The restive Tillaberi region of Niger is part of a vast, semiarid tri-border area of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Militants attack small towns and villages just south of the Malian border with alarming frequency.
In the wake of recent attacks that made international headlines, the federal government and its security forces, known as the FDS, are taking steps to stanch the bloodshed.
Tillaberi’s regional government is doing the same and is tapping into a network of local and tribal leaders to partner on their security needs.
In November 2020, the Tillaberi government and a U.S. Army civil affairs team brought together regional security forces and more than 250 local leaders for a two-day Regional Leaders Conference on extremism and counterterrorism.
“The problem of terrorism and community insecurity remains a great scourge in our villages,” Tillaberi Gov. Ibrahim Tidjani Kateilla told ADF. “These kinds of conferences allow the leaders to get to know each other, to better talk to each other and have an exceptional relationship and get informed in each situation.”
Local leaders at the conference painted a bleak picture of life under threat of extremist fighters: Many participants said they had to travel from their villages in secret to avoid drawing attention. To support the peace process, the U.S. funded the event, including travel for the local leaders.
“For lasting peace, we need these kinds of forums for village chiefs, commune chiefs, livestock leaders, youth leaders and FDS,” Kateilla said.
Through one-on-one and group discussions, participants acknowledged how large distances between villages and an increase in insurgent violence had created a perceived disconnect between village leaders, regional government officials and the FDS.
The groups worked to identify Tillaberi’s most vulnerable hotspot, which enabled local civil-military forces called Action Civil‐Militaire (ACM) to reposition Soldiers and increase patrols to decrease response time.
Participants also pledged to open direct lines of communication for the first time. They agreed to meet twice a year and planned to include the FDS in the next conference in May.
“Communication among leaders at every level is key to the success of solving regional security challenges,” ACM local leader Ali Mohammed told ADF. “Through face-to-face discussions like these, we can learn new ways to deal with current and emerging security challenges and improve sharing of information and reporting.”
Although participants in the conference expressed hope for their collaboration, recent attacks represented a tragic reminder of the rural region’s inherent instability.
On January 2, about 100 Islamist terrorists on motorcycles split into two groups and killed more than 100 villagers in Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye in lengthy midday attacks that also injured dozens and caused more than 10,000 to flee.
Prime Minister Brigi Rafini visited both villages the day after, bringing humanitarian assistance and the promise of a detachment of security forces to be installed with a military base in the area.
“We came to provide moral support and present the condolences of the president of the republic, the government and the entire Niger nation,” he said to reporters. “This situation is simply horrible. But investigations will be conducted so that this crime does not go unpunished.”
According to statistics from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, attacks in Tillaberi by militants with links to the Islamic State and al-Qaida killed at least 367 people in 2019, nearly all in the tri-border zone — four times more than in 2018.
There were 482 killed in the first half of 2020.
In January, Tillaberi’s government banned motorcycle travel to prevent militants from attacking by one of their preferred methods, while Nigerien Interior Minister Alkache Alhada pledged to “strengthen cohesion along the border.”
But there is much more work to be done.
In a public meeting of federal, regional and local leaders in the Tillaberi town of Ouallam on January 9, Gen. Mahamadou Abou Tarka lamented the ease with which terrorists cross Tillaberi’s northern border.
“The difficulties of guaranteeing peace in an area like that of northern Tillaberi comes from the fact that it is a border area open to Mali, where the government has unfortunately disappeared,” said Tarka, who serves as president of Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace. “We must seek them out, pursue them relentlessly in their base in Mali, annihilate them, deny them the ground.”
To win this battle against extremism, he said, the military, local leadership and the public must work hand in hand.
“The armed forces need the knowledge that the administration has of communities,” he said. “Consultation between the military and the governor, between the military and the prefects, must be permanent.”