Ethnic Militias in Niger Drive Brutal Cycles of Violence
The rise of ethnic militias in recent years threatens conflict-ridden western Niger, near the tri-border area with Burkina Faso and Mali.
Two groups in particular, the garde nomade, a group of former Tuareg rebels integrated into Nigerien forces in the Tahoua region, and the Zarma zankai, a self-defense group operating in the Tillabéri region, pose significant security issues.
That is according to Delina Goxho, an associate fellow in the Africa department at the Egmont Institute in Brussels, who authored a report on the subject in October.
Both the pre-coup government and current ruling junta have relied on the groups to counter extremist organizations linked to the Islamic State group (IS) and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). But Nigerien authorities handle the groups differently.
Members of the garde nomade are seen as experienced fighters controlled by the government, while zankai members are dismissed as inexperienced militia fighters who pose little or no threat to state power.
Seeds of the garde nomade were planted in 2021, when Tuareg fighters, armed with weapons collected in Libya, returned to their home villages in Tahoua, where the IS launches frequent attacks.
“About half of the fighters didn’t really care about integration [into Nigerien forces] at all … they just wanted to protect their own, and in some cases take revenge for the killing of members of their family,” a person close to the group told Goxho.
Those suspected by the garde nomade to be affiliated with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara usually are Peuhl civilians, lending an ethnic dimension to regional tensions. Most of the garde nomade’s current work consists of persuading people living in villages near Mali to leave when there is information of an imminent terrorist attack.
“The other day we asked people in Mihan to come closer to Abala, leave their homes, take their families and beasts and come closer to a place where we can control them, while cleaning up their village from terrorist infiltrations,” another person told Goxho.
Since 2017, when violence spilled over from Burkina Faso and Mali, the Tillabéri region has emerged as the epicenter of attacks against civilians in the country. From 2017 to 2023, there were 2,500 people killed in armed violence in Tillabéri, more than half of the national total.
In Tillabéri, the zankai are neither controlled nor managed by the government, and their behavior goes unchecked.
The militia was formed after the IS killed a Zarma chief in 2019 for allegedly refusing to pay “zakat,” an Islamic tax. In retaliation for the creation of the group, insurgents in 2020 killed more than 100 civilians, mostly from the Zarma group, in the Tondikiwindi community.
Though hardly recognized by authorities, the well-organized zankai — whose groups commonly include a president, vice president, treasurer and military chief — are respected in the communities they protect. Due to a lack of governmental oversight, it is impossible to know how many zankai fighters exist.
“All in all, anyone who has a gun can declare [their] allegiance to a self-defense group, but they tend to always have some hierarchy, even small groups in small villages,” an interviewee told Goxho.
A lack of control over the zankai could lead to unforeseen consequences, such as fueling regional ethnic tensions, Goxho wrote, echoing previous warnings by analysts with the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Disputes between extremists and self-defense groups often pit communities against one another. Those clashes could inflame local grievances, imperil civilians and provide terrorist groups with new recruits, ICG analysts wrote in a 2021 report on the Tillabéri region.
The formation of ethnic militias in Niger already “seems to have led local jihadists to lash out with attacks on civilians,” the analysts wrote.
Goxho and the ICG noted that the rise of militias such as the Dan Na Ambassagou in Mali and the Koglweogo and Volontaires pour la Defense de la Patrie (VDP) in Burkina Faso — both of which recruit on an ethnic basis — led to a brutal cycle of intercommunal killings.
Dan Na Ambassagou notoriously targets Dogon communities, and the VDP often are implicated in crimes against Fulani communities.
Goxho implored the Nigerien government not to underestimate the zankai and invest more resources in bringing the group under some sort of state control.
“Creating a program that makes the zankai accountable for their actions — and that could support a future professionalization of such a militia — would allow for more control on the part of Niamey,” Goxho wrote.