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.