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Ibrahim * is on his guard at all times. Do not leave the office after dark. Do not walk in the streets. Do not say too much about the next missions planned by its teams in the field. Look behind you for fear of being followed. This head of mission of an international NGO based in Niamey has been living in a climate of permanent suspicion since August 9.
That day, six French people from the Acted organization, their guide and their driver were murdered 60 kilometers from the capital of Niger, in Kouré Park. Like other humanitarians working in this Sahelian country, Ibrahim is deeply shocked. “Honey, we are going to see the giraffes of Kouré”he texted his wife days before the attack.
The reserve, home to West Africa’s last giraffes, was popular with foreigners. “It was our weekend spot. Humanitarians, diplomats, tourists: everyone went there. When the attack happened, we all thought, it could have been us “, says Elise *, a French humanitarian.
Kouré was one of the few localities in Niger that France had left in the yellow zone, simply recommending that its citizens “Enhanced vigilance”. On August 9, Acted workers fearlessly left for the park, where armed men ambushed them before executing them. On September 17, the Islamic State (IS) organization claimed responsibility for the killings.
Principle of neutrality undermined
ISIS is the deadliest terrorist organization in Niger. Since the start of the year, more than 120 attacks that have killed nearly 660 people have been attributed to it, according to data from the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled). In one year, the number of victims killed by ISIS and its affiliated groups has more than doubled in the country.
Faced with this upsurge in violence, the French authorities took a radical decision on August 13: to classify all of Niger as a red zone, making it a red zone. “Formally not recommended”. Single orange spot, “Not recommended unless there is an imperative reason” : Niamey. Even neighboring Mali, at war for eight years, is not subjected to such drastic treatment. In Niamey, this decision angered Nigeriens.
She also aroused the disapproval of many Westerners like Alice. Dorrer, Acted’s representative in Niger. Interviewed by the Nigerian station Studio Kalangou the day after the French decision and the attack on Kouré to which her colleagues were victims, the Frenchwoman remained firm: “Niger is not red. […] We are here to continue to assist Nigeriens, even though we know that there are certain areas where we work that are particularly difficult, where we have to take three times more precautions. We do not intend to leave these areas […] We already had this extremely strong commitment to Nigeriens, now we have, in addition, to honor the memory of those who have fallen. “
The Nigerien authorities fear that international organizations will once again be targeted. Also, on September 9, the foreign ministry took a decision which has since been fueling controversy among humanitarian workers. Diplomatic missions, consular posts and international organizations accredited to Niger must now be escorted during all their trips outside the city. For the hundreds of international NGOs working in Niger, it is their principle of neutrality in conflict zones, the foundation of their intervention around the world, that is threatened.
“Many villagers were kidnapped because the jihadists suspected them of informing the army. The day they see us distributing humanitarian aid with the military, they will think we have chosen our side and they will target the civilians we are helping even more. Just like us! “, alarmed Salif *, head of mission of an NGO established on the spot.
” Insulted “
According to the authorities, the decision of the authorities to impose these escorts is less a matter of security than of diplomacy. “Humanitarians are instrumentalized. The Nigerien state took offense and wanted to charge the price for the red zone, telling everyone: “Since our country is so insecure, humanitarian workers will no longer be allowed to go out on their own.” “, castigates Salif. Contacted by The World Africa, both the French embassy in Niger and the Nigerien authorities did not wish to speak.
For several weeks, humanitarian workers have been negotiating with the prime minister to relax this measure, which is deemed too political and inapplicable. “The state faces a real dilemma, tempers Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, senior analyst for the Sahel at the International Crisis Group (ICG). The government is annoyed because aid workers are not taking enough precautions to go to certain areas in conflict. This is understandable. NGOs expose their men but also their vehicles, which, sometimes, are recovered by the jihadists. ” Thus, summarizes the expert, it is well to reduce the risks that the State imposes on them to be accompanied even if, by doing so, it exposes them to attacks which could be carried out against the military. It also compromises the principle of neutrality, essential for negotiating access to certain areas.
This is the main fear of humanitarians: they will no longer be able to assist civilians living, despite themselves, in the most hostile corners. There are more and more of them: 3.2 million Nigeriens need humanitarian assistance this year, compared to 2.3 million in 2019. And the means are lacking. Of the $ 516.1 million required this year, only 41% of needs have so far been funded, according to the United Nations.
“How much of this money will now go to the escorts and no longer to the populations?” “, asks Moktar *. According to this African humanitarian, the military escort would also be a business that would pay big dividends for a suffering Nigerian army, financial as well as moral. She would be billed, according to him, nearly 1 million CFA francs (1,500 euros) for two days in the field.
“Send the premises to the butcher’s shop”
Humanitarians are looking for ways to get around this obligation. Thus, more and more, the large international NGOs are asking local associations to go on the ground and distribute aid without military escorts. But this strategic shift is not unanimous. “This solution is not: it is to send the locals to the butcher’s shop for us. International or Nigeriens: we are all eaten with the same sauce. Humanitarians have become an acceptable target ”, emphasizes Elise.
Kidnapping and murder of a French humanitarian and his friend in a restaurant in Niamey, in 2011, kidnapping of six Nigerien and Chadian workers in Dakoro the following year or, more recently, in June, kidnapping of a dozen humanitarian aid from a local partner structure of the World Food Program (WFP) in the Tillabéri region: in Niger, the humanitarian status no longer protects as much as it used to against armed groups. So, since the Kouré attack, the rules of many NGOs have changed. The lists of frequentable outings have been revised. Curfews have sometimes been tightened and some major roads are closed to traffic.
Sitting in his office, Ibrahim regrets seeing Niger become a country where humanitarians are afraid to come to work. A new email has just arrived in his mailbox. Sent by his teams in Diffa, in the south-east of the country, the message expresses the fear and refusal of employees to go out and distribute aid with the organization’s badges around their necks and logos on the cars. Yet it was, until now, a principle among many humanitarian workers: to be clearly identified so as not to be targeted.
* The first names have been changed.
Discover our mini-series “Sahel, land of humanitarians”
It is a land on drip, millions of square kilometers crisscrossed by aid workers. On August 9, the death of seven Acted employees in Niger, including six young French people, shone the spotlight on NGOs on mission in Sahel countries. More than 2,000 in Mali, 3,000 in Burkina Faso, some 500 in Niger… These organizations cover a territory synonymous with drought, hunger and insecurity, in order to provide aid and support to the most vulnerable populations. One way to compensate for the absence of a state, at the risk, precisely, of preventing these weak states from establishing their presence. To better understand their missions and their modes of intervention, The World Africa offers you a series of analyzes and reports.