Tag Archives: Diffa region

The region in Niger quietly piloting a Boko Haram amnesty

African Arguments

Diffa region, Boko Haram amnesty

The bold experiment is proving attractive, but comes fraught with dangers.

In mid-December 2016, in rural Diffa region on Niger’s southern border with Nigeria, fourteen men gave themselves up to authorities. The group said that they were former fighters of Boko Haram and that they had abandoned their weapons in the bush.

News of this impromptu surrender from the Islamist militant group responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of displacements came as a surprise to most in the area. But not to regional authorities.

Since late last year, they had been quietly testing a tactic of asking families whose children have joined Boko Haram to spread word of an amnesty. If they surrendered, fighters were told, they would be pardoned and assisted in rejoining their communities.

Before then, the main regional response to the brutal Islamist militant group had been military. This has had some successes in weakening the combatants, and the last major Boko Haram attack in Niger in which civilians were killed was in September 2016. But in Nigeria, where the group originated, and beyond, gruesome assaults, abductions, and bombings of schools and markets continued.

To those in Diffa, these attacks have been shocking. But more distressing to many has been the rate of voluntary conscription amongst Niger’s youth. Imams and village chiefs return to one question: “What about this savagery is attractive to our young?” Families and leaders tussle with this issue, but many simply refuse to countenance that those who join Boko Haram from Niger are truly radicalised.

It was with this belief in mind – as well as an awareness of the limits of a ground war – that the experimental amnesty plan was hatched last year. The exact details of the “secret messaging” campaign are unclear, but local leaders express pride in their initiative, which they say is ongoing, and follow it closely.

As the prefect of Maïné-Soroa told me, “Governor [of Diffa Region] Dan Dano calls every night to ask how many Boko have surrendered.”

As of late-March, the number stood at nearly 150 across Diffa.

Planning ahead

In terms of numbers, the amnesty scheme has so far proven to be effective. The logic behind it is also clear. Uganda’s use of a similar strategy to entice defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the early-2000s is widely believed to have weakened rebel ranks. And Diffa’s experiment comes at a time when Boko Haram is already facing factional splintering and other difficulties.

[Making sense of Boko Haram’s different factions: Who, how and why?]

As a locally-designed and -executed initiative, it is also impressive and promising. Often when disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) schemes are implemented, they are imported internationally with little local ownership. But this is not the case with Diffa, and other regions facing the same problem are watching the bold experiment closely.

However, while local leaders are buoyed by progress so far, not everyone is convinced.

Some believe that the policy is a distraction from tackling the longer-term push factors – such as poverty and a weak state – that lead youth to join Boko Haram in the first place. Meanwhile others worry that funds from other more widely beneficial development projects will be re-directed to rehabilitating former combatants.

As Niger’s Minister of Justice Marou Amadou says of ex-Boko Haram fighters, “it costs us money to house them, to feed them”.

For his part, Governor Dano says he is not yet seeking funds to help manage the growing caseload. His intent is to pilot the idea and, if it proves tenable, to seek support where it is needed. But this more reactive approach also brings with it certain risks.

At present, anticipated needs only cover the Goudoumaria reintegration centre where vocational training and de-radicalisation programmes are to take place over a two-year period. As in combatant DDR programmes elsewhere, external partners will be involved.

However, if defector numbers spike with no clear plan or resources already in place, the programme could stall. Frustrations could escalate and deserters may revolt or even re-mobilise. This has happened in many other DDR programmes where logistics and planning were slow or inadequate.

Local suspicion

Another serious challenge to the amnesty comes from the fact that, at a grassroots level, many local communities in Niger are not yet on board with the idea. They view the deserters with suspicion and hostility.

Unlike in Uganda, there is currently no legal framework for Diffa’s amnesty initiative, meaning there is no official process by which ex-combatants can gain legal status as pardoned deserters. Moreover, some worry that those surrendering are being planted by Boko Haram.

Dano concedes that processing the defectors will take time, but insists there are measures in place to determine threat levels.

“We cross-reference their stories, their claim to a certain village and family, by visiting those places and confirming details. We try to learn more about them, when they left and if witnesses saw them attacking villages here,” he says. He also suggests that those who are genuinely radicalised will simply ignore the offer of an amnesty.

In order to drive support for the initiative, Dano along with local prefects and leaders have been appearing before the public. But from all reports, these are purely declaratory rather than responsive exercises.

