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 the main consumer of its agricultural products (peppers and rice from the Komadougou area, livestock from the interior and fish, livestock and corn from the Lake Chad area), and in return supplied it with manufactured goods and smuggled fuel. The Diffa region is also located on long-distance trade routes that lead to Chad, Libya and Sudan, often bypassing Niamey.

Nigeria, especially Borno state, holds great sway over the Diffa region. The Nigerian currency, the naira, is widely used in the area and competes with the official currency, the FCFA – “[Diffa] uses the naira; the FCFA is used by officials and [development] projects”. The region’s inhabitants are often less familiar with Niamey than with the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, which is closer (175km) and therefore more accessible.

These ties are rooted in history and culture. The Diffa region in its current boundaries and north-eastern Nigeria were part of Kanem-Bornu, a political entity that started shaping the area in the eighth century. The language (Kanuri), identity and old religious tradition (“Kanuri Islam”) long enjoyed much prestige as indicators of affiliation to a powerful political and economic entity. The latter influenced and attracted surrounding groups to various degrees, sometimes incorporating them.The fall of the last sovereigns of Bornu at the beginning of the twentieth century, the division of the area by the French and English empires and then independence movements have not weakened the links between south-eastern Niger and north-eastern Nigeria.

Islam from northern Nigeria therefore spread quickly to Niger and even beyond Kanuri territory. A major commercial centre, Maiduguri is also a sub-regional crossroads for Islamic education, which attracts many Nigeriens. The reformist Islamic movement Izala, where Mohammed Yusuf received his education before turning away from it and fighting it, is very influential in Niger, especially around Diffa. It controls two of the towns’ six main mosques.

B.The State in South-eastern Niger

Relations between the Komadougou area, where the Kanuri are dominant, and the Nigerien state are paradoxical and to state that the government has marginalised the area would be simplistic. Despite being far from the capital of Niger and having much more in common with Nigeria, the Kanuri are well represented among the political and military elite in Niamey. Former president, General Mamadou Tandja, is from Maïné Soroa, in Kanuri territory, and President Issoufou’s administration includes many Kanuri.

Relations with the state are different in the more ethnically diverse Lake Chad area, which has long resisted government projects, including those from Kanem-Bornu. In addition to the Kanuri, there are large Buduma, Arab, Tebu and Fulani communities. This diversity is all the more significant because the lake’s natural resources – fish, pastures for livestock and alluvial basins for agriculture – have for decades attracted migrants from the rest of Niger and even from other African countries. Unlike the Kanuri, these population groups are unequally represented among the Nigerien political and military elite. Although members of the Tebu community have had a role in the state administration since their rebellion in the 1990s, the Mohammedan Arabs, who arrived from Sudan during the last third of the twentieth century, and the Buduma communities are not so well represented in either Niamey or local government.

Many factors fuel tensions in this region: the population movements that accompany the lake’s changing water levels; the importance of transhumance; disagreements between local government administrations (chefferies) and locally elected representatives, who play a role in regulating access to natural resources; the resentment felt by people who consider themselves to be natives of the region, notably the Buduma, and do not have the financial and political capital to profit from the growing sectors of the economy. Moreover, the area has been the scene of intercommunal conflicts and even outbreaks of armed rebellion. The lake is a border area that the government finds difficult to control: it is endowed with rugged topography, a place where four countries meet, a pioneering front, an area where smuggling and trafficking is common and a migratory melting pot.

The state has not displayed much interest in this distant region, whose economy is more integrated with that of neighbouring countries. It lacks resources to invest in the area, but it is not completely absent. The state has acquired expertise in conflict resolution in the course of the crises that have afflicted the northern Tuareg areas, but also the southern Diffa region. The High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP), created in October 2011 to take over from the High Authority for the Restoration of Peace (created in 1994), and which reports directly to the presidency, is the institution that has and uses this experience. Under the leadership of a senior Tuareg official, it administers a range of programs on everything from intercommunal dialogue to the demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants and development projects aimed at promoting cohesion and peace in various regions.

The government does not enjoy particularly strong popular legitimacy and the political elites do not hesitate to manipulate ethnic and regional loyalties at election time, but these elites are relatively united and mixed as inheritors of nationalist sentiment and great sociability. In the field of religion, many observers consider the Nigerien state’s support for pluralism and secularism to be a decisive factor. But Islam’s hegemony in Niger might as well make it less divisive, unlike in Nigeria, where competition between Christianity and Islam generates tensions.

