Driven from its stronghold in northeastern Nigeria, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram is targeting the world’s least developed country: Niger.
The Nigeria-based militants stepped up attacks in southeastern Niger this month, raiding villages for food and cattle and attacking the town of Bosso, near Lake Chad, to steal weapons. A looting spree in villages near the lake on June 21 was the latest in a string of raids that have left more than 40 people dead.
“Boko Haram is on the defensive and trying to replenish their reserves,” Vincent Foucher, a political analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said by phone from Senegal. The organization is facing “a regional response that’s become much more coherent.”
Fishing and farming in the fertile Lake Chad region have almost ground to a halt, causing hunger among the 280,000 people who have sought refuge in the area. The United Nations said it has received less than a third of the $112 million needed to alleviate the crisis. Even if Boko Haram’s first incursion into Niger dates from early last year, attacks in recent months have been more sporadic and mainly targeted the military.
“It’s been three years since Niger has been affected, but it’s now that we really see the magnitude of the crisis,” Benoit Moreno, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said by phone. “The economy is in complete disorder.”
About 50,000 people fled after the June 3 attack on Bosso, which left 26 soldiers dead and scores of houses burnt to the ground. The town was a target because the army was stocking military equipment in preparation of an offensive against Boko Haram, according to Niger’s government. The uranium producer ranks last in the United Nations Human Development Index out of 188 nations surveyed last year.
The scale of the attack prompted President Mahamadou Issoufou to fly to Chad for talks with his counterpart Idriss Deby, whose army plays a key role in a regional task force set up to combat the group. Nigeria intensified its military offensive against Boko Haram after President Muhammadu Buhari took office last year, triggering a spillover of violence into Cameroon, Niger and Chad that prompted regional heads of state to join forces. The U.S. and France provide drones and intelligence.
“Countries in the region that used to be suspicious of each other, harbor frustration toward each other, they finally understood that they needed to collaborate on this issue,” Foucher said. “That’s been one of the biggest changes.”
Troops from Niger, Chad and Cameroon launched an offensive last week to oust Boko Haram militants from hideouts in the Lake Chad basin, General Jacob Kodji, a Cameroonian army commander, said Tuesday by phone from the northern town of Maroua.
Heavily armed soldiers from Chad, supported by tanks and armored vehicles, arrived on Sunday in Niger’s southeastern town of Nguigmi, Issa Sanoussi, a resident, said by phone on Monday.
Cameroon and Nigeria increased joint patrols following a series of bombings in villages in Cameroon’s Far North region earlier this year. Most attacks were carried out by teenagers with explosives strapped to their bodies and occurred in crowded places, prompting authorities to close local markets.
Cameroon said last month that its troops, together with Nigerian soldiers, destroyed Boko Haram training camps and captured a prominent commander during a raid in Nigeria. The strengthened cooperation between Nigeria and Cameroon has probably pushed Boko Haram to attack Niger, according to Verner Ayukegba, an analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at IHS Country Risk, in an e-mailed note.
Attacks in Cameroon haven’t subsided completely after militants killed at least four civilians in fatal incursions on June 24. The most effective way to quash the group will be by fighting them in Nigeria, where they’re based, Niger’s defense minister, Hassoumi Massaoudou, said this month.
“We thought that they were reduced to suicide attacks,” he told Radio France Internationale. “We now see that we were wrong. They’ve rebuilt their military force.”