Attacks have been rocking Niger ahead of February's presidential election runoff. Jihadis, ethnical disputes and the fight for resources are the key issues the next president will need to address, experts say.
A group of attackers appeared on motorbikes around midday on Saturday. They split into two columns and simultaneously invaded the two Nigerien villages of Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye, leaving behind a blood bath with more than a hundred people dead and dozens wounded.
It was the latest in a string of civilian massacres that have rocked southwest Niger's jihadi-plagued Tillaberi region. The attacks were believed to be in retaliation to the earlier killing of two fighters at the hands of villagers, after young people from the area tried to form a self-defense group. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
"I think one of most significant factors is that the person who is thought to be the leader of the group who carried out the killings is said to be from one of local villages", Paul Melly from Chatham House told DW.
"This remind us how far ideological conflict between Jihadists, the Niger government and Nigerien civilians is mixed up with local disputes and tensions and complications."
The government in response announced military reinforcements to permanently deploy a company in the affected province, the commander-in-charge, Mamane Sani, said.
Sani had visited one of the two affected villages near the border with Mali together with Prime Minister Birgi Rafini.
Rafini promised justice: "This situation is simply horrible. Investigations will be conducted so that this crime does not go unpunished."
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attacks and urged Nigerien authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice while enhancing the protection of civilians.
Niger — which shares borders with Mali and Burkina Faso — has suffered repeated attacks by Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Four thousand people across Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso died in 2019 from jihadi violence and ethnic bloodshed stirred by Islamists, according to the UN.
Seven Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tillaberi on December 21. Travel by motorbike has been banned in Tillaberi since last January in a bid to prevent incursions by mobile jihadis.
Niger is also being threatened by Boko Haram Islamists from Nigeria. The militant Islamist movement claimed responsibility for an attack on December 12, that left 34 people dead in the southeastern village of Toumour, near the Nigerian border. Also in December, 34 villagers were massacred in the southeastern region of Diffa.
It is part of a wider crisis in West Africa's Sahel region. "This is the Sahel, resources are, like water and land, fragile," Melly added.
Ethnic disputes and the competition for scarce resources continuously lead to violence in Niger. "It is a boiling up of complex local intercommunity pressure and tensions combined with the absolutist ideology of jihadist violence that says: no compromise is possible," Melly said.
The latest brutal attack happened during on the day the results of the presidential election were announced. The second round of the presidential election is scheduled for February 21 after the country's ruling party candidate failed to secure enough votes in the first round.
Mohamed Bazoum, a former head of Niger's interior and foreign ministries, led the first round with 39.6% of the vote. That falls short of the 50% needed to win the presidency outright. In the February runoff, Bazoum, an ally of President Mahamadou Issoufou, will face off against former president Mahamane Ousmane, who collected 16.9% of the vote in the first round.
Bazoum promised to step up the fight against the jihadists. In a video message he underlined that Saturday's attacks showed that "terrorist groups constitute a serious threat to cohesion within our communities and a danger unlike any other." Issoufou earlier expressed his condolences in a statement on Twitter in which he also condemned the "cowardly and barbaric attack."
"The main issue is to solve the insecurity issue at the borders with Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali and the insecurity at the border with Libya," Nigerian journalist, Seidik Abba, told DW.
"All presidential candidates promised to resolve the insecurity problem. The Nigerien government is doing everything possible, but it requires international support in terms of tools, skills and equipment."
Whoever takes over as president will face a major challenge of protecting the country's security from further jihadi attacks. Together with Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso, Niger is part of the G5 Sahel group, which aims to combat terrorist groups.
The G5 Sahel states
Niger recorded a 176% increase in terrorism deaths attributed to Boko Haram in 2019, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace's Global Terrorism Index.
International partnerships will remain crucial. "It is difficult to imagine any alternative approach than the one the country has got, the security partnership with its neighbors and the other Sahel countries in the G5 group, with France and other western allies," said Melly. "Those security partnerships going to remain part of the picture for future."
A program to support economic development, better livelihoods and to reduce poverty is urgently needed — but hard to deliver in an environment struck by violence and insecurity, according to Melly.
However, he sees the Nigerien government seriously committed to reduce violence in the country: "I think Niger is likely to remain firmly committed to this security approach — whoever wins the election."
Niger is attempting its first ever democratic transition of power. The country has seen four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960.
Niger is one of the world's poorest countries. Its poverty rate remains very high at 41.4%, according to the World Bank figures, affecting more than 9.5 million people. About 42% of the population lived on under $1.90 (€1.60) per day last year. The fragile economy has suffered heavily under the global coronavirus pandemic.