More than 100 civilians were killed in Niger over the weekend by extremists who attacked two villages, as insurgent violence mounts in the west African nation.
The attacks on the western villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye took place on the same day that Niger announced that presidential elections would go to a second round on Feb. 21.
Nigerien Prime Minister Brigi Rafini visited the two villages on Sunday.
“We came to provide moral support and present the condolences of the president of the republic, the government and the entire Niger nation,” he said.
The villages in the insecure Tillaberi region were attacked on Saturday after residents killed two rebel fighters, local officials said.
The attacks are among the deadliest in Niger and come on the heels of several others, including one by the Islamic State West Africa Province in the Diffa region a few weeks ago in which dozens of people were killed.
Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali are battling the spread of deadly extremist violence that is displacing large numbers of people, despite the presence of thousands of regional and international troops.
A year ago, extremists staged mass attacks on Niger’s military in the Tillaberi region, killing more than 70 in December 2019 and more than 89 in January last year. The area is also where four US Special Forces soldiers were killed along with five Nigerien colleagues in October 2017.
While no group has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s killings, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has been mounting attacks there for some time.
Niger is pressed on all sides by extremist groups, and must deal with spillover instability from Mali and Nigeria.
The cross-border conflict has become more deadly as it mixes with local Niger dynamics, said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Extremist groups Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM have been successful at strategically wiping out local traditional leaders and then inciting attacks between rival ethnic groups or communities, he said.
“They create uncertainty, unrest and disequilibrium that allows them to exploit grievances, intercommunal tensions,” which they then use to make alliances, he said.
The Nigerien government has been good in what Devermont called “course correction,” and it has done a better job with community involvement than the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso.
However, their capacity is limited as extremists from various groups exploit ethnic tensions across the vast country.
“It’s a wide swath in which different groups are operating in Niger, which means that the government has got a huge challenge on their hands,” Devermont said, adding that the incoming government would have a lot to deal with when it eventually takes office.
Niger’s second-round election next month would pave the way for the nation’s first democratic handover of power from one elected president to another.
Niger has experienced four coups since it became independent from France in 1960.
Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has served two terms, is stepping down.
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