C.Mohammed Yusuf’s Nigerien Militants

In the 2000s, Mohammed Yusuf’s preaching had an impact on the Diffa region. Many of the thousands of Nigerien men and women who went to study or work in Maiduguri heard Yusuf’s message and some attended his mosque. Back in Niger, they disseminated his thoughts in electronic format but also more directly: Yusuf’s assistant and future successor as Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, reportedly has family contacts in the area and preached in Diffa before 2009. From the start of the 2000s, some of Yusuf’s Nigerian supporters formed an isolated sectarian community in Kannama village, on the border with Niger. They were violently dispersed by Nigerian forces in October 2003 after they entered into conflict with the local authorities and population, and some found refuge in Niger.

In either 2007 or 2008, a small movement formed around Diffa’s central mosque, influenced by Yusuf and sharing his interpretation of Islam. It mainly comprised young people who had broken with the Izala current, which had gradually been establishing itself in Diffa since the start of the 2000s, especially among traders. Yusuf’s young followers adopted a more radical attitude than Izala members. In particular, they condemned Izala for only criticising the state’s corruption while maintaining its links with the government. They also made contact with the faithful near places of worship, urging people to join them.

The Yusufiyya opened its own place of worship in October-November 2008 in the district of Diffa Koura, in Diffa, with financial support from El Hadj Kakabuno, a prosperous young Kanuri trader whose business network extended to Maiduguri and Kano, northern Nigeria’s great metropolis. He acted as leader of the community in Diffa, helped by a young Fulani preacher, Sayedi, a native of Fulatari (a pastoralist zone in the interior of Diffa) who had also been an assiduous visitor to Maiduguri. As tension increased in Maiduguri in July 2009, most of Yusuf’s Nigerien supporters in Diffa sold their belongings, some of them divorced their wives if they baulked at accompanying them and joined their mentor with the idea of “starting a jihad against the Nigerian government”.

D.Diffa, Boko Haram’s Support Base

The situation started to deteriorate in 2009, as the escalating confrontation between the Nigerian security forces and Yusuf’s supporters led to massive violence in Maiduguri and other towns in northern Nigeria. Yusuf was arrested and killed in detention by the police. Some of his Nigerian and Nigerien supporters found refuge in Niger, either to distance themselves from Boko Haram or, on the contrary, to sustain the violent strategy of its new leader, Abubakar Shekau. For example, about twenty militants returned to Maïné Soroa in 2009. They formed the basis of a cell that has counted up to a hundred members.

The Diffa region became a place to raise funds and stock up on petrol, weapons and food supplies. Boko Haram sold some of its looted goods. This economy created a network of people who benefitted from the insurrection without necessarily joining it or even sharing its ideology – suppliers, dealers, and transporters. Boko Haram sometimes used violence to control its network. For example, it is generally acknowledged that the killing of the president of Diffa’s Chamber of Commerce in May 2015 was related to the fact that the movement subjects the region’s major businessmen to extortion.

Boko Haram has used its funds to recruit members, combining its call to jihad with practical material benefits: credits to open small businesses or buy vehicles, money when combatants enlist, promises of wages and motorcycles and prospects of marriage. The latter is particularly attractive in a cultural context where marriage is an essential characteristic of identity. In the villages of Komadougou, starting in 2014, young Nigeriens tried to identify, persuade and escort young women from Kanuri villages to areas held by Boko Haram on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the ostentatious prosperity of combatants on their return from Nigeria, rich from looting and the rewards granted by the movement, has attracted new recruits. Between several hundred and a few thousand young Nigeriens have reportedly joined the organisation, some out of conviction but a growing number out of opportunism and greed.

III.Niger at War

A.From Surveillance to War

Niger’s initial response to Boko Haram was “an approach that combined relative tolerance, surveillance of preachers and targeted actions”. At that time, the authorities viewed Boko Haram as a Nigerian problem which was not a direct threat to the country, though they needed to monitor its impact on Nigerien soil. Some security sources said there was a non-aggres­sion pact between the Nigerien authorities and Boko Haram before 2014, but it is difficult to confirm this. True or not, it did not stop the Nigerien security services from making arrests in areas that supported the insurrection in and after 2010. Moreover, their concern increased after the jihadist advance in Mali at the start of 2012 and the arrest in the following months of Nigerien and Nigerian supporters of Boko Haram who were linked with northern Mali.

