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Niger's newly elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, gestures at his party headquarters after the announcement of his election in Niamey, Niger, on February 23, 2021. © 2021 Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Niger’s first democratic transition since independence provides President Mohamed Bazoum’s new administration with an opportunity to prioritize accountability for alleged war crimes committed by all sides in Niger’s armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the new justice and defense ministers. Massacres by alleged armed Islamist groups in Niger that have killed over 310 people since January 2021 highlight the need to investigate grave abuses and hold all those responsible to account.

On March 15, in the deadliest attack on civilians in Niger’s recent history, armed men attacked several villages and hamlets in the Tillia area of Tahoua, killing at least 137 people, according to official reports. A media source reported that many of the victims were watering their livestock at wells at the time of the attack.

“With a rising civilian death toll, scores of disappeared people, and increasing unlawful attacks by armed Islamist groups, it’s clear that abuses by one side beget abuses by the others,” said Jonathan Pedneault, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Bazoum’s government should take urgent and bold action to reverse this trend by aggressively pursuing justice for all war crimes, whether by Islamist fighters or the security forces.”

In the letter, Human Rights Watch urged the new administration to investigate 18 serious allegations of abuses by armed Islamist groups and government security forces in the border regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua since October 2019. Human Rights Watch found that the security forces were allegedly responsible for at least 185 of the 496 deaths reported.

The Tillabéri region, which borders Mali and Burkina Faso, is a focal point of armed Islamist group activity in Niger, as well as of national, regional, and international counterterrorism operations. The Tahoua region, bordering Mali, has also faced attacks by Islamist fighters.

Since 2015, armed Islamist groups in Niger have allegedly killed hundreds of villagers, executed aid workers and village leaders, attacked election officials, and targeted schools. And since at least 2019, security forces engaged in counterterrorism operations have allegedly executed scores of suspects shortly after detaining them at marketplaces, in their villages, or at waterpoints, and subjected dozens to enforced disappearances. There have been few credible investigations and little accountability for these crimes, which have dramatically worsened over the past year.

In 2020, Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed 12 people from Tillabéri who provided information about 12 incidents in which men in uniform arriving in military vehicles arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and summarily executed civilians and suspected Islamists.

Eleven of these incidents were included in a report produced in May 2020 by local Fulani civil society activists. In total, Human Rights Watch has collected the names of 178 people who were allegedly unlawfully killed or forcibly disappeared and 7 who were allegedly tortured by Nigerien security forces between October 2019 and May 2020.

One witness and two other local sources said that on the morning of March 25, 2020, men dressed in military fatigues arrived in military vehicles at a hamlet where members of the Fulani Djalgodji clan have spent the dry season for the last 20 years, 6 kilometers from the village of Adabdabe, in Banibangou commune. The witness said security forces arrested all the 13 Djalgodji men they found, ages 18 to 66, and then took them outside the hamlet and executed them.

Human Rights Watch is only aware of one government investigation into allegations of war crimes by the security forces. In April 2020, the previous defense minister ordered an investigation into the alleged enforced disappearance of 102 men in Inatès commune in the Tillabéri region in March and April 2020. While investigators found no credible evidence of security force involvement in these incidents, it provided no reasonable explanation for the men’s disappearances, claiming that armed Islamists dressed in stolen military fatigues may have been responsible.

However, a subsequent investigation into the same allegations by Niger’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), from May to July 2020, found 6 mass graves containing 71 bodies in Inatès commune, some of the people reported missing, and concluded that security forces were most likely responsible for the killings.

Under international humanitarian law applicable in Niger, all parties to the armed conflict, including Islamist armed groups, are prohibited from executing, torturing, or forcibly disappearing anyone in their custody, including civilians and captured combatants. Those responsible for committing serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, including as a matter of command responsibility, may be prosecuted for war crimes. States have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes committed within their territory.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which Niger is a party, codifies the prohibition on enforced disappearances and sets out the obligations of states to prevent, investigate, and prosecute all enforced disappearances.

The failure of Niger’s military justice system to seriously investigate alleged abuses by military personnel against civilians points to the need for civilian investigators and courts to handle these cases. Such criminal investigations should meet international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence, Human Rights Watch said. Investigations should seek to establish the line of command, assess responsibilities, and bring appropriate prosecutions in accordance with international fair trial standards.

“President Bazoum, while facing troubled times and armed groups that have committed numerous atrocities, has an opportunity to show strong leadership by prioritizing accountability for abuses by all sides,” Pedneault said. “Niger’s international partners should support these efforts by keeping justice squarely on the agenda and supporting national efforts to strengthen the rule of law.”

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