Life to the sound of gunfire

Sarah Leduc
Sara Hanaburgh

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Group of women in front of Kataguiri village school, May 7, 2022. © Sarah Leduc.

On this Saturday in May, the entire village is on high alert. The bazin fabrics shimmer in thousands of colors on Kataguiri Square, in the Bangui commune located in the south of the Tahoua region in Niger. The residents are hurrying to welcome education supervisor, Oumarou Ibrahim, who has come to check on the remedial teaching program put in place for the 560 displaced Nigerian children registered at the rural school. On this day, approximately sixty of them are huddled in silence on the school benches, in the sweltering heat of the tin-roofed classroom.

“Education is the key to integration,” declares Oumarou Ibrahim, who takes his role very seriously. “We have Hausa in common, but young Nigerians must also learn French.” The Supervisor sits behind the teacher’s desk and calls a student to the board, to see proof of his progress. The selected student hobbles over, with 120 eyes glued to his back in solidarity, and deciphers in an uncertain voice a few words in Hausa. He passes the test, and the 120 eyes smile at him, still without a word. A model class, if we disregard the backpacks with the humanitarian logo, the tattered clothes or that look of an old soul peering from under a veil at the back of the class, of a child who has already seen too much.

“Some families leave their children with host families then return to Nigeria. They are alone but safer here,” Oumarou Ibrahim continues. The little ones are sheltered from the violence of criminal groups, rampant in northern Nigeria, not far from there. The commune of Bangui is only one kilometer from the border of the Nigerian state of Sokoto. (Nigeria is a federation made up of 36 states, which share their sovereignty with the federal government of Abuja.) Between the two lies a common valley and a river, which is dry this season.

Before we didn’t know the sound of gunfire

“The problems started two years ago,” Mahamadou Labou estimates roughly. The old Nigerian fled to Kataguiri in September 2021 with his five children and their families. “Before, we didn’t know the sound of gunfire,” he says. This breeder, first, had his cattle stolen, then a night raid convinced him to flee. “The bandits came at night with guns, they shot everywhere, they scared us. So we left. We walked from the village of Danjani, 10 km from here. We left everything behind, our fields, our houses…” he says.

Like him, some 18,000 Nigerians have taken refuge in the commune of Bangui and the approximately twenty surrounding villages, 2,000 of which are in Kataguiri. Nationally, on April 30, 2022, almost 200,000 Nigerians—refugees or asylum seekers, primarily from the states of Katsina and Sokoto, located in northwestern Nigeria—had found refuge in Niger, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UN agency expects to see those numbers to increase. “I fear that we will have regular influxes into Niger as long as there is unrest in neighboring countries,” UNHCR representative in Niger, Emmanuel Gignac said in May.

Nigerians are fleeing criminal groups who are pillaging their villages, stealing their cattle, kidnapping for ransom, imposing zakat (taxes) and killing when they are resisted. “Civilians are often the first victims,” said United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, on a visit to Niger in early May. According to the UN, nearly eight out of ten victims of attacks are civilians. According to the International Crisis Group, over the last ten years, at least 8,000 people have been killed in northwestern Nigeria, thousands of others have been kidnapped, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

At the origin of this violence lies “a long-standing rivalry between Fulani herders and predominantly Hausa farmers […] combined with an explosion of criminal activities and cases of infiltration of jihadist groups,” according to the think tank in a published report two years ago. Hundreds of armed organizations are involved, some with dozens of members, others with hundreds. “In the context of an explosion in trade in light small-caliber weapons in the region, organized gangs operating in forests far from the reach of the authorities have multiplied,” the report reads. This violence has been exported to the Niger side of the border, to Maradi since 2016, then to Tahoua in 2019.

“There are jihadists among the bandits and bandits among the jihadists.”

