Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency

Executive Summary

For the last two years, Niger has been at war with Boko Haram. The conflict has disrupted this poor country’s development, especially public finances, and destabilised the south east, the main scene of armed clashes. In this region, located some 1,350km from the capital and faced with an economic collapse, the battle against Boko Haram has stoked up local intercommunal tensions and exacerbated violence over access to resources. Despite direct support from Chadian troops since 2015 and improved collaboration with the Nigerian army, Nigerien forces have been unable to put a stop to attacks by insurgents, some of whom have links to the Islamic State (IS). The military option has produced results but has also shown its limits. The war effort must be accompanied by an approach that would allow demobilisation of the movement’s militants and promote a political solution to the tensions that have stimulated its local spread. The government must also prioritise economic revival and public service provision to bring relief to an exhausted population, whose suffering fuels the insurrection.

Despite alarmist scenarios, Boko Haram has failed to extend its influence beyond the south-eastern Diffa region. This relatively wealthy territory has a special relationship with the Nigerian state of Borno. Close historical, religious, and economic ties explain the resonance of the message spread by Mohamed Yusuf, the Nigerian founder of Boko Haram. Many Nigeriens, especially young men, became his supporters after they travelled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, only 425km away from Diffa, in search of religious training or business opportunities. When Nigerian armed forces massacred more than 1,000 of his Nigerian followers in July 2009, many members of Boko Haram found refuge in south-eastern Niger. The movement has long avoided conducting military operations in the country to build up Diffa as a refuge and a place to seek funds, supplies and recruits.

Nigerien authorities initially responded to the Boko Haram threat by keeping the movement under surveillance. They believed that it was essentially a Nigerian problem. This attitude changed in 2014, when the threat became more pressing. Boko Haram’s territorial expansion toward the Niger border was accompanied by a new push to recruit hundreds of young Nigeriens. Persuaded by its regional and international partners to become more actively involved, Niger joined the military efforts of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The war effort has since proved to be a burden on the national budget and the judicial system and kindled tensions between the government and the military hierarchy.

The Diffa region is suffering from both Boko Haram attacks and counter-insurgency measures taken by the Nigerien authorities, such as the extension of the state of emergency introduced in February 2015 that includes a ban on some commercial activities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people only survive thanks to foreign aid. Recourse to local vigilante committees and reprisals by Boko Haram against anyone who collaborates with the army have created a difficult atmosphere in which local score-settling, collective fear and informants are all ingredients of a dangerously toxic brew.

On the shores of Lake Chad, in the extreme east of Diffa region, Boko Haram’s presence has aggravated intercommunal tensions, which have degenerated into deadly conflicts since May 2016. Mediation between communities by the authorities since June 2016 is a welcome initiative but has yet to dissipate all of these tensions. On the lake’s islands, a group of combatants who have broken away from the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau, head of the movement since the death of Mohamed Yusuf, is exploiting these local tensions. This group is currently trying to take root more permanently and allegedly has close ties with IS.

Faced with Boko Haram’s resilience, the Nigerien government can no longer restrict itself to an approach solely based on military operations and commercial restrictions. In December 2016, the establishment of demobilisation sites signalled a change in the policy of repression that had prevailed since 2015. The government is also drafting a special plan for the resolution of the crisis in the Diffa region. With the support of regional and international partners, it must continue in this direction and expand its counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond a mainly military response. This is all the more important given that some insurgents have rejected the excesses of Abubakar Shekau and may try to regain the support of the local population by avoiding the targeting of Muslims. The government must also increase cooperation with its neighbours and make contingency plans for the possible disengagement of international partners, whose public finances are deteriorating and who could opt for more isolationist policies in the months to come.


To reduce violence by going beyond the security response

To the government of Niger:

  1. Discourage the development of armed community militias.

  2. Pursue and strengthen the efforts to mediate between communities on the shores of Lake Chad started in June 2016.

  3. Ensure equitable and fair access to the lake’s resources, including, if necessary, through a thorough reform of the system of chiefs in the lake area.

  4. Propose quickly a plan for resolving the crisis in south-eastern Niger, prepared in close partnership with civil society and elected representatives in the Diffa region, and paying particular attention to reconciliation, the reintroduction of public services and economic revival.

To ease the pressure on the judicial system and prepare for the reintegration of Boko Haram militants

To the government of Niger:

  1. Formulate demobilisation and reintegration policies for former Boko Haram combatants, especially those who have not been involved in serious crimes, while consulting Boko Haram’s victims and their representatives to avoid a cycle of score-settling. The recent establishment of demobilisation sites is welcome but the reintegration of former insurgents is a sensitive issue that requires skilful handling and major long-term investment by the government and its partners.