Collaboration with Nigeria was then minimal. It was limited to the extradition of a few suspects at the request of the authorities in Abuja and joint border patrols that produced little results. Despite the conflict’s growing impact on Niger, notably the influx of tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting and finding refuge in the Diffa region, the Nigerien elites remained divided about whether to take a more active stance against the movement. Senior military officials concerned about the extension of fighting to Nigerien territory advised Niger to remain neutral or offer to mediate between the movement and the Nigerian government. Many officials believed they should focus on gathering intelligence and maintaining public order rather than mobilising the military against Boko Haram.

Niger decided to go to war with Boko Haram in 2014. There were two reasons for this: first, it was pushed in this direction by an international context that favoured the constitution of a regional military force, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The regional military option was revived in 2012 by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), which comprises Niger, and important international actors – the U.S., France and the African Union (AU) – supported it in 2014. Ever since he was elected in 2011, President Issoufou, who had maintained his stance as a reliable ally of the Western countries in the fight against the increasing terrorist threat in the Sahel, remained faithful to his commitment.

The increasing threat was the other core factor in Niger’s military involvement. In 2014, Boko Haram conquered a vast area in northern Nigeria and thus began to represent a direct threat to neighbouring countries. Moreover, in a video dated 21 January 2015, Shekau threatened the presidents of Chad, Cameroon and Niger and criticised the latter for offering support to the French president after radical Islamists attacked the satirical periodical Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Boko Haram stepped up recruitment in the Diffa region in 2014: all along the Komadougou River, hundreds of young men and women, most of them Kanuri, joined the movement, attracted by its successes and the prospects of making easy money. In June 2014, the army mounted a defensive operation, codenamed Ngaa (which means shield in Kanuri), to strengthen its military position on the border with Nigeria and gather intelligence.

B.Military Action in a Stalemate

Although the Nigerian authorities were expecting a short war against people who Issoufou described as “amateurs”, the conflict escalated and military operations ended in a stalemate in 2015. At the start of 2015, the president authorised Chadian troops to enter Niger in their capacity as part of the MNJTF while on 6-8 February, Boko Haram launched violent attacks against the towns of Bosso and Diffa. In a way, the regionalisation of both the threat and the military response fed each other. For many months, the front stabilised along the border with Nigeria.

In April, Boko Haram carried out a successful attack on Nigerien positions on Karamga island, which was the first reliable indicator that it had established itself in the northern part of Lake Chad. In July, its combatants attacked Diffa prison but failed to release any prisoners. Meanwhile, Nigerien authorities supported the creation of vigilante committees, not so much to undertake combat but rather to monitor the movements of combatants and try to prevent surprise attacks. Local public figures and village chiefs were asked to identify suspects. Suspicion and denunciations became pervasive and were accentuated by the killing of people suspected of collaborating with the army. Some civilian and military authorities were tempted to give the committees a greater military role and a few committees did indeed do more than gather intelligence, arresting suspects and building roadblocks. From its positions on the Nigerian side of the border, Boko Haram continued to launch raids into south-eastern Niger, particularly against villages close to the Komadougou River that had set up vigilante committees.

After the presidential election in February and March 2016, which took place in relative calm in Diffa, the MNJTF prepared a new offensive in north-eastern Nigeria. Boko Haram was one step ahead and took control of Bosso for a few hours, inflicting heavy losses on the Nigerien army. The latter was only able to maintain its positions thanks to reinforcements from the west and the return at the end of June of Chadian troops, who concentrated their operations on Lake Chad’s shores and islands. From July onward, the Nigerian army gradually redeployed along the Komadougou River and Nigerien troops mobilised to provide occasional backup at Malam Fatori and Damasak.

Although Boko Haram has been weakened, it has retained its strike capacity in Nigeria, as its attacks on Malam Fatori and Gashagar showed at the end of 2016. In Niger, in the communes of Gueskerou, Bosso and Toumour (extreme south east), Boko Haram combatants still cross the border freely to extort money from villagers and attack military positions, such as at Gues­ke­rou in 20 January 2017. In this area, the security forces, which retrea