Driven either by the lure of profit or to defend their property, the armed groups adopt methods similar to those of jihadist groups—like the two factions, offshoots of Boko Haram, Jama’at ahl al Sunnah and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)—which run rampant further east in the border areas of Nigeria’s Borno and Yobe states. “These are very mobile groups, who circulate on foot or motorcycle, with their faces covered so they are not identified and who sow terror. There are jihadists among the bandits and bandits among the jihadists,” states an agent of the United Nations, a security specialist in the Tahoua region.

The security crisis also raises “fears that the region could become a gateway, a territory that would link the Islamist insurgencies in the central Sahel and the insurgencies that have lasted for ten years in the Lake Chad region and northeastern Nigeria,” according to the International Crisis Group.

The populations in exile in neighboring Niger, however, only find relative security there. If refugees can pass through, so can the criminal gangs. The defense and security forces (FDS)—police, military police and national guard—are however increasing patrols at the border. But with more than 30 kilometers in the bush for the commune of Bangui alone, the border is too vast to be fully monitored.

Impossible to secure borders

“We are dealing with enemies who attack our populations with the same weapons as our own soldiers. They are looting everywhere, with weapons that come from Libya. […] We do not have the means to monitor all our villages,” Mohamed Bazoum, the President of Niger conceded in February 2022. Bangui nevertheless is one of the villages that benefit from the attention of the Head of State. When he came to visit it last January, he had promised “a relentless fight against those carrying out abductions of people […]. Most of those people have been arrested, particularly in Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder. Those who remain in Bangui, we will stop them, and we will fight them with all our strength.”

Despite the efforts made, security remains difficult to ensure. In April 2022, between 30 and 50 criminals, according to local witnesses, have managed to reach Bangui on foot. Pushed back by the FDS during an offensive that lasted more than two hours, the damage was limited that time. But that has not always been the case. “In one year, there were at least three attacks which have caused deaths and injuries, and there were several ransom demands,” says the Mayor of Bangui, Ado Oumarou Maidawa. These types of violent acts are increasing throughout the border area, which extends along nearly 1,500 kilometers with Nigeria. On May 25th, a new attack was reported in Birni N’Konni, 150 kilometers west of Bangui. Targeting the police station, it left at least two dead and several seriously injured.

“We are managing to push back the bandits, but not to stop them because they arrive on foot, on motorcycles. They carry out quick raids and then leave. Sometimes they hide in the villages with the help of local accomplices. They are well informed and use the time between shifts to attack,” Education Supervisor Oumarou Ibrahim explains. Thus, fear has gradually overcome the inhabitants of that village. “We sleep badly. We are suffering from psychosis, and that feeds the rumors. Recently, we were informed that 104 motorcycles had arrived. When you know there are three per motorcycle… People in the village were panicked. Luckily, they did not come. But we are always on our guard,” Oumarou Ibrahim sighs.

“They come from Nigeria, but we are all Hausa”

Against a common enemy, local and displaced people stand together. In Kataguiri, the village chief asked each inhabitant to do his part. “There is no refugee camp in Bangui. The displaced get by with their host families,” the mayor explains.

Issa Yahaya, a modest farmer who already has two wives and a dozen children to take care of, welcomed up to ten households in his compound. At the beginning of May, when we met him, three were still there, sheltered by UNHCR tents pitched in the corners of the mud courtyard. “For us, it is a social obligation to host. They come from Nigeria, but we are all Hausa. We are one big family, we support each other. Everyone lives well together,” he explains.

Exchanges of goods and between people are as intense as they are historic in this border region which was one state before European colonization. In the 19th century, the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest African State at the time, covered the entire region. “We share the same valley with Nigeria. Someone who is not from here cannot tell the difference between the two countries,” the mayor emphasizes. “The commune of Bangui is a zone of transhumance. Before, our herders used to graze their cattle on the Nigerian side, and vice versa. We were always going back and forth between Niger and Nigeria. We speak the same language, we are the same people, the same families. There are even villages that have been cut in half by the border.”

Trade has not dried up as is evident from the constant activity of transport trucks on the main road linking Tahoua (Niger) to Sokoto (Nigeria). Purple onions from Galmi, very well-known in the sub-region, are sent by the tons to Nigeria, which in return exports its hydrocarbon, distributed at the pump and on the black market, and its agricultural products. But the migratory route is now one-way, and the exodus is gradually turning into exile.

The threat of a food crisis

“Go back?”, old Mohamadou Labo bursts out laughing. “We cannot even dream of that anymore! Things are so bad back home; we cannot even think of going back.” Though he claims to have permanently laid his mat in Niger, he leaves each morning to cultivate his land on the Nigerian side. Despite the dangerous journey, he travels the ten kilometers that separate him from his land and returns before the sun goes down. “We need to eat,” he sighs.

It is difficult for the host families to feed those new mouths while an unprecedented food crisis looms in Niger. Between structural drought, global warming and higher food prices because of the war in Ukraine, nearly 3.6 million people risk food insecurity in Niger, including 600,000 children, UNICEF warns. “All the signs are there to indicate that there will be a serious food crisis in the weeks to come,” according to UNICEF representative in Niger, Stefano Savi. “If the situation deteriorates in Nigeria, and pushes populations to take to the road, there will be repercussions in Niger,” he continues, considering that both local and displaced populations are in danger.

“In the beginning, we all ate from the same plate. Now, things are harder, you have to be careful,” says Issa Yahaya. One month away from the hunger season, his millet and sorghum granaries are already almost empty. So, the farmer has no more surplus to sell. “But the refugees received a little aid, so they also share,” the head of the family goes on. Upon their arrival, Nigerians receive help from humanitarian organizations: UNHCR provides shelter, UNICEF a non-food kit for their settlement (mosquito nets, mats, soaps, pagnes, dishes, school supplies…) and the WFP a food kit.

“When the rains come, we will have peace of mind.”

For the commune, the massive population growth is also difficult to absorb. “Water is lacking in Bangui, and the influx of refugees poses a threat to the potable water system,” the mayor warns. Almost every morning, the city is without water and electricity for several hours. Construction is underway to transform a borehole into a water reserve and rehabilitate inter-community health centers to increase healthcare capacities. “Thanks to the partners, we put our efforts into education, health, water and food distribution, but it is not easy,” the town councilor admits. “Until the security issue at the border is resolved, it will remain very complicated for us.”

“We hope that the Nigerian authorities address that because insecurity causes displacement,” the mayor goes on. “The danger is next to us, but not ours. However, we are the ones who bear the consequences. It is our FDS who ensure the security of the Nigerian villages near the border.” Ado Oumarou Maidawa deplores the lack of cooperation with Nigerian elected officials. “Nigeria leaves the ground open to the bandits. Our FDS are in pursuit of them here but cannot go too far on the Nigerian side to catch them. And there, no one fights back to thwart the attacks,” he regrets to say.

The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, however, has repeatedly shown his determination to combat criminal activities and fight against those he describes as “mass murderers.” In September 2021, a large-scale military operation was carried out in northwest Nigeria, initially focused on the state of Zamfara, then spreading to the bordering states of Katsina, Sokoto and Kaduna. But, like Niamey, Abuja is limited by the lack of personnel and resources of its security forces.

Failing to be able to count on a strong military, the town councilor Ado Oumarou Maidawa leaves his fate to the gods. “When the rains come, we will have peace of mind,” he sighs. With the rainy season, the bed of the Gagere River, which forms the natural border between Niger and Nigeria, will become flooded. “When it’s dry, the river allows everyone to pass. When it is full, between July and October, the few points of passage are easy to control. That does not completely prevent bandits from intruding, but it limits them.” The inhabitants of Bangui, whether locals or refugees, will have to wait a few more weeks before they can sleep peacefully. In this month of May, there is no shadow of a cloud on the horizon.

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