  2. Increase the resources allocated to the judicial system to ensure improved treatment of Boko Haram-related cases, including those dealing with suspects of involvement in serious crimes, which are currently clogging up the country’s courts.

  3. Insist that the security services make a strong case to justify the transfer to Niamey prison of people who have been arrested on the basis of intelligence provided by informants.

To Niger’s partners:

  1. Provide advice and human resources to boost the resources allocated to the judicial system.

To suspend economic restrictions linked to the state of emergency and launch a plan to revive the economy of the Diffa region as early as possible

To the government of Niger:

  1. Redirect suspended economic flows by channelling them through the town of Diffa and encouraging exporters to use more secure roads toward Nigeria until the southern Komadougou area becomes stable again.

  2. Build the capacities of the public administration to provide the population with tangible judicial, health and education services, encourage the recruitment of local civil servants and the granting of temporary bonuses to civil servants working in the regions affected by the insurrection.

To supervise more effectively the security forces and their budgets

To the government of Niger:

  1. Encourage the High Authority for the Fight Against Corruption (HALCIA) to investigate the use of funds allocated to the war effort.

  2. Provide the armed forces on the ground with the resources they need to conduct counter-insurgency military operations, while tightening supervision of the armed forces and requiring that military personnel found guilty of abuses and other crimes against civilians are held accountable.

  3. Supervise the vigilante committees to limit their role to the collection of intelligence; prepare policies immediately for their complete or partial demobilisation if the insurrection’s decline is confirmed.

Brussels/Dakar, 27 February 2017


Niger, located at the heart of an area subject to intense geopolitical turbulence, remains a weak link in the Sahel. The March 2016 re-election of President Issoufou provided some political stability but the country has yet to deal with the immense economic and demographic challenges it faces. Pointing to the cross-border threats from Mali, Libya and Nigeria, the government has focused on security rather than the Renaissance socio-economic plan put forward by President Issoufou when he was first elected in 2011.

For the last two years, Niger has been waging open war against Boko Haram, a jihadist insurrection founded in north-eastern Nigeria that has spread to neighbouring countries. The government has mobilised the armed forces and adopted a harsh policy aimed at depriving it of its economic resources that has curbed the movement’s advance in Niger. But counter-insurgency operations have deeply disrupted the Diffa region, located in the south east, where the conflict is raging. Boko Haram is certainly on the back foot in Niger but that does not mean it has been defeated. In any case, this insurrection, joined by hundreds of people, has generated a conflict that will leave a lasting mark on the country’s south east.

This report analyses the dynamics of Boko Haram’s penetration into Niger and assesses the authorities’ response. It describes the different stages of this process and highlights the local circumstances that the jihadist insurrection is taking advantage of. It is essential to understand these dynamics to ensure lasting stability in the Diffa region. The report therefore calls on the authorities and their partners to develop a strategy that goes beyond the current military response. It is based on interviews with a wide range of political, religious and community leaders and eyewitnesses, including militants and former Boko Haram supporters met in detention or in the Diffa region, conducted during two research visits to Niger in 2016. It forms part of a series of Crisis Group publications on the jihadist threat in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin.

II.South-eastern Niger: Fertile Soil for Boko Haram

Diffa’s geographical and cultural proximity to Maiduguri, the cradle of Boko Haram in Nigeria, makes it particularly vulnerable to the movement’s ideas. The teachings of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, had a special resonance there. Inevitably, the fierce war Boko Haram leaders and the Nigerian authorities started to fight in July 2009 affected south-eastern Niger.

A.A Region Leaning Toward Nigeria’s North East

In terms of geography, Niger’s south east is very specific. Diffa is the regional capital most distant to Niamey (more than 1,300km by road). Along with Agadez, it is the country’s most sparsely populated region, but its population is growing the fastest. It consists of three unequally populated areas. Most of the population, estimated to be 591,000 (less than four per cent of the country’s population), is concentrated in two different border areas: one on the banks of the Komadougou River, which delineates the Niger-Nigeria border, and includes the town of Diffa (48,000 inhabitants), and another around Lake Chad, which Niger shares with its neighbours Chad and Nigeria. The region’s interior is almost a desert and mainly inhabited by nomadic Fulani, Tebu and Arab herders.

However, the Diffa region is not poor, at least in comparison to the rest of Niger. It combines the natural resources from the Komadougou River and Lake Chad with its proximity to the large Nigerian market. Until the conflict interrupted trade, Nigeria was by far