Most international attention on Niger focuses on the Boko Haram conflict in the country’s east (Diffa region) and the Liptako-Gourma crisis in its west (Tillabéri and Tahoua regions). But the Maradi region, along Niger’s south-central border with Nigeria, is becoming another hotspot that could strain national efforts to curb insecurity.
Since 2017, Maradi has been affected by the expansion of organised and violent banditry from neighbouring north-west Nigeria, where cattle rustling and kidnappings for ransom are rampant. Armed criminals operating from Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina states in Nigeria cross the border at night on motorcycles to attack locals before retreating to wooded areas and the Baban Rafi Forest straddling the two countries.
Niger’s south-central border
In 2021 a local newspaper, Le Souffle de Maradi, recorded 2 735 stolen animals, 91 victims of abductions, and payment of some 51-million CFA francs (over €77 500) in ransom by hostages’ families. And the situation isn’t improving. During the first quarter of 2022, Niger’s Protection Cluster, the national chapter of a global network of humanitarian actors, reported another 76 incidents in this region, including rape, assaults and cattle theft, and 29 kidnappings.
Livelihoods are lost as locals flee to safer areas, afraid to work their crop fields and graze their livestock. By April 2021, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs counted over 25 000 internally displaced Nigeriens in the region. They had fled their homes for better protected towns such as Sarkin Yamma, Gabi, Madarounfa and Maradi.
They were joined by over 81 000 Nigerians who had fled from Katsina, Zamfara and Sokoto to seek refuge in Niger. Some internally displaced people are hosted by extended family, but most refugees from Nigeria are grouped on sites with limited food aid, shelter and poor access to basic services.
In 2020 Niger launched Operation Faraoutar Bushiya, or ‘hedgehog hunting’ in Hausa. Over 1 000 personnel from the army, gendarmerie, police and national guard are deployed along the border with Nigeria. The operation’s capacity was increased in August 2021 after President Mohamed Bazoum visited the region. Authorities say this has significantly reduced insecurity in the Maradi region, but safety hasn't returned, and some isolated villages continue to face assaults.
Given the transnational nature of the threat, the government acknowledges the need for action on both sides of the border. Officials from Niger’s Maradi region and Nigeria’s federal states of Katsina and Zamfara met on 25 March to lay the groundwork for better communication and coordination. This could reinvigorate cooperation between the defence and security forces and help protect civilians more effectively.
However, a sustainable solution requires addressing underlying factors that push some Nigeriens to join Nigerian bandits. Key among these are the reduction of grazing land and youth unemployment.
Degradation of pastures due to disrupted rainfall patterns has compromised herders’ livelihoods. With population increases, farming lands have progressively encroached on grazing areas and transhumance corridors, overstepping the distribution of land by national regulation. This raises the risk of conflicts between herders and crop farmers and the desperation faced by herders.
Solutions lie in the protection of grazing areas. Better management of croplands can help slow down their expansion while improving their productivity. Diligent enforcement of existing legislation on pastoralism, which determines land sharing, could protect livestock and preserve herders’ income without damaging that of crop farmers.
Another major issue to address is youth unemployment. Just over 54% of Maradi’s population is under the age of 15. The lack of job opportunities has driven thousands of youngsters into small-scale trade jobs shuttling between Nigeria and Niger. These include fuel smuggling, which has become many young people’s only source of income.
The fraudulent nature of this activity undermines the country’s fiscal revenue and poses a threat to people’s safety. In 2006, the explosion of an illegal fuel depot injured 250 people in Maradi. A similar accident in 2017 at the Agadez market in the country’s north, killed at least one person.
But ending illicit fuel trading without providing Maradi’s youth with alternative livelihoods could make matters worse. Thousands would be thrown back into unemployment, increasing the recruitment pool for bandits. To avoid this, authorities should set up a regional programme to help fuel smugglers and retailers transition to legal income-generating activities, for instance trade, cattle breeding or crop farming.
It is also important for Niger and Nigeria to improve joint border management, so bandits can’t strike in one country and take refuge in the other. Only after the borderlands are again secure can villagers and pastoralists in Niger and Nigeria return home safely.
Written by Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher, Sahel, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin