is clearly a conscious choice on Buhari’s part, intended to honor different legacies in Nigeria’s post-independence history and to project an ideal of inclusivity, especially after an election in which the South East and South South zones voted heavily for his opponent.
  3. “My appeal for unity is predicated on the seriousness of the legacy we are getting into. With depleted foreign reserves, falling oil prices, leakages and debts the Nigerian economy is in deep trouble and will require careful management to bring it round and to tackle the immediate challenges confronting us, namely; Boko Haram, the Niger Delta situation, the power shortages and unemployment especially among young people. For the longer term we have to improve the standards of our education. We have to look at the whole field of medicare. We have to upgrade our dilapidated physical infrastructure.” Here he is urging the audience to be patient – this goes back to the point I made above about the high expectations. If we take a long-term perspective, the allusion to youth unemployment is the most important part of this whole passage – if Buhari cannot help create jobs for youth, he could face even more difficulties in the future.
  4. “The most immediate is Boko Haram’s insurgency.” Here he gives a sense of short-term prioritization. His remarks about preventing a re-emergence of a similar group and his references to improving human rights standards are critical – it will be important to see how he follows through on these promises.
  5. “The amnesty programme in the Niger Delta is due to end in December, but the Government intends to invest heavily in the projects, and programmes currently in place. I call on the leadership and people in these areas to cooperate with the State and Federal Government in the rehabilitation programmes which will be streamlined and made more effective.” Short-term priority number two is the Delta, it seems. He leaves some ambiguity about whether the amnesty for former militants will be renewed – the first sentence suggests it could end, but the second implies that some programs will keep going after 2015.
  6. “Unemployment, notably youth un-employment features strongly in our Party’s Manifesto. We intend to attack the problem frontally through revival of agriculture, solid minerals mining as well as credits to small and medium size businesses to kick – start these enterprises. We shall quickly examine the best way to revive major industries and accelerate the revival and development of our railways, roads and general infrastructure.” Note how he again emphasizes the issue of youth unemployment. It will be very important to see who comprises his economic team, and how they translate these principles (and other ideas his party advocated throughout the campaign) into policies.

What are your impressions of the speech?

Roundup on Niger’s Arrest of Moussa Tchangari (Updated)

On Wednesday, Niger’s Interior Ministry confirmed that authorities had arrested (on Monday)

On Monday, Nigerien authorities arrested a journalist and civil society activist named Moussa Tchangari on charges of collaborating with Boko Haram. (EDIT: Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said that Tchangari “has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram.” According to Oxfam’s Associate Country Director for Niger, Fenke Elskamp, “Tchangari[‘s] file [is] still empty, his lawyers confirm.”)

The arrest comes amid an uptick in Niger’s conflict with the Nigerian sect this year, which has seen Nigerien soldiers deploying inside Nigeria as well as a spate of attacks by Boko Haram inside Niger, particularly the southeastern Diffa Region.

Niger’s action also occurs in the context of other struggles over the control of information during the fight against Boko Haram. For example, the Nigerian government has in the past blacked out mobile phone service in northeastern states, and journalists have complained that they lacked access. Moreover, the case of Tchangari is reminiscent of Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida, who left Nigeria for the United Arab Emirates in 2013. Salkida had interviewed Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf during the latter’s lifetime and had written for years on the sect. He began to experience harassment “after security agencies and Nigerian authorities began to mistake his in-depth reporting on the extremist group as evidence of his closeness to the sect.” I obviously do not know all the facts in either case, but I give the benefit of the doubt to both Salkida and Tchangari.

A few perspectives on Tchangari’s case are below.

AFP:

“This man has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram,” Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou told AFP.

[…]

Tchangari was arrested on Monday and charged with “criminal links to the terrorist group Boko Haram”, he said.

Tchangari’s organisation Alternative Espace Citoyen has been critical of the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Niger, where the army is fighting Boko Haram.

In early May, his group published a report that criticised the Niger authorities after the evacuation of some 25,000 Lake Chad residents over fears of new Islamist attacks, following a deadly assault in late April.

Amnesty:

Niger must immediately release a human rights defender arrested after he criticised the indictment of six village leaders for “failure to cooperate” with the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram, Amnesty International said today.

[…]

The fight against Boko Haram and national security requirements must not be an excuse for arrests, which lack a solid legal basis and do not respect human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charge should not be the weapons used to silence those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Here are a few more resources:

  • Tchangari’s Twitter account. His most recent tweets, dating May 8, are photographs of people displaced from Lake Chad islands by order of Nigerien authorities.
  • The website of Alternative Espaces Citoyens, an NGO where Tchangari is Secretary General.
  • A statement (French) from African and European human rights organizations, calling on Nigerien authorities to free Tchangari.
  • RFI (French) quotes some civil society members in Niger, including a member of Alternative Espaces Citoyens and Amnesty’s Nigerien researcher.
  • The RFI story above says that Nigerien authorities were offended by an interview Tchangari gave to RFI’s Hausa service. The Hausa service has covered the displacement from Lake Chad, but I haven’t been able to find the interview.

Belated Update 6/3: Tchangari was released (French) on May 27 after being held since May 18. Jeune Afrique (French) has some interesting commentary on the episode, including the judge’s comment that Tchangari’s publications had “demoralized the army,” and also the news that other civil society activists have been detained in recent months.

Niger: President Issoufou’s Trip to Saudi Arabia

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou and a delegation of cabinet ministers and other senior government officials traveled to Saudi Arabia from approximately May 10-12. The visit is not unusual, but in light of Senegal’s recent decision to send troops to support Saudi Arabia in its military venture in Yemen, there has been more attention to Saudi-Sahelian relations. So it is interesting to look at the content of Issoufou’s trip, which centered on themes of Saudi investment in Niger and Islamic solidarity between the two countries.

Upon his arrival in Riyadh (French), Issoufou met King Salman. This was Issoufou’s first visit since King Salman took the throne in January, so Issoufou gave both condolences on the death of King Abdullah and congratulations on King Salman’s coronation. In addition to meeting the Foreign Affairs and Education Ministers, Issoufou met (French) Finance Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Assaf as well as Hajj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar. With al-Assaf, Issoufou discussed the Saudi Fund for Development and its projects in Niger.

(Unfortunately the Fund’s website does not have a country page for Niger, but the Saudi embassy in Niger provides a few details here, writing that the Fund works in “health, education and the construction of dams, as the fund is now building seven health centers in seven regions in Niger and the [sic] of 150 primary schools project. You can also read about a dam project in Mali here [Arabic].)

Issoufou’s other meetings concentrated on spurring greater Saudi investment in Nigerien businesses and development.

After his stop in Riyadh, Issoufou visited (French) the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and made ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage) in Mecca. He then met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. (Niger was a founding member of the OIC and hosts the Organization’s Islamic university for Francophone Africa, located in Say near Niamey.) Issoufou also sat down with the vice president of the Islamic Development Bank, and the Bank and the Government of Niger signed a financing agreement for a road between Tébaram and Tahoua. See the Bank’s announcement here.

It’s a busy travel season for Issoufou – this week he is in Ghana for a summit of the Economic Community of West African States.