This could pose a serious problem. If local leadership fails to convince the population, it could undermine the whole endeavour. After all, it is ultimately victims – more so than ex-combatants or state officials – whose buy-in is essential for an amnesty to be effective. For reconciliation and reinsertion of former fighters to be possible, communities must be prepared to accept them back into their lives.

Yet there are currently no participatory approaches being adopted to more closely involve communities, and many simply see the amnesty as impunity. Furthermore, popular sentiment may harden as word spreads that deserters could be rewarded with vocational training and livelihoods assistance while innocent, traumatised communities get nothing.

“We think we are diminishing the ranks of BH with this amnesty effort, but now what are we doing with the defectors?” asks Minister Amadou. “We aren’t prosecuting them – none of this is good for us.”

The price of peace?

The challenges and risks of Diffa’s pilot amnesty are thus clear to see. Trying to pardon and rehabilitate former fighters under volatile and uncertain circumstances comes fraught with dangers, especially if the initiatives are not carefully and thoroughly financed and planned.

Meanwhile, if local communities remain resistant to the idea, the policy could result in deepening resentment, hostility and suspicion.

However, as Boko Haram continues to terrorise Niger and the Lake Chad region, local authorities insist that the risks of continuing with a predominantly military approach are similarly grave.

“We cannot become Nigeria”, says Dano.

Fighting Boko Haram may involve policies that are controversial to begin with, say local leaders, but they are ultimately necessary.

Asked how he justifies pardoning former Boko Haram militants and spending scarce funds on their rehabilitation to those in Diffa, the Maïné-Soroa prefect sighs. “I tell them such is the price we have to pay for peace”.

US forces help Niger build defences against Boko Haram

Reuters 

DIFFA, NIGER |

 Niger soldiers provide security for an anti-Boko Haram summit in Diffa city, Niger September 3, 2015.

Despite years of intimidation by the violent extremist group Boko Haram, the people of southeastern Niger’s Diffa region had never held a summit to confront the threat – perhaps with good reason.

“One person could come here and kill us all!” Diffa’s prefect, Inoussa Saouna, told 75 village leaders assembled along with politicians and military commanders in the city’s pale blue-walled cultural centre.

That same early September day, a double suicide bombing that bore Boko Haram’s hallmarks killed 19 people in nearby Cameroon.

The group, best known for its kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in April 2014, has expanded from its base in northern Nigeria to threaten the region. It has menaced U.S. and European allies in west Africa, and leader Abubakar Shekau in March pledged its loyalty to Islamic State.

The Diffa meeting was a modest success not just for its mutually suspicious tribes but for a small team of fewer than 20 U.S. Special Operations Forces conducting an experiment that is part of President Barack Obama’s new counter-terrorism strategy.

The soldiers, who encouraged the meeting and helped provide a ring of security, do not go into combat, or even wear uniforms. They are quietly trying to help Niger build a wall against Boko Haram’s incursions and its recruitment of Diffa’s youth.

A Reuters reporter was the first to visit the detachment, which is among about 1,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed across Africa.

In Chad, Nigeria, Niger and elsewhere, they are executing Obama’s relatively low-risk strategy of countering Islamic extremists by finding local partners willing to fight rather than deploying combat troops by the thousands.

The new approach, which Obama announced in May 2014, is far from being a silver bullet for the United States in its global battle against Islamic militancy. The indirect strategy appears to be faltering in the Middle East, where the United States has found few reliable allies on the battlefield in Syria. In Iraq, U.S.-trained and -equipped forces evaporated last year in the face of Islamic State’s offensive.

In Niger, there are signs of success against Boko Haram, although progress will likely be slow in a years-long effort, U.S., European and African officials say.

“For the region, this is going to be a struggle that’s going to be with them for a long time, not just in Niger, but elsewhere,” said Army Col. Bob Wilson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in north and west Africa.

U.S. officials say they see predominantly Muslim Niger as worth helping. Relatively stable, but facing national and local elections in 2016, it is threatened by Boko Haram in Nigeria to the south, chaos in Libya to the north and an al Qaeda affiliate that operates in neighbouring Algeria and Mali.

The U.S. soldiers in Diffa described their mission as a sharp and welcome pivot from the Iraq and Afghan wars, where virtually all of them served. The U.S. military has not said how long their presence will last.

