Niger: the strategy of dialogue with the jihadists to find peace

Should we negotiate with the jihadists in the Sahel? Fervent defender of this line, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has begun discussions in recent months with elements of the jihadist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) responsible for recurrent deadly attacks in the west of the country. Since the announcement in mid-February by France of the withdrawal from Mali of Barkhane and European Takuba forces, Niamey fears a new jihadist push in the immense landlocked region of Tillabéri (west), in the so-called “Three Borders”.

Nigerian president’s “outstretched hand”

In this region, on the borders of Burkina and Mali, where the EIGS controls vast areas, the fighters have already approached less than 100 kilometers from the capital Niamey. Until Wednesday, March 16, when the attack on a bus and a truck left 21 dead, the region has recently experienced a relative “lull” in the attacks, as recognized by Hassoumi Massoudou, the Nigerien Minister of Foreign Affairs, in mid-February. Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has begun a new approach “three months ago” with a “hand held out” which is addressed to “young Nigeriens enlisted in the ranks of the EIGS”, says a source in the presidency. According to reports from several NGOs, the Islamic State group is recruiting among the youth of Niger, in particular among the sons of pastors impoverished by the recurrent droughts, the expansion of agricultural land and… the raids of cattle carried out by the groups. armed.

Emissaries to the jihadists

At the end of February, Mohamed Bazoum announced that he had started “discussions” with the jihadists within the framework “of the search for peace”. “In the last three months”according to an adviser to the president, the head of state released “seven terrorists” detained in Niger and he even “received them at the presidential palace”. He also sent “emissaries to nine terrorist leaders” and assured of wanting to take any steps “which can help ease the burden under which the military is bent” Nigeriens, who are paying a heavy price against the jihadists. These emissaries are local elected officials, influential traditional and religious leaders and relatives of the jihadists. While some like Souley Oumarou, of the NGO Forum for Responsible Citizenship (FCR), describe the release of “terrorists”of“monumental mistake”the initiative is rather welcomed on the ground.

“We have always said that we have to discuss with the compatriots who are in the EIGS or Al-Qaeda, see which ones we can recover.”

Boubacar Diallo, President of the Council of Breeders of North Tillabéri

at AFP

This approach of the Nigerien president “is a way to really settle the question of terrorism which cannot be settled by military means”, praised Bakary Sambe, regional director of the Timbuktu Institute. “By adopting this approach, President Bazoum wanted to tackle the structural causes and establish a real dialogue with the communities”, he said.

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“Rebuilding trust”

For some observers, the dialogue must be accompanied by concrete measures to prevent recruitment by armed groups from continuing. “We must promote the return of the State to neglected areas”, admits General Mahamadou Abou Tarka, president of the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP, government). “We must find credible mediators to recreate trust”, points out Boubacar Diallo, who ensures that many Nigerien jihadist fighters are former members of a Fulani self-defense militia dissolved in October 2011 by the authorities. Mohamed Bazoum has long defended this strategy of “hand held out”, when he was Minister of the Interior. In 2016, it led to the surrender of dozens of former Boko Haram fighters, active in southeastern Niger and who then followed a de-radicalization and vocational training program.

“This mission is not impossible, on the condition of convincing the populations to adhere to the dialogue and to agree to live with their former executioners.”

Bello Adamou Mahamadou, Nigerian expert from the West African Social Sciences Laboratory

at AFP

Military response

The question of dialogue also arises in neighboring Mali. In 2020, former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had asked for emissaries to be sent to two jihadist leaders and the subject resurfaced after the departure of France, which has always opposed such a strategy. However, there is no question of dropping the military response to the jihadists. Mohamed Bazoum announced a “rise in power” of its army, whose numbers have tripled from 11,000 to 30,000 men since 2011. Some 12,000 Nigerien soldiers are fighting in a dozen anti-jihadist operations, nearly half of them along the approximately 1,400 kilometers of border with Mali and Burkina Faso, he revealed. And according to a military source, the Nigerien army will receive “in the coming months” drones, military planes and armored vehicles ordered from Turkey.

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