September 28, 2023

Over 420 civilians killed in Niger this year by armed islamist groups

Nigerien soldiers practice vehicle contact movements while participating in a special forces training exercise during Exercise Flintlock 2018 in Agadez
Nigerien soldiers practice vehicle contact movements while participating in a special forces training exercise during Exercise Flintlock 2018 in Agadez

Islamist armed groups have killed over 420 civilians and driven tens of thousands from their homes during attacks in western Niger since January 2021.

Human Rights Watch quoted witnesses as saying that armed Islamist fighters entered their villages on motorcycles, killing men and boys, and burning houses and granaries. The attackers summarily executed civilians in their homes, after forcing them off public transport, at wells, and funerals; and while they farmed or watered their animals. Among those killed were village chiefs, imams, people with disabilities, and numerous children, some executed after being ripped from their parents’ arms.

“Armed Islamist groups appear to be waging war on the civilian population in western Niger,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “They have killed, pillaged, and burned; leaving death, broken lives, and destruction in their wake.”

From June 23 to July 4 Human Rights Watch said it visited Niger and interviewed 44 witnesses to abuses and 16 other people, including ethnic Peuhl, Tuareg, and Zarma community leaders; local government and security officials; members of Nigerien human rights organizations; and foreign diplomats. Human Rights Watch interviewed five other witnesses in July by telephone.

The nine attacks that Human Rights Watch documented took place between January and July in towns, villages, and hamlets in western Tillabéri and Tahoua regions, located near the Mali and Burkina Faso borders. Since 2019, this area has experienced a dramatic spike in attacks against military targets and, increasingly, civilians by armed Islamist groups allied to the Islamic State and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda. These groups have also destroyed schools and churches, and imposed restrictions based on their interpretation of Islam.

On March 21, armed Islamist fighters killed at least 170 ethnic Tuaregs in the Tahoua region, the deadliest attack on civilians in Niger’s recent history. “A mother threw her arms around her 17-year-old son, but the jihadists beat her mercilessly until she could hold on no longer, then executed the boy in front of her,” a witness said.

A villager described the January 2, twin attacks on Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye in which 102 civilians, nearly all ethnic Zarma, were killed: “As the jihadists patrolled through town, I saw them killing people at close range, sometimes shooting them twice, three times, to make sure they were dead.”

All parties to Niger’s armed conflict are bound by Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and other treaty and customary laws of war. The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians and civilian property and the mistreatment of anyone in custody. People who commit serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, may be prosecuted for war crimes. The Niger government has an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes committed within its territory.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported on abuses by Niger’s security forces, including over 150 alleged killings and enforced disappearances of people during counterterrorism operations in 2019 and 2020. An investigation by Niger’s National Human Rights Commission documented the enforced disappearance of 102 people and located 71 of their bodies in common graves.

Niger’s authorities should take urgent steps to stop the upsurge in killings of civilians, Human Rights Watch said. They should establish early warning networks, reduce the army’s response times to threatened villages, and create committees composed of civilians, security forces, and civil society groups to identify and respond to urgent protection needs.

“After slaughtering my people, the jihadists moved slowly because of the livestock they’d stolen,” one villager said. “There was plenty of time for our army to pursue them, but they didn’t.”

“Concerned governments should help Nigerien authorities better protect civilians from such horrendous and deadly attacks, and increase assistance for the growing number of displaced,” Dufka said.

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