Killing of at least 137 civilians in Tahoua Region on March 21 highlights role of ethnicity, communal conflicts in ongoing insurgency – Niger Analysis
The killing of at least 137 civilians, primarily Tuareg, in Tahoua Region marks the deadliest ever militant attack in Niger. It aligns with a recent trend of high-casualty attacks against civilians in Niger in 2021 and is a notable departure from the Islamic State in Greater Sahara’s (ISGS) usual modus operandi of only small-scale violence against the civilians in Niger.
This lends credence to sources indicating that the attacks were perpetrated by local militias affiliated with the ISGS, suggesting that the attack may not have been motivated by jihadist ideology or ordered by central command but rather was conducted independently by the militia in pursuit of personal or communal aims.
The precedent of hostilities between the Tuareg and the Fulani communities in the Tahoua Region suggests that a Fulani militia may have been responsible and portends a spate of reprisals and attacks over the coming weeks. This aligns with the broader Sahelian trend of ethnically motivated violence against civilians, with communal militias being a large contributor of insecurity across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
We advise against all travel to Niger’s Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in the west along the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, with the exception of Niamey, due to the ongoing risk of militancy.
Please be advised
Reports indicate that at least 137 civilians, primarily of Tuareg ethnicity, were killed by armed men on motorbikes who attacked Intazayene, Bakorat, and Wistane in Tillia Department in Niger’s Tahoua region on March 21.
Some sources indicate that the attack was perpetrated by militias affiliated with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), with one source stating that the militia responsible for the attack started associating with the ISGS In 2018.
Sources from March 23 indicate that Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam waal Muslimeen (JNIM) denied perpetrating the attacks and promised to take revenge on those responsible.
Assessments & Forecast
These coordinated raids, with 137 dead and the death toll still likely to rise, mark the deadliest attack on Nigerien soil since the beginning of the jihadist insurgency. It is particularly notable that the attack targeted civilians, primarily ethnic Tuareg, which aligns with the recent trend established by the January 2 attack that killed 100 civilians and the March 16 attack that killed 58, both in Tillaberi Region’s Ouallam Department. While violence against civilians perpetrated by the jihadists has always been prevalent in Niger, predominantly in the form of militant raids and assassinations of local leaders and government collaborators, this violence had largely been small-scale before 2021. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) was likely oriented toward presenting the group as a viable alternative to state presence to local communities in western Niger. Thus, these recent attacks are a marked departure from the group’s usual modus operandi in Niger.
This lends credence to reports suggesting that the attacks were conducted by local communal militias affiliated with the ISGS. There is an important distinction between ISGS and affiliated militias conducting the attack because it potentially implies that the attack was not ordered by the ISGS leadership, but was rather carried out by the militias autonomously. This highlights a broader theme of local militias affiliated with larger jihadist groups sometimes acting independently from the central command, with their actions motivated by personal and communal grievances and not jihadist ideology or strategy. This potentially explains some of the larger casualty attacks, and even some smaller-scale raids, against civilians that have not been claimed by the jihadist groups over the past years. The leadership of the jihadist groups may tacitly support the militias’ activities since they serve to intimidate the population, making them more susceptible to the jihadists’ overtures of protection. However, the jihadists likely want to maintain some plausible deniability as they recruit from numerous ethnic communities, some of which have long-standing disputes.
Within this context, the latest attack targeting the Tuareg in Niger was likely rooted in communal and local conflicts, possibly over some resource dispute or as a reprisal for some action perpetrated by Tuareg militiamen. The assailants likely belonged to a militia that was ethnically Fulani and the attack was probably a manifestation of the cyclical violence between the Arab and Fulani militias in Tahoua Region, given the precedent of hostilities between the two communities, with multiple attacks and reprisals reported over the past years. The conflict between the two communities has been heightened since 2017 when the Arab Malian militias, sanctioned to operate in the country by the Nigerien government, were perceived to be indiscriminately targeting the Fulani under the guise of fighting militancy. To that point, the attack aligns with the broader Sahelian trend of high-casualty attacks against civilians being ethnically motivated, with communal militias being a large contributor to the ongoing violence and insecurity across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Militants exploit this dynamic by escalating communal hostilities and engendering perceptions of marginalization to exacerbate insecurity and facilitate recruitment and their entrenchment.
