The Government of Niger is involved in a number of parallel non-international armed conflicts, notably against at least Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Since January 2015, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has been active in the fight against Boko Haram. Furthermore, French forces have been present in Niger since July 2022, in support of the government.
A number of non-international armed conflicts are taking place in Niger, involving different actors:
- The Nigerien Government has been involved in parallel non-international armed conflicts, in particular against Boko Haram, a non-state armed group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2015, and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).
- Since January 2015, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has been active in the fight against Boko Haram. The MNJTF is composed of units from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin.
- French forces have been present in Niger since July 2022, in support of the government.
Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:
- First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
- Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.
Intensity of violence
Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Violence’ in our Classification section.
In July 2009, as Nigeria killed more than 1,000 of Boko Haram members, many of its fighters found refuge in south-eastern Niger. For a number of years, the group avoided engaging in armed confrontations against the Nigerian government and preferred to keep a low profile and to use Diffa as a refuge to seek funds, supplies and recruits. At first, Niger authorities considered Boko Haram as a problem of Nigeria and they simply kept it under surveillance. However, in 2014 things started changing as the threat from the rebel group became more pressing. Indeed, Boko Haram secured control over a significant part of Nigerian territory, hence starting to constitute a serious threat to neighboring countries. This led to the establishment of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which comprises Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. International Crisis Group, Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency, Africa Report N. 245, 27 February 2017, pp. 8-9.
While at first Niger thought that it would have gained an easy win, the conflict quickly escalated to the point that, at the beginning of 2015, Niger authorized Chadian armed forces to intervene in the country to fight against the rebels, as part of as part of the MNJTF. As a reaction, on 6-8 February Boko Haram fighters launched violent attacks against the towns of Bosso and Diffa. Following the presidential elections in March 2016, Boko Haram conducted a military offensive that led the group to gain control over Bosso for a few hours, while causing significant casualties among the Nigerien soldiers. International Crisis Group, Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency, Africa Report N. 245, 27 February 2017, pp. 9-10. In 2017, fighting between Boko Haram and Niger state forces remained sustained. For instance, on 1 January members of Boko Haram attacked an army position in Baroua (Diffa region), the ensuing fighting led to the death of 3 state soldiers and 15 fighters. On 18 August, governmental forces killed 39 members of Boko Haram, near Barwa, in the Diffa region. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger. In the following years, the intensity of violence between state forces and Boko Haram has remained sustained. On 25 May 2022, clashes between fighters and soldiers have led to the death of 40 members of Boko Haram. ‘Niger Says Army Killed 40 Boko Haram Fighters on Lake Chad Islands’, VOA, 25 May 2022. On 5 July 2022, the government announced that Boko Haram fighters attacked members of the army in Garin Dogo outpost, killing one soldier and leaving one missing and four wounded, while state troops killed 11 fighters. ‘Niger Says Bloody Jihadist Attack Crushed’, The Defense Post, 5 July 2022. On 1-2 October 2022, the Niger armed forces succeeded in dismantling the supply system of Boko Haram in in Toumour village (Diffa department). International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger.
Between December 2022 and January 2023, armed confrontations between state forces and fighters have decreased. However, It is worth recalling that this does not imply that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to be applicable. Indeed, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time. As specified by the ICRC ‘a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption will undoubtedly constitute the end of a non-international armed conflict as it would equate to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, even without the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a ceasefire, armistice or peace agreement.’ ICRC Commentary to Article 3 GC (2016), §488.
The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)
ISWAP is a splinter of Boko Haram which operates in north-eastern Nigeria and along Lake Chad. The first armed confrontations between Nigerien armed forces and ISWAP fighters have been reported in 2019. Nevertheless, clashes were sporadic and therefore the intensity requirement was not met. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger.
However, in 2021 the intensity of violence substantially increased. For instance, in April a number of armed confrontations between ISWAP and the government caused the displacement of up to 65,000 people. Furthermore, on 28 May ISWAP fighters killed four security forces and four civilians, while at least six attackers died. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger. In 2022, fighting further intensified, with violent clashes taking place every month between state forces and ISWAP fighters. Notably, on 29 January state forces were victims of an attack against Chetima Wangou military camp, killing ten militants. ACLED has reported that in February 2022 fighting between ISWAP and Nigerien state forces resulted in several civilian and non-civilian casualties. Furthermore, on 7 June rebel fighters killed one soldier during an attack against the army in Djalori town (Diffa department), while on 14 June they attacked customs post in Mainé-Soroa department, which led to the death of one state soldier. On 3 July, ISWAP militants attacked a National Guard post in Diffa department, killing two soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger; ACLED, Regional Overview – Africa, 29 January - 4 February 2022. Violence has continued in January 2023. Notably, on January 7 ISWAP has kidnapped two people in Gremari locality (Maine Soroa department). International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger.
A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.
Boko Haram (Hausa for ‘Western education/civilisation is forbidden’), also known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), is a non-state armed group which operates in Nigeria in particular and in the Lake Chad Basin region in general, notably in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. See International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)’, Armed Conflict Database; International Criminal Court, Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2013, November 2013. In 2015, it pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” group. ‘Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?’ BBC, 24 November 2016. Furthermore, it has strong links with other Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist groups fighting in Mali and al-Shabab. International Crisis Group, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, Africa Report no 216, 3 April 2014, p i.
