Travelled to Niger, mainly to work on the results of a data gathering field work which I have had done in two départements at the border with northern Mali, Ayorou (where the town of Inatès, whose military base has been savagely attacked earlier this week) and Abala. The situation in this region is very much the same as in north-eastern Burkina Faso, and in the neighboring Malian districts. It has developed out of the successful effort of Jihadists from the Maghrib to securing a foothold in the area thanks to their financial resources, their access to all manners of weaponry (the release of Kaddafi’s arsenal has helped a lot), and the way in which they have been finally able to build tactical and strategic alliances with local communities – beside the individuals of all origins who generally flock to these kinds of violent formations due to own their personal temperament and predispositions. I said « finally » because these Maghebine groups – initially born from the matrix of the Islamic Salvation Front and its terrorist emanations of the 1990s, the Groupe Islamique Armé and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat – have long sought this kind of combine, by taking advantage of Saharan rebellions (Tuareg and Tubu) against the Sahel states (Chad, Mali, and Niger), to no avail, until 2011-2012. The fall of Kaddafi – patron of the Sufis and the Tuareg, keystone of peace in the Sahel-Sahara – was a godsend for these groups. The Franco-British intervention cleared the way for them much in the manner in which the fall of Saddam Hussein, engineered by the Americans, opened the doors of Iraq to their Persian foe. If the Maghrebines were focused on their region of origin, the participation of Sahel-Sahara communities (in the first instance the Fulani and the Tuareg) has had the effect of shifting the war southward, in places where states have a weak “regalian” consistency, mainly owing to a lack of financial muscles. (“Regalian” derives here from the French régalien, which describes the state of core sovereignty, i.e., defense, security, administration, justice, finance, mint, and diplomacy).
This weak regalian consistency is the Achilles’ heel – or should we rather say, the “Achilles’ legs”? – of the Sahel states. In this instance, it has to do with the issue of the army, the police, and the gendarmerie; but also regular administration and justice. I have already examined these issues in the case of Burkina, here. The case of Niger isn’t very different. The most recurring topic in the qualitative responses collected in the research above-mentioned is that of the absence of the state, from the point of view of justice and security. The quantitative part of the research, while not entirely scientific – in the context of violence and psychological fears that prevails in the regions in question, it was not possible to apply all the proper methodological protocols – unearths, nonetheless, a difference which amounts to divergence, between Ayorou and Abala. The difference is so strong that it is significant, even for a survey with a limited scientific validity : 88% of those surveyed think, for instance, that justice is “bad” in Ayorou, while 58% (a majority !) said it is “good” in Abala. Same for health and education. Abala clearly values regalian authorities. We were surprised to find that 2% viewed positively the region’s governor (in our mind, the governor is such a distant authority that we did not think that anybody would refer to him as a protecting authority, and we included him in our questionnaire rather pro-forma) against 0% in Ayorou. Crucially, 51% of Abalians said good things about the gendarmerie, against 12% of Ayorians. By contrast, more of the latter value village chiefs, the proximity authority par excellence, the default regalian authority (18% in Ayorou against 9%, half the number, in Abala). As if by coincidence, the Jihadists have been killing one by one the village chiefs of Ayorou, these past few days.
All of these data have contextual explanations, which I do not yet have entirely. But one outcome of the research is the impression that, despite past problems and conflicts, there might be a process by which entente is returning among the people, under the influence of two factors. The first is survival: war might be alright for two or three months, but after that, one has to eat, which requires trade and cooperation over available resources. Those who are seen as the enemy are also those with whom one has to work for the struggle for life (this sort of survival dialectics has been masterfully analyzed by Ibn Khaldun, whom I was reading in the plane that was flying me to Niamey: Muqqadima, III, xxi, “The true meaning and various sorts of power”). The second factor is political creativity, which, in Abala at least, was able to exploit that necessity of survival through cultural festivals called tsintsiya (Hausa for “broom”, with the idea being, I guess, “let us sweep our floor,” “let us sweep away our problems”). On the basis of how much this was repeated in the testimonies, these festivals were a success, orchestrated by local initiative (the deputy mayor) and supported by the central government (through an agency in charge of peace consolidation, and already close to 25-years old).