“It’s a totally different approach to the problem set,” an American team sergeant said in an interview. The Special Operations soldiers cannot be identified by name under military ground rules.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States also works with local security forces and leaders – but has wielded thousands of combat troops, drone strikes and pricey aid projects.

There is none of that in Diffa, a region that includes more than 200 villages along a 170-mile (273-km) stretch of the Komadougou Yobe river that marks the porous border with Nigeria.

REGROUP AND DISAPPEAR

In April, at Niger’s request, the American soldiers reinforced their small ranks on a drab, dusty compound with few amenities. Boko Haram was mounting a regional rampage and in February had launched significant attacks inside Niger for the first time.

Working alongside them is an unusual U.S. non-profit group, Spirit of America, that says it also aims to leave a light footprint. Under written understandings with the Pentagon, it buttresses U.S. military missions by providing local populations with small-scale assistance that would take Washington’s bureaucracy months or years to procure. [See: ID:nL1N11F199]

In Niger, the group has provided first-aid kits, Camelbak hydration systems and medical detectors for Niger’s military. It covered the $4,000 cost of the anti-Boko Haram summit.

“It’s providing them with enough to get through this critical phase,” said Isaac Eagan, Spirit of America’s field operations director. “It’s not fixing everything.”

Boko Haram has long used Niger for refuge and resupply, officials said. By the time the U.S. team sergeant and his men arrived, it had been luring young men from Diffa’s villages since the late 2000s, offering money and adventure, he said.

“We missed the recruiting portion of it,” he said.

Anafi Ousmane, a member of Diffa’s mayor’s council, told Reuters there had been three consecutive bad harvests of peppers, a primary crop, leaving young farmers deep in debt.

“Now Boko Haram’s seeing that vulnerability,” he said through a translator. “I will give you money. I will give you another motor bike, I will give you a woman. Join me.”

One group of U.S. soldiers was training Niger military’s 3rd Antiterrorist Company. Another began to grapple with the civilian side of the problem, accompanying the nascent civil-military affairs unit of Niger’s military on visits to villages up and down the river.

They encouraged villagers to report Boko Haram activity to military authorities and young people to establish watch groups. Spirit of America provided mobile phone credits to help.

Boko Haram has killed suspected informants and fear of the group persists. In June, the militants attacked two villages in Diffa, killing at least 30 civilians. Some died inside their mostly straw-thatched houses, which were set alight.

Sergeant Fougou Saley, chief of civil-military affairs for the Diffa region, said Boko Haram’s violent tactics have alienated much of the populace. But he said it still draws support from some of the Kanuri people, whose lands straddle northeastern Nigeria and southeastern Niger.

“In some places, some still have their heart toward Boko Haram,” said Saley, himself a Kanuri.

But African, U.S. and European officials say the group’s attacks in Niger have dropped significantly in the face of a regional counter-offensive this year by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

“I think their command structure has suffered a lot,” Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, commander of the military district that encompasses Diffa, told Reuters.

But Barmou said he warned his superiors: “Always keep in mind one fact, that Boko Haram still keeps the ability to regroup very fast, conduct an action and disappear again.”

FOR HOW LONG?

The counter-Boko Haram summit brought together representatives of the Kanuri, Faluni and Buduma tribes, as well as representatives of thousands of refugees who have fled violence in northern Nigeria.

Voices were raised over whether former Boko Haram members who had been arrested and set free should be allowed to rejoin their communities. Most said no. When one speaker declared that captured insurgents should be executed, applause broke out.

The U.S. soldiers stuck to their behind-the-scenes approach. The team sergeant and a few others watched from the back of the room and did not intervene even when the gathering appeared to almost collapse in confusion after 20 minutes.

The soldiers say they feel more welcome in Niger than in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the long U.S. military presence, American missteps and mutual misunderstandings eroded tolerance.

“They’re fully supportive of getting Boko Haram out of here. It’s nice to be able to work with folks like that – that want the problem gone,” said the team sergeant, who was wrapping up his deployment and handing off to his replacement.

Less clear is how long the Americans will remain.

One thing they won’t leave behind is large-scale development projects like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Years of reports by U.S. inspectors general documented wide-scale waste and corruption in those aid efforts.

“The biggest thing was not pumping money and projects into the region,” the team sergeant said. “Is it sustainable? Absolutely.”

Saley, his counterpart from Niger, said: “I would even like the Americans to stay for 40 years. … I don’t know what the American government and Niger government will decide.”