Scale of jihadist threat in post-coup Niger hard to assess
Niger has been hit by several jihadist attacks since its president was overthrown last month, but analysts caution against concluding that a long-running insurgency is shifting into higher gear as post-coup uncertainty mounts.
Since 2015, when jihadists started mounting cross-border strikes from Mali, thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.
Rebel officers who overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 pointed to the “degradation of the security situation” under his watch — a belief shared by many Nigeriens.
But analysts say the situation is more complex than it may seem.
In the run-up to the coup, the situation had in fact been improving, at least in statistical terms.
In the first half of 2023, attacks on civilians fell by 49 percent compared with the same period in 2022, while the number of deaths was down by 16 percent, according to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project, an NGO monitor.
Western observers and partners, especially France, Bazoum’s ally, had been quick to highlight the improvement.
They praised a shift in strategy that began after Bazoum took office in April 2021 following historic elections.
The military regimes in Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso focus on hefty “anti-terrorist” operations that are often blamed for heavy loss of civilian life.
But Bazoum fostered localized peace agreements, development projects and negotiations with heads of armed groups — a flexible approach hailed as highly promising by western partners, but often criticized at home, especially within the army.
- Perceptions –
A June 2022 opinion poll by Afrobarometer found a big difference between rural and urban dwellers about how they rated Niger’s security situation.
People in the cities were far likelier to say that the problems were bad, even though people in the countryside were far likelier to be victims of violence.
“Urban people are more politically aware and have better access to information… and the higher one’s standard of living, the more importance one attaches to issues of security and health,” said Mahamane Tahirou Ali Backo, an associate researcher at a Niamey-based social monitor called LASDEL, who took part in the survey.
“The highest-profile attacks are against symbols of state or are large-scale attacks, but background violence is a daily phenomenon, because of gangs and the guns in circulation,” he said.
But rating insecurity on figures alone is not always accurate, say analysts.
They point for example to the ruthless but hidden pressures that jihadists exert on local populations under their control.
“If visible violence is falling, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are better off — taxes are still being levied (by the jihadists) and even if the number of attacks is falling, the influence of armed groups is still spreading inside Niger,” said Tatiana Smirnova of the Centre FrancoPaix, a French think tank on conflict resolution.
- General insecurity –
The jihadists “aren’t seeking to take over the official government, but exercise a form of indirect government and social control over vast areas,” said Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, a researcher at LASDEL.
One such example is education — as of May, more than 900 schools were closed in the jihadist-hit region of Tillaberi alone, according to the education ministry.
At local level, the conflict picture is extremely diverse, with jihadists often working behind the scenes to inflame animosities.
In one district, a local peace agreement may lead to a fall in violence, but in another, the reverse happens.
“It’s not the same dynamic, the same groups or the same conflicts,” said Bako. “People looking at the situation from the outside tend to see a uniform picture, but it’s varied.”
©️ Agence France-Presse