Unfortunately, another thing that was repeated to us, both in Ayorou and in Abala, can be summed up thus: “In the end we are now more in agreement with each other, just as before, but the Jihadists aren’t in it.” In Abala, some testimonies underscored that many “young bush Fulani” stay away from the festivals, fearing that they would be arrested – maybe, one may suppose, because they have things which they feel guilty about. In any case, they seem to be the preferred target of Jihadist recruiters, and thus are out of the double logics of economic necessity and political creativity. In Ayorou, there were no festivals.
My collaborator, who travelled in the field, was also struck by the differences in the topography of regalian authority in the two département capitals. According to him, in Abala, there is a kind of state forum: prefecture, city hall, gendarmerie, the national guards camp, all in the same general areas – while these buildings are scattered in Ayorou and the gendarmerie is practically in a kind of no man’s land. One does not always think about the extent to which such apparently trivial details are important in daily life activities, including when it comes to deal with some business, both for state workers and service users.
Inatès is a cauldron of disgruntlement, in the byzantine maze of which one can easily get lost. It is clear that the task of the regalian state – in particular from the point of view of justice – is here more complicated than elsewhere. This is a site where unfolds the slow revolution of Tuareg society, in which the subaltern and servile majority (“Black Tuareg”) are overthrowing the domination of a minority proud and confident in its rights (“Red Tuareg”). There are instances of this elsewhere. Toward Tchintabaraden (Tahoua Region), the “Blacks” have made huge inroads by securing the creation of chieftaincies (in Niger, the chieftaincies are an established segment of the territorial and judicial administration) which have “depopulated” the great “Red” chieftaincy that goes back to the time of the colony (and in fact is a successor to a Williminden kingship, the Kel Dinnik Amenokalate). In Inatès, they’ve won through the democratic process, taking over the municipality. But in 2018, the mayor of Inatès, a Black Tuareg, saw all of his capital stolen, 800 heads of cattle – with five people killed in the process. Vanished, in the Malian Far West. One can see the level of security breakdown too – here, as regards life and property, even in the case of an elected official.
The Inatès attack is a catastrophic failure of the regalian state, not just from a technical viewpoint, but also in a political-administrative perspective. It is not easy to say anything of value about the technical aspect. A young soldier with whom I conversed two days ago thinks that military bases in this part of the country are “different” from those in the Diffa region, from where he has been transferred recently. In Diffa, he told me, the base where he was posted was circled by a ditch (principle of the moat) strengthened by sandbags and barbed wire. In his perception of things, this created a protection against frontal assault of which the base Inatès would have been deprived. But is that true ? The Nigerien government isn’t good at explaining things, and Nigerien journalism isn’t equal to the task of reporting on events like this one. The Nigerien public binges on cracked theories explaining that the attack was orchestrated by the French. Social networks are saturated by imprecations and diatribes, fabricated evidence, “true” stories and selected pieces from things that were said by more or less credible individuals, all of this put together to support a feverish desire to believe in French guilt. There is something frightening in this. This kind of collective “hysterization” of the thinking mind is an usher to atrocities. A friend whom I reproached for flooding me with tiresome “anti-French” Whatsapp messages explained to me that he was not “anti-French,” only “anti French policy,” for if the Nigeriens had been anti-French, they would have started attacking French people on the streets. But that’s how those things start. It is the Intellectuels (school-educated Nigeriens) who tell to themselves those tall tales about the French, but they are heard by the Analphabètes (lit., the illiterates), who have no innate anti-French feelings, but who respect the words of the Intellectuels. Yesterday morning, as I was returning from running, I ran into a young Analphabète whom I knew from his work as a waiter and cooking help in a night roadside restaurant. He walked a bit along with me, mentioned the “disaster” (zarma : hasarow) that had occurred, and said he had heard “the Whites” were behind it (already in his language, he has slipped from “French,” a category that has no real meaning for many Analphabètes, to “Whites”). I told him that was not true, and he : “I believe you, for on such questions, you know more than I do, we cannot even be compared, so if you tell me the Whites didn’t do it, I don’t argue.” Unfortunately, this same attitude of intellectual deference is shown to the anti-French “Intellectuals,” who are much more numerous than people who think like me. And there is a difference between Intellectuels and the Analphabètes in that once they are convinced, the latter do not hesitate in taking action. In Nigeria, Abubakar Gumi has long abstained from preaching in Hausa because he was apprehensive of the impact of his words on those with little instruction (in the religious sciences). He was right. The origins of Boko Haram can be traced back to the fateful moment when he decided he would no longer use only Arabic – a confidential language – for his preaching and jeremiads. I am not saying that this anti-French obsession – which is deserving of its own analysis – will one day lead to this kind of consequence (a “Saint Bartholomew Day of the Whites”): but I have looked for too long into the history of human folly and bestiality to think my fears are meaningless.