The authorities’ hardline response exacerbates this tension, thereby benefiting the militants by further giving rise to sentiments of disenfranchisement. This was exemplified in Niger when the government authorized Malian ethnic militias to operate in the country in 2017-2018 to combat rising jihadism. These militias, which were largely composed of ethnic Tuareg and Daosahak, engaged in biased targeting, extrajudicial killings, and large-scale violence, primarily against the Fulani, leading to the creation of communal militias and accelerating the militarization of the border. While the government attempted to take a more conciliatory approach towards the border communities following this, the perception that the government-sanctioned the targeting of border communities, particularly the Fulani, had taken root, driving both the recently formed and existing militias to align with the ISGS. In fact, the militia allegedly responsible for the latest attack in Tahoua was reportedly formed in the early 2000s but started being associated by the ISGS in 2018, likely in the aftermath of the Malian militia’s activities.
FORECAST: In line with the constant spate of attacks and retaliation that characterize these ethnic conflicts, the latest attack is liable to elicit a swift reprisal. Arab militias operating in the area are liable to pursue the militia responsible for the attack and may even target civilians, likely Fulanis. Even JNIM may get involved given leader Iyad ag Ghaly’s Tuareg heritage and as suggested by their denial of complicity and promise of revenge. This has the potential to devolve into clashes between JNIM and ISGS, as the latter is likely to take umbrage with JNIM operating within its strongholds. As such, insecurity is likely to persist in the Tchintabaraden Department along the Malian border over the coming weeks.
FORECAST: The government is also likely to intensify operations in Tahoua Region to catch the perpetrators of the attack over the coming weeks. This is especially likely since newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum will likely want to demonstrate his ability to handle the ongoing insurgency. These operations may succeed in temporarily incapacitating the activities of the armed groups operating in the region, however, they are unlikely to be successful in curtailing the groups’ activities in the long-term. This aligns with the limitation of hard-line military response against the jihadists and other armed actors to adequately combat the insurgency since it fails to address the conditions that lead to radicalization and ethnic conflicts.
We advise against all travel to Niger’s Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in the west along the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, with the exception of Niamey, due to the ongoing risk of militancy.
Avoid all travel to the border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, given the extreme risks of militancy, ethnic conflict, and violent crime.
Travel to Niamey can continue while adhering to stringent security precautions regarding crime.
Wave of anti-government protests highlighting growing disaffection with establishment parties may exacerbate political tensions – Balkans Analysis
Several countries in the Balkans have seen intense anti-government protest movements in recent months, exacerbating nationalist sentiments and political tensions.
In Albania, protesters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama amid perceptions of systemic corruption. Snap elections would likely see Rama retain power, leading to a period of intense opposition protests.
Montenegro’s President was the subject of anti-corruption protests. A period of resisting protester demands will culminate in early elections, which he will likely win.
In North Macedonia, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party are expected to rekindle protests surrounding the naming agreement with Greece. Disputes over the election of the President are liable to be the key motivator.
Serbia’s President is liable to heed protesters’ demands and call for early elections. Vucic’s continued support from non-urban voters will preserve the ruling party’s status in government
During the course of 2018-19, several countries in the Balkans experienced anti-government protests stemming from issues including corruption, media manipulation, and territorial disputes. Protest movements remain ongoing in urban centers of Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia by both newly created organizations and established political parties, while demonstrations surrounding the name deal with Greece have temporarily abated in Macedonia as of the beginning of 2019. Protests have witnessed instances of unrest and violence, including clashes between protesters and police in capital cities and major urban centers.
Regionwide protest movements could lead to rekindling of nationalistic sentiment and exacerbate ethnic tensions
The protest movements throughout the Balkans are liable to lead to a rekindling of nationalist sentiments spurred by disaffection to systemic corruption and a lack of economic prosperity. Factions in each country seek to remove governments with the support of protest movements, and movement leaders have widely adopted nationalist stances to garner support for the changes in government. The various protest movements and leaders have promised to guarantee better governance and have capitalized on the existing nationalist tendencies. The rise in nationalist sentiments could see a shift in voting patterns with traditionally center-right to right-wing parties gathering traction and support by moving further to the right, particularly on issues of ethnonationalism.
The increasing influence of nationalism on political and government policies risks disrupting the already fragile coexistence of the multiple ethnicities within the region. Incumbent leaders are taking stronger stances on pre-existing issues, such as Serbian President Aleskander Vucic’s strategy in ongoing negotiations with Kosovo, which has included proposing a territorial exchange with Pristina and seeking to end the tariffs on Serbian goods through talks hosted by the EU. Vucic, in order to garner support from nationalist and right-wing elements, is liable to pursue a policy towards Pristina that does not include the possibility of recognition and call for the establishment of semi-autonomous ethnic Serb authority within Kosovan borders. The implications of the aggravation in Kosovo-Serbia relations could increase tensions between the Albanian diaspora in other nations, as well as other ethnicities. With this, a growth in the Albanian representation in North Macedonia and Montenegro has been recorded, as well as Bosnian and Hungarian parties in Serbia seeing an increase in support.
