Ever-present Boko Haram threat casts shadow in Niger
Seven years after the first Boko Haram attacks in southeastern Niger, people in the city of Diffa, dare not even speak the group’s name.
Residents live in a state of siege, frightened and struggling with the economic impact of the Islamist threat.
For fear of reprisals, people speak of “insecurity”, of the “problems” or the “current situation”.
The fear is well-founded, according to one security source who says Boko Haram sympathisers in the city pass on information to the group.
Among the poorest countries in the world, Niger, which is holding presidential elections on Sunday, faces jihadist groups from the Sahel in the west and Boko Haram in the east.
“I don’t have 1,000 CFA francs (1.5 euros) in my pocket. I have been unemployed for four years,” says Abdou Maman, 46, who has two wives and eight children to support.
“I manage as best I can. Sometimes I do a bit of business worth 3,000 or 5,000 CFA francs. Sometimes I don’t do anything and when you don’t do anything, you don’t eat,” he adds.
In the past four years, the situation in the region has gone from bad to worse.
Diffa’s inhabitants live under curfew, with a permanent military presence, in fear of attacks — there were four in May — or suicide bombings, as in 2018.
Earlier in December, an attack on Timour, around 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Diffa left 34 dead.
The region has 300,000 Nigerian refugees and internally displaced people from Niger.
Today no one is really able to give an estimate of the population of the city. In 2011, it had 50,000 inhabitants, a number it is believed could have more than doubled in recent years.
“The lack of security has many consequences. It leads to job losses, a high cost of living..,” adds Abdou Maman.
“Fishing, agriculture, trade. All of that is not going well (because of islamist groups that extort and kill those involved in Diffa and the Lake Chad region).”
Small-scale trade with Nigeria no longer operates either due to the closure of the border.
“We are very afraid”
“With the curfew, small street traders must stop at 10:00 pm. Families live in hangars, the displaced but also some people who have lost their jobs,” he adds, accusing leaders of “bad governance”.
“Due to this lack of security, getting money is very difficult. Before when there was peace, things worked very well,” says one woman who gave her name as Zenabou, whose agricultural worker husband is blind and can no longer work.
She has six children to look after and travels up to 20 kilometres from her home every day to sell condiments from a mat on the ground.
“We struggle to repay credit. We eat with what we earn, sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t,” she says.
“Before, it was expensive, but now the price of everything has gone up because of the lack of security,” she says.
“But most of all, we are very afraid. Often we hear gunfire. It comes from all sides. We have to stay at home.”
Some, however, manage to find a way to survive, such as the city’s small traders or the countless yellow and black taxi-tricycles that weave their way in and out of carts and donkeys in the streets.
“There are more people in the city, so more customers,” says Abdalla Maman, a taxi-tricyle driver.
He nevertheless bemoans the cost of contraband petrol which comes illegally from Nigeria to Diffa where the majority of transactions are done in naira, Nigeria’s currency, and not CFA francs, the local currency in Niger.
“Before petrol used to come in huge tanker trucks. Now the border is closed, it is small carriers who transport it in cans, bypassing the border post.”
Petrol has gone up to between 450-650 francs in four years, he said. But “business is going well”.
Authorities, meanwhile, believe they are winning “the war” against Boko Haram and the former Minister Mohamed Bazoum, a frontrunner in the presidential polls, has even promised that the refugees and internally displaced will be returned home before the end of 2021.