In this order of things, I have observed the rather ambiguous attitude of Fulani Intellectuels, an attitude which suggests a kind of inner division of heart and mind. There is the idea that the majority of assailants are Fulani, which leads to mixed feelings that I observe with curiosity, as they follow each other in the words of my interlocutors in that “category”: fears that the Nigeriens will end up turning against the Fulani, but pride that the Fulani could inflict such losses to the Nigerien army; patriotic support to said army, but also communal solidarity with the assailants. Here, too, the French bring a “solution,” because they can say that the true target of the Fulani is not Niger’s military, but the French, who stand behind them, so much so that peace would return to Niger once the French are gone. But since the anti-French feeling doesn’t care for logical contradictions (as in Blaise Pascal’s dictum, the heart has its reasons of which reasons knows nothing, in love, but also in hatred), these same individuals say they are convinced that the French are supporting the terrorists. In other words, the French are being targeted by the terrorists through the Nigerien army, and yet they also arm the terrorists to attack the Nigerien army. I find such a miscarriage of reason and logic so revolting that I would rather keep completely silent, were it not for the fact that my interlocutors feel my withholding of assent, and are naturally impelled to solicit the opinions of the only person resistant to their ranting that they encounter. That is (perversely) human.
A striking thing is also the extent to which, while getting overexcited about « Africa that needs to fight imperialism, » all of these Intellectuels stay hermetically national. I draw the attention of anyone who asks for my opinion (in reality, who asks me to condone their opinion) to the fact that the attack in Inatès must be understood in relation to a strategy of territorial destabilization not only of Niger, but of Burkina and Mali; that similar attacks were staged in those two countries, led by the same coalitions of Jihadists; that this effort to oust the military bases is part of the same plan as the assassination of the traditional chiefs, which are happening equally in the three countries (even when they take advantage of some “settlement of accounts”). The Nigeriens cannot bring themselves to get interested in what is happening in Burkina or in Mali, and vice versa, and they do not even try to get informed and stay aware of the realities next door – even as their common enemy does do it. I very much know, of course, that this is all too natural, since the nation-state is really a closely shuttered house. But I imagine that the same dispositions of the mind exist as well among “decision-makers” on the three sides of the border, so much so that the leaders are talking a lot but are not developing a common strategy. The peculiar vulnerability of Inatès is also related to the indifference of the Malian state for its northern Far West (an indifference that was pointed out, in the testimonies that I collected for my research, by the only Malian who was interviewed, a Daoussak Tuareg).
But I was saying earlier that, aside from being a technical failure (for Niger’s rulers), the Inatès attack is also a political-administrative failure. The fact is, there is no security, even for a military base, when the surrounding district isn’t somewhat secure. It is true that, hugging as it does the border, Inatès had lost that particular game: the Malian side of the border could not be secure. But neither could the Nigerien side – as the data from my research clearly show it. This point is important, for, instead of working themselves up about the French, those universal culprits and easy frustration outlet, the Nigeriens have better taken a long and hard look at the way in which they manage their own affairs, and commit to radical reforms. Contrary to most of his compatriots, Niger’s president isn’t plodding in an anti-French bog, but it is not clear that he can lead reforms of these kinds, given what they would imply: for instance, a veritable autonomy for the judiciary (relative to political and social power), or a de-politicization (“de-partynization”) of the territorial administration, including the traditional chiefs (often roped into electoral campaigns, willingly or not, to much harm to their legitimacy). I call such reforms radical even though they would be banalities in another context, specifically because revolutionary courage is required to impose them in a country like Niger – radical, but not impossible, since about everyone aspire to them.
The best tribute that the Nigeriens can render to their soldiers massacred for nothing is to reflect seriously