Initial protests against the Albanian government commenced in November 2018, when residents of the Astir neighborhood rallied against the construction of the Unaza e Madhe or Great Ring Road. Following the Great Ring protests, student organizations began staging mass demonstrations in Tirana and other urban centers. The protests called on the government to improve the education budget and the overall status of institutions in Albania, among other grievances.
Since February 2019, the main opposition party, Partia Demokratike e Shqiperise (PD) and other political entities have staged anti-government demonstrations in Tirana. The PD has called for Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Partia Socialiste e Shqiperise (PS) to resign and call for snap elections. Thousands continue to attend weekly protests in Tirana, which have seen widespread unrest with protesters targeting the PM’s office and parliament buildings. The PD accuses Rama’s cabinet of corruption and links to organized crime, as well as vote manipulation during the 2017 general election. All 65 opposition MPs vacated their parliamentary seats on February 18 in protest against Rama. The PD and other opposition parties have stated they intend to boycott the upcoming local elections if PM Rama refuses to step down.
Opposition demands for snap elections unlikely to translate into increase in political power
The protests are reflective of the perceived inability of the administration to reform the economy and tackle corruption, which remains a core public grievance and is often viewed as the chief hindrance to the country joining the EU. A continuation in the violence witnessed at political demonstrations could negatively impact potential negotiations with Brussels.
The increasing pressure on Rama caused by the protest movement and threatened resignation of President Ilir Meta, who has clashed with Rama in the past, indicate that a snap election is increasingly likely, possibly coinciding with the local elections in June. However, in light of the possible opposition boycott of the local elections, the PD and other parties could denounce such a decision and refuse to participate in any elections until Rama formally steps down, increasing the potential for an increase in political volatility at associated demonstrations.
Given that Rama’s PS gained 74 of 140 seats in Parliament in 2017 and that the protest movement has failed to gain sizeable traction outside Tirana, the PS could retain control of the parliament in snap elections. Rama’s victory would further elevate the discontent among the opposition, leading to large-scale protests, accusations of electoral fraud, and violence at protests.
Considering PD leader Luzlim Basha’s statements and the widespread discontent emanating from student organizations, residents of Tirana, and opposition members, protests are liable to continue in the near-to-medium term in Tirana. The protests could see an increased turnout if PM Rama refuses to engage in dialogue, call early elections, or put forth his resignation. Demonstrations will continue targeting government buildings and could witness further unrest. Further elevating the propensity for unrest are recurring accusations of corruption within Rama’s government, which have led to two senior ministers resigning since the protests began.
Since February, large-scale anti-government protests calling for the resignation of President Milo Djukanovic and his government have been recorded in Podgorica surrounding government buildings. The protests have included episodes of unrest, such as on March 16 when demonstrators launched projectiles at security forces who then proceeded to use tear gas and force to disperse the unruly gatherings.
Following the detention and subsequent release of an opposition leader in December 2018 which incited protests, a video was released in January showing Dusko Knezevic, a prominent businessman and former ally of Djukanovic, giving illicit campaign funding to a member of Djuaknovic’s Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore (DPS) party.
On March 30, leaders of the Odupri se protest movement and 39 Members of Parliament called for opposition parties to campaign together against the DPS should elections be called. A second anti-government protest movement supporting Knezevic was created under the banner of “Do Slobode” (To Freedom). The leaders of the Odupri se movement have continued to denounce Dusko Knezevic, who has attempted to set up his own political party. On May 9, the High Court in Podgorica convicted 14 individuals for their involvement in the October 2016 coup plot. Among the convicted are the leaders of opposition parties such as the Demokratska Narodna Partija (DNP) who are one of the chief protagonists of the ongoing anti-government protests.
Djukanovic liable to call snap elections; could see right-wing, Serb-interest parties making gains
The anti-incumbency sentiment towards Djukanovic, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, was exacerbated by corruption accusations and a failure to address the activities of criminal and drug trafficking organizations, who continue to operate in port cities and are known to conduct targeted killings.
Djukanovic’s denouncement of the protest movement will likely translate into a prolonged resistance by his administration to enact its demands which include the resignation of top officials and forming a transitional government to hold elections. With Djukanovic unlikely to acquiesce, a continuation of large-scale protests can be expected in the immediate term focusing on government buildings in Podgorica. Tensions with the opposition could be exacerbated by the conviction of opposition leaders for their involvement in the 2016 coup plot. Odupri se, whose leaders immediately denounced the conviction, will likely rally behind the DNP and other opposition leaders and seek to invoke perceptions of the persecution of opponents of President Djukanovic.
The unification of the Odupri se protest movement and leaders of the opposition is liable to increase pressure on Djukanovic to call snap elections. However, the emergence of the “Do Slobode” organization could see rival protests manifesting and scuffles among rival groups.
