Au Niger, l’attaque de Bosso révèle la faiblesse de l’armée et fait débat

In Niger, the Bosso attack reveals the weakness of the army and creates debate

By Nathalie Prevost (Contributer for Le Monde Afrique)

“Long live the defense and security forces!” “Our country or death, we will prevail! “ The mood, on Wednesday, June 8th, on Niger’s social networks is warlike. With pride, the photos of armored vehicles and Nigerien soldiers on patrol adorn much of the population’s social networking sites. The majority of web users encourage their army to overcome Boko Haram, considered to be a “pest,” a “cursed cloud,” “vermin,” or   “criminals claiming to act in the name of Islam.” Even the opposition says that it does not want to overdo it during this period of crisis, with reference to the threat that bears down on the unity of the country.

Tuesday, June 7th, President Mahamadou Issoufou travelled to Chad to request the help of Chad’s army to drive out Boko Haram from Niger’s easternmost regions, which have been hit by lightening quick raids over the past few days. President Idriss Déby was of the same opinion, and sent nearly 2,000 soldiers from the Chadian Army, “heavily armed,” as early as Wednesday, for the border. Meanwhile, the Nigerien Army, with Chadian air support, repelled an attack to the west of Diffa, on the Nigerien side near Kanama.

Major disagreements

The prospect of the return of Chadians, who left a pleasant memory in the region during the first months of the war, reassures the inhabitants of Diffa and Nigeriens in general, still reeling from the most recent attack.  “Relief” is the prevailing emotion, even if the civilian population continues to flee the region. “Airport terminals are full of people, most conspicuously women and children who desire, at all costs, to escape the area,” a driver of a transport company in Diffa told AFP on Wednesday.

However, an appeal to the Chadian Army, along with the seriousness of the losses incurred Friday in Bosso, sheds a harsh light on the challenges the national army wrestles with.  Arguments quickly lit up social networks, criticizing the army, its management, or, point-blank, the presidential regime.  Conversely, regime supporters accuse their detractors of becoming co-conspirators with Boko Haram, or of sabotaging the army’s morale.

In Niger, the army is both loved and feared, insomuch as it has often been the arbiter of political crises. Some are critical of the army’s political role and it is often attributed to having power due to settling these disputes.  Mahamadou Issoufou is no exception, having foiled, according to his own statements, two coup d’état attempts since his rise to power in April 2011. Since February 2015 and the war against Boko Haram, the Nigerien Army has received budgetary decisions in its favor, to the detriment of some of the government’s social welfare projects.

“Our security and defense forces have suffered heavy losses and the local populations are afflicted [because of Boko Haram]. But I think that apart from regional and international cooperation, we must also look at the faults in our defense system and provide appropriate solutions,” surmises Ali Idrissa Nani, community organizer and president of the Citizen’s Resistance Group.

It does not appear that this discussion will begin in the near future. Elhadj Bako Mamadou, mayor of the ghost town of Bosso, which was ravaged Friday by jihadists, was arrested for having expressed, on-air, a different opinion than that of the governor regarding the situation of his town. The displaced that have fled Bosso, Yebi, and Toumour have been ordered not to speak out concerning the matter. The press, for the moment, is forbidden to stay in the Diffa region. Wednesday morning, the governor gathered traditional leaders together to ask them to stamp out the rumors that are emptying the towns of their inhabitants.

In its announcement, published Monday, the Council of Ministers thought it appropriate to denounce “…a rumor that was artfully disseminated by individuals who seem to be impartial allies of Boko Haram.”

The publication Urgence Diffa, from the Alternative Citizen’s Spaces association, surmises that this phrase “ …shows, in an extremely unmistakable manner, that the government would have preferred that this kind of information [regarding the capture of Bosso by Boko Haram] were not brought to the attention of national and international opinion.”

Urgence Diffa is pleased with the Chadian intervention, but speculates that it may be “…interpreted as a sort of lack of confidence in our own forces.”

Chadian-Army in Nigeria

Military spending increased by 15

France, who has set up on three bases in Niger, has also been attacked. Some web users are going as far as to suspect a duplicitous game in favor of Boko Haram with reference to obscure conspiracy theories or neocolonial plans. Others wonder where the drones and French soldiers were during the attack on Friday.

“Asking for aide does not indicate the inadequacy of our army. How many times has our army gone to the aide of entire countries?  It is, at the present time, in all the peacekeeping forces and in all the countries of the world,” is what one web user claims to know.

“Each Nigerien, male or female, should consider themselves as a soldier on the frontline of this cowardly war, because it is asymmetric, that which the cursed cloud imposes on us,” writes the director of the government newspaper, Le Sahel. And Mahamadou Adamou reminds us that, “since 2010, our country has had to multiply its military expenditures by 15,” and “…consequently devotes more than 10% of its GDP to defense and security expenditures.”

Analyst’s comments:

Niger’s leadership as well its military seem more than willing to contribute to the fight, but seemingly are unable to effectively dent the advances of Boko Haram. It could be that they are overwhelmed, lack proper equipment, or have leadership issues. Niger must not only fight Islamist extremism from groups based the Sahel, but also the effects of political collapse in the Central African Republic (CAR). In addition, Niger must also be prepared for the spillover effects of the collapse of governance in Hausa and Fulani dominated areas as a result of Nigeria’s fight with Boko Haram. A new source of concern may arise as the situation in South Sudan continues to deteriorate as well. Complicating the equation, Niger is also an important point of transit for all types of illicit goods and services. In towns such as Zinder, brazen lawlessness, whether tied to terrorism or not, weakens the authority and legitimacy of the state, giving rise to alternate systems of governance in these ungoverned spaces. With the goal of countering extremism in the region, Western actors such as France and the United States are already set up in the country. Training, logistics, and ISR missions have been and are continually underway. However, perhaps wary of mission creep, and still reeling from the effects of the Global War on Terrorism, the West has been reluctant to undertake any sort of robust counterinsurgency training or missions with the Nigeriens. This leaves regional actors, such as Chad, to fill this type of role.  Since the Malian coup and the subsequent jihadist offensive in 2012-13, Chad’s Army has proven itself in countless engagements in Northern Mali’s harsh badlands, and was key in retaking many of these regions back from jihadists during Operation Serval. In 2015, Chadian expeditionary forces liberated major areas held by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger. But Chad is also buffeted by a myriad of regional issues. Of concern is the threat of overextending the Chadian forces and leaving the country vulnerable to attacks. The army is not without its problems, as well. Under long time president Idriss Déby, Transparency International has accused it of human rights abuses. As recently as 2008, Mr. Déby was obligated to put down an insurgency that contested the legitimacy of his regime. All of this aside, it may very well be time to throw more weight behind the Chadian Forces. They have spent a significant amount of the country’s oil wealth to modernize the military, with much of the new arms and equipment coming from China. In addition, the Chadian air force is capable of striking Boko Haram positions. It cannot, however, due to both capability shortfalls and political considerations, hold ground. The international force that was to fill this role has been hamstrung by infighting and lack of direction. As reluctant as it may be to become more involved, the United States risks losing both influence and strategic gains if it continues to deny the role of mentor that a decade and a half at war with extremism has prepared it for.

For the countries of the region, solutions must be found to address the grievances of those groups that qualify as Thomas P.M. Barnett’s “lesser haves,” namely, the Fulani, the Hausa, and the Tuareg. These grievances have, and will continue to contribute to the support base of the extremist groups of the region. For the West, assisting the countries of the region in learning how to address these grievances, along with a continued emphasis on human rights, is an integral part of this mentorship.

For more on Chad’s role in the fight against Islamic extremism in the Sahel and surrounding regions, see: