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Niger: Fear of terror — and the military

September 16, 2020

The recent discovery of 71 bodies in six mass graves in Niger is not an isolated incident. In the Sahel region countries, soldiers repeatedly violate the rights of civilians.

Nigerien soldiers on patrol
Image: AFP/S. Ag Anar

The bodies of the 71 civilians were discovered with hands cuffed behind their backs and their skulls smashed. Human rights researchers say Nigerien army units were behind the mass executions.

The Niger National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said its investigation found that the bodies of the 71 people found in the graves were among the 102 civilians who went missing between March and April earlier this year. The CNDH blamed Nigerien army units stationed in the Tillaberi region for the killings. 

Read more: Niger probe: Soldiers executed dozens of civilians

Kidnapped and executed

The massacre is not an isolated case in the Sahel region, where a coalition of armed forces known as the G5 Sahel Group is battling several terrorist organizations including Boko Haram, the so-called "Islamic State" and al-Qaida.

A damning report by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) accused the Malian army of having executed 101 civilians between January and March. Over the same period, the mission documented a total of 589 human rights violations, including 30 separate extrajudicial mass executions by Nigerien soldiers stationed in Mali as part of the G5.

Read more: Amnesty accuses West African forces of human rights abuses in Sahel region

A soldier surrounded by civilians.
The security situation in Burkina Faso is deterioratingImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. de Maismont

In June, Amnesty International said soldiers from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were behind the disappearance of at least 199 people between February and April. In the Sahel, "soldiers rampage through villages killing people under the guise of anti-terror operations," Amnesty said.

Untrained and indisciplined armies

Seidik Abba, a journalist and Sahel specialist, says the apparent killings are proof that the armies are overwhelmed. "Our armies have not been trained to fight terrorism, but for conventional, classic warfare," Abba told DW. "There is a training deficit. Then there are the heavy losses they have suffered. It is logical there would be vengeance."

Abdoulaye Sounaye, a senior researcher at the Leibniz Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) in Berlin, says: "They [the soldiers]  don't want to be killed, so they don't take any risks. That's the reality in these areas. There have been cases where they have been attacked by people they trusted."

A group of soldiers
Malian soldiers who are part of a European Union training missionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A.I. Bänsch

The European Union has been involved in the Sahel region since 2012, providing military support and training. The German Bundeswehr is part of the European Training Mission (EUTM) and MINUSMA in Mali.

Insufficient human rights awareness

According to the Federal Foreign Office, EUTM Mali training measures also include training on the subjects of international humanitarian law, protection of the civilian population and human rights.

Hama Assah, a member of the Defense and Security Committee of the National Assembly in Niger, confirmed that the soldiers are being made aware of human rights. "They know about human rights and to protect them," Assah tells DW. "We have a lot of prisoners right now. If we didn't respect human rights, we wouldn't take prisoners because it's a burden on us."

Burkina Faso | Übung Truppen aus Afrika
Soldiers from the Sahel during a joint training exercise in Burkina Faso in 2019 Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/Planet Pix/D. White

The deficit in training is obvious, says Lukas Granrath, an expert on Niger and Burkina Faso at Amnesty International Germany. "The EU says it puts a lot of work into human rights education. We don't know how this is done or whether it is taken seriously. A condition for working with the Nigerien military should be that they accept and protect human rights."

Between power and excessive demands

The researcher Abdoulaye Sounaye, says the army in Niger has "great power and influence" and, despite critical voices, is very popular with civil society. Niger was a military regime for 21 years until 1999. "The constitution says that whenever a state of emergency occurs, the security forces take power. All kinds of crimes can be committed in such situations," says Sounaye.

Mass killings "create a climate of distrust in the army," according to Moussa Tchangari, general secretary of the Nigerien rights organization Alternative Espace Citoyen. Civilians now feel they could be killed by both jihadists and regular soldiers. "That scares people, and in the end they won't know who to turn to," he says.

Soldiers next to a burned-out car | Attentat auf ACTED Hilfsorganisation
Nigerien soldiers inspecting a burned-out car belonging to an aid organization that come under attack Image: AFP/B. Hama

The Nigerien military is under immense pressure to succeed, according to Granrath. So far, the army has always denied involvement in executions. "The current investigations are a new step for Niger and it remains to be seen how the government will act on the results," Granrath adds.

Despite the approval for the investigation, Sounaye fears the Nigerien army's reputation among the population would decline if the final report finds proof of the heinous crimes committed by the troops.

However, transparency helps against this: "It is to be hoped that this will have a positive impact on how soldiers will behave in the future," Sounaye says.

of the 102 civilians

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistranslated that the Nigerien government ordered an investigation into the deaths in March. This has been removed. 

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.