If snap elections are called, the DPS is liable to see a decrease in its overall seats but may still be able to form a governing coalition, while right-wing and pro-Serb interest parties stand to make gains. An increase in the political power afforded to Serb interest parties could result in further political polarization over future relations with the EU and neighboring countries, in particular, Serbia.
Beginning in 2018, anti-government demonstrations organized by the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party and other nationalist organizations were witnessed in Skopje and other urban centers. The protests were incited by the Prespa Agreement with Greece, under which the country will legally change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in exchange for the removal of Greek opposition to joining the EU and NATO.
Protesters denounced PM Zoran Zaev’s decision to resolve the long-standing dispute with Greece due to the multiple concessions during negotiations and perceptions of a change in the country’s national character. Clashes between protesters, mainly members of nationalist organizations, and police were reported surrounding the Parliament and other government buildings in Skopje.
The agreement was ratified by the North Macedonian parliament on January 11. Protests have temporarily abated as political attention has been focused on the Presidential elections. The first round on April 21 resulted in no clear winner, with both the VMRO-DPMNE and government-backed candidates garnering 42 percent of the vote. The second round of the elections on May 5 resulted in a victory for the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) candidate, Stevo Pendarovski with 51 percent of the total vote. VMRO-DPMNE officials immediately denounced the election results due to claims of voter manipulation.
Presidential elections highlight political polarization, protests expected to restart
Following the results of the Presidential elections and the possibility of both NATO and the EU calling for further concessions during membership negotiations, protests led by the VMRO-DPMNE could see a resurgence. Judging by VMRO-DPMNE officials immediately denouncing the election results, allegations of electoral fraud and corruption are liable to continue to be levied against Zaev’s administration. The VMRO-DPMNE will likely call on their supporters and members of nationalist organizations to stage demonstrations in urban centers, possibly motivated by President-elect Pendarovski’s approval of laws surrounding the name deal such as the changing of signs and constitutional amendments.
Instances of unrest stemming from nationalist organizations remain a distinct possibility going forward as nationalist elements have been galvanized by Zaev’s concessions during talks with Athens. Additionally, the VMRO-DPMNE could call for demonstrations if further party members are detained on allegations of corruption, as has occurred several times in recent years.
On December 8, 2018, the first anti-government protest was staged in Belgrade following an attack on the leader of the Levica Srbije party, Borko Stefanovic, in Krusevac, by unidentified assailants. The protests have continued and recorded crowds in the high thousands in Belgrade. The protest movement has manifested under the banner of “1od5Milliona” (One of Five million), which is a play on President Aleskander Vucic’s statement to the initial protest in which he said he would not compromise even if there were five million people in the street. The movement has spread to other major cities such as Nis and Novi Sad. Protesters are calling for the immediate resignation of President Aleskander Vucic of the ruling Srpska Napredna Stranka (SNS) party amid accusations of the manipulation of media and an increase in political violence.
On February 6, the opposition parties announced their intention to boycott parliament and proposed a manifesto containing reforms based on protesters’ demands. The protests were initially peaceful, however, on March 16 protesters attempted to enter the New Palace, the seat of the Presidency, as Vucic was inside, as well as the offices of the state broadcaster. Opposition leaders have reportedly given the government a May 4 deadline in order to heed their demands for widespread reforms.
President Vucic has stated that SNS officials are willing to call snap elections in order to gauge their popularity. On April 19, thousands convened in Belgrade for a pro-government rally.
Vucic to remain in power despite mass protest movement due to entrenched support and opposition disunity
Anti-government demonstrations in Belgrade and other urban centers are unlikely to abate unless President Aleskander Vucic accepts demands for widespread reforms or calls snap elections. Instances of unrest cannot be ruled out with protesters expected to gather at known focal points in Belgrade, such as the New Palace, the National Assembly, the public broadcaster’s office, and the University of Belgrade’s campus. Any allegations of media suppression or acts of political violence could incite larger turnouts and heighten the disaffection towards the Vucic.
If Vucic does not adequately respond to protesters demands following the May 4 deadline, demonstrations are liable to increase in both frequency and size. This increased pressure could lead Vucic to instruct Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to dissolve the government and call snap elections. As with protests against Vucic in 2017, which arose due to accusations of voter and media manipulation, the current wave of protests may lead to little substantial change and are liable to eventually be discontinued.
Judging by Presidential elections in 2017, where Vucic secured 53 percent of the total vote, and the relatively smaller attendance at anti-government demonstrations outside Belgrade, the SNS would likely maintain their sizeable majority in parliament in snap elections. In such a scenario, political instability could arise from protest groups refusing to accept the results and accusing Vucic of manipulating results.