The leader of Boko Haram, the Amir, is the head of the Shura, namely the council of elders. The council has seven members, and each one of them leads a ministry across the administration of the group. Commanders have executive powers and sub-commanders direct and lead foot-soldier operations, called maaskars. See Amnesty International, ‘Our Job Is to Shoot, Slaughter and Kill’. Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror in North-East Nigeria, 14 April 2015.
After the death of its founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in July 2009, Boko Haram started splintering into different factions. In 2014, International Crisis Group reported that there were six different factions of the group. International Crisis Group, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, Africa Report no 216, 3 April 2014, p 22; S. Arraf, ‘Nigeria: A Focus on the Boko Haram Insurgency’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 107. Following the crucial loss of territories, there was a leadership split within Boko Haram. In March 2015, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” and renamed the group Islamic State (IS) in West Africa Province (ISWAP). In 2016, when the “Islamic State” group claimed Abu Musab al-Barnawi was the leader, Abubakar Shekau refused to acknowledge the change and claimed that this was an attempted coup against him. One year later, a number of senior leaders left the group, retaining the name ISWAP and obtaining recognition from the “Islamic State”. While the group led by Abubakar Shekau retained the name Boko Haram, it is also known under the name Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS). It has been reported that the two factions engaged in military confrontations between each other in the following months. See A. Withnall, ‘Boko Haram descends into in-fighting as reports emerge of deadly clashes between rival Islamist factions’, Independent, 8 September 2016; ‘Boko Haram in Nigeria: Split Emerges Over Leadership’, BBC, 4 August 2016; International Crisis Group, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019. Nevertheless, these episodes of violence remained sporadic and there is no record of further fighting within the armed group. As of 2018, the two main factions are led by Shekau, on the one hand, and by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, on the other. See ‘Boko Haram’, Counter Extremism Project. While there is no sufficiently clear and reliable information on Boko Haram fractions to conclude that it can still be considered as one armed group, arguably the conflict remains a single non-international armed conflict in light of the absence of fighting between Boko Haram’s factions and the nexus between the hostilities each of them wages against the government.
The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)
The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) is a Boko Haram splinter group. In March 2015, one of the leading figures of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” (IS) and renamed the group Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). One year later, a number of senior leaders left the group, retaining the name ISWAP and obtaining recognition from IS, while the group led by Abubakar Shekau retained the name Boko Haram. Between 2018 and 2019, internal disputes led to a change of leadership: Nur was allegedly executed, while Abu Abdallah took the place of Abu Musab. International Crisis Group, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019.
While there are not precise figures regarding the number of members of ISWAP, it has been reported that it is composed of 18.000–20.000 fighters, while other sources report that ISWAP has 3.500-5.000 fighters. International Crisis Group, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019.
ISWAP exercises effective control over banks and islands of Lake Chad, where it controls also the civilian settlements and has established a ‘proto-state.’ In the areas surrounding its core territory, ISWAP ensures control thanks to ‘patrols, emissaries and sympathisers.’ In areas under its direct control, ISWAP has been able to build close ties with the population. In order to survive economically, it collects taxes that are considered fair by the local population, as ISWAP provides public safety in return. The close ties with civilians are also crucial to ‘to buy food, fuel and medicine as well as sell its produce, which includes charcoal, cattle, hides and fish.’ International Crisis Group, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019; ‘2019 in Review: Militancy in Africa’, The New Humanitarian, 26 December 2019.
ISWAP’s success might be due to its tactics, different from those of Boko Haram. While the latter targets civilians and rural communities, International Crisis Group reports that ISWAP focuses ‘primarily on military targets as well as, to a lesser extent, civilian targets associated in one way or another with the state – eg, local officials, chiefs, vigilantes and suspected informers.’ International Crisis Group, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019.
Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)
Since January 2015, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has been supporting a number of states in their fight against Boko Haram. The MNJTF is composed of units from countries of the Lake Chad Basin, notably Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin. See Communiqué of the 484th Meeting of the PSC on the Boko Haram Terrorist Group, 29 January 2015 [PSC/AHG/COMM. 2(CDLXXXIV)], which authorized the deployment of the MNJTF. The MNJTF operation is authorized by the African Union Peace and Security Council mandate with the aim of eliminating Boko Haram, and is supported by the United Nations Security Council. See ‘Mandate of the Multinational Joint Task Force’; UNSC Res 2349, 31 March 2017. The MNTJ has been conducting a number of military actions in Niger. For instance, in August 2022 MNTJ arrested three suspected Boko Haram members in the Diffa department. Furthermore, in September 2022, it conducted several military operations in Diffa, N’Guigmi and Bosso departments, reportedly killing several suspected jihadists. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger.
Following a breakdown in relations between Paris and the Malian military junta, France started withdrawing its troops from Mali in 2022. Nevertheless, this did not determine the end of Operation Barkhane, the military operation of France in the Sahel. Indeed, in August 2022 France completed the relocation of its troops to Niger. The Nigerian civil society expressed strong opposition against such relocation. Notably, on 18 September demonstrations took place in Niamey and south-western Dosso city against the French military operation: hundreds of people marched in the streets, chanting pro-Russian slogans. On 9 November 2023, French President Macron declared the end of Operation Barkhane, although around 1,000 French troops remained in Niger as part of bilateral military cooperation. Since France intervened in Niger with the consent of the Government, its involvement in the conflict does not affect the classification. ‘French forces make Niger new home after being expelled by Mali’, AfricaNews, 5 July 2022; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Niger; ‘Macron confirms end of anti-jihadist West Africa military operation’, France 24, 9 November 2023.
All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.
All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.
In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.
- Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)
- Boko Haram