Some ten thousand civilians remain displaced after fleeing an attack in Niger's western Tillabéri region at the beginning of the year that killed at least 105 people and wounded many more, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees in Niamey.
The villages of Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye were attacked by jihadists on 2 January, in one of the worst incidents in the country since the jihadist insurgency began 12 years ago.
The massacre took place after locals, tired of paying Zakat, a tax to the Islamists, killed the two men extorting them. The jihadists returned on motorbikes in the morning, killing as many as they could.
“Jihadi groups have developed different systems of local governance, which are in essence based on different kinds of instruments, and taxation is one of them,” says Niagalé Bagayoko, president of the African Security Sector Network, a security sector reform think-tank.
No one has claimed responsibility for the murders.
Sahel specialist Bagayoko told the Africa Calling podcast that two main jihadist groups are active in the western region, but use different methods.
“In western Niger, the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, or ISGS, which is also affiliated with the IS West African Province, Sahelian branch, operates there as well as the Group de Soutien à l'Islam et aux Musulmans (Group of Support for Islam and Muslims), or GSIM, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda,” she says, adding that they have been fighting each other for the past year.
“ISGS is much more violent. The GSIM has decided to target foreign forces – they claimed the killing of the French soldiers who were killed a few weeks ago, the attacks against international forces such as MINUSMA,” says Bagayoko, using the acronym of the UN peacekeeping force in neighbouring Mali.
GSIM has issued a statement saying that they did not commit the Tillabéri village attack, she adds.
After the attack, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou announced that reinforcements would be immediately sent to the area.
Villagers told the New York Times that, in such situations, soldiers only stay for a short period before departing, leaving the communities open to subsequent attacks.
Eyewitnesses reportedly said that many armed men on motorbikes came to the village – their ability to get from one place to another quickly is one of their strengths, says the Sahel specialist.
“I think that reinforcement of the military presence can in some ways alleviate some of the threat, but it will definitely not be enough,” says Bagayoko. “The risk is, as we have seen in the last month, those will move and go elsewhere and target other populations, or other military camps,” she adds.
One option could be to arm locals – villagers said that only two people had guns and tried to defend the village, but it wasn’t enough. But this raises even more questions than answers, says Bagayoko. In neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, a number of self-defence groups have committed violent crimes.
“We have seen in Burkina Faso the so-called Koglweogo (self-defence) groups which have frequently been using very violent methods,” she adds.
The Nigerien government held a forum on Saturday in Ouallam with the community, and included the minister of the interior, the governor, as well as religious and political leaders.
At the Saturday meeting, a man named Abdelkarim said that the millet granaries that were to feed the community during the dry season were burnt by the jihadists when they came into his village. Some hid in the agricultural storage buildings when the terrorists set it alight.
"They burned all the fields. They burned all the millet. They burned people," Abdelkarim told AFP newswire, referring to the jihadists.
Nigerien authorities are providing emergency aid to the populations, namely food supplies and the registration of displaced persons, UNHCR spokesman Jean-Sébastien Josset told RFI.
“At the same time, they ensure the security of the area, which will allow all humanitarian actors to deploy and dispense emergency aid: shelter, health and psychological care,” said Josset.