Niger: A Devastating Report on Summary Executions of Civilians in Tillaberi, and a Hard Denial from the Ministry of Defense

On September 4, Niger’s National Human Rights Commission published its report on the disappearance of 102 civilians in Inates, a commune in the Ayorou Department in Tillabéri/Tillabéry Region; the disappearances in question occurred in incidents between March 27-29 and on April 2, 2020. Here is a map showing Ayorou town – this is western Niger, near the border with Mali. The Tillabéri Region, particularly the border areas, is a major site of operations for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – see International Crisis Group’s report on Tillabéri here. As such Tillabéri is also a major zone of counter-jihadist operations. And Niger, which has not had the same level of abuses against civilians as have its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, is now – tragically – catching up.

In a mission carried out over several periods between May and July, the Commission found six mass graves with a total of at least 71 bodies, and then worked to identify the bodies and match their names to the list of 102 missing persons. The Commission also generated its own, more numerous and specific, list of mission persons from the area.

The Commission argues strongly that the evidence points toward the Nigerien security forces as the authors of these killings. The Commission notes (p. 64) that all of the people they interviewed identified the military as the authors of mass interrogations in the region. And the Commission further reasons (p. 65) that it is “inconceivable and illogical” to think that jihadists dressed in military uniforms would have crisscrossed the region openly and freely, with “more than a dozen vehicles and tanks,” without drawing the attention of the state. The Commission further rules out the idea (p. 75) that these are bodies of civilians killed during airstrikes – rather, the Commission says, these people were victims of summary executions by the Defense and Security Forces (French acronym FDS). As the BBC notes, the Commission “said it was not possible to say whether top levels of the army were responsible” – an issue that hearkens back to the topic of this post.

In a September 11 statement, Niger’s Minister of Defense Issoufou Katambé rejected the Commission’s conclusions, particularly regarding FDS culpability:

RFI (French) has more on the Ministry of Defense’s reaction, including some provocative comments from the analyst Seidik Abba. He argues that political authorities feel they must give unquestioning support to the military because (a) they need they military to keep fighting in the border areas and (b) they can’t risk provoking a mutiny or even a coup. Abba’s comments definitely made me think – I haven’t rated the risk of a coup very high in Niger, but at the very least I share Abba’s sense that the civilian authorities are loath to avoid antagonizing or “demoralizing” the military hierarchy and the soldiers on the front lines.

Given that attitude, then, I don’t expect much accountability to come out of this process – even though the report is one of the more rigorous and thorough human rights investigations that I’ve seen from a Sahelian governmental body.

That cycle – of abuses, outcry, impunity, and backlash – is not just a byproduct of the Sahelian crisis but a constituent part of it. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have been gripped by the cycle, and it has operated at times in southeastern Niger. Now Tillabéry is, and clearly has been for some time now, facing the same cycle.

Niger: Details on the Enlarged State of Emergency in Tillabéry

On August 9, unknown gunmen killed eight people – seven aid workers and their driver – in the Kouré Giraffe Reserve in Niger’s Tillabéry Region. As I’ve written before, Tillabéry is a major conflict zone in the “tri-border zone” between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso – but Kouré, east-southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey, was not previously considered a hotspot for violence.

This is reflected in the fact that prior to the attack, the administrative department in which Kouré is located, Kollo, was not under the state of emergency that has applied to parts of Tillabéry since March 2017. The initial state of emergency applied to the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala, and Banibangou – in other words, the northernmost departments, those along the border with Mali. In November 2018, the state of emergency, which is typically renewed every three months, was enlarged to the southwest, along the border with Burkina Faso – specifically, the departments of Say, Torodi, and Téra. Another department, Filingué, which is to the northeast of Niamey, was added to the state of emergency in January 2020. For context, here is a map of Tillabéry’s administrative divisions. For further context, Niamey is encircled by Tillabéry but is considered its own separate capital district.

On August 11 of this year, following the attack at Kouré, Niger’s National Security Council placed all of Tillabéry under a state of emergency, including the last two departments that had been exempt – Kollo and Balléyara. For lack of a better word, these two departments as well as Filingué are all “inland”; Niger is, of course, landlocked, but what I mean by “inland” is that these departments do not border Mali or Burkina. In other words, 2020 has brought an implicit acknowledgement from Nigerien authorities that the violence in Tillabéry is not simply a cross-border phenomenon but extends deep into Nigerien territory.

To state the obvious, it’s a bad sign to have the entire region surrounding the capital now under a state of emergency. I do not worry about jihadists (who are the presumed culprits of the Kouré attack) taking over Niamey. I do worry about how it will play out to have the capital under a sort of siege, not just physically but also psychologically.

But the real point of this post is to highlight one dynamic I hadn’t understood before – as outlined in the readout of the August 14 cabinet meeting, the state of emergency allows Nigerien authorities to extend the mandates of municipal, town, and regional councils by up to six months, even up to a cumulative period of five years. This power comes on top of Nigerien authorities’ repeated delays of the municipal elections initially scheduled for 2016, and now scheduled for December 2020.

This is a trend across the Sahel. Incumbents do not typically move presidential elections around – that, I think, would draw significant international attention and objection – but the rest of the electoral calendar is basically up for grabs. Mali’s legislative elections were delayed from 2018 to 2020. Chad’s legislative elections have been delayed since 2015 and are now scheduled for October 2021. These delays reinforce presidential power, whether by preserving presidential majorities and/or by allowing incumbents to hold elections at moments they perceive as favorable – although incumbents can miscalculate, as seems to be the case in Mali, where the disputed March/April 2020 legislative elections were a major factor in triggering the protest movement that has thrown the capital into turmoil this summer.

Obviously it’s hard to hold representative elections amid severe insecurity. And a state of emergency can be a key mechanism for restoring order. But in Niger specifically, the combination of emergency powers for security forces and extended mandates for local officials seems to be part and parcel of a growing authoritarianism that observers have been flagging for quite some time now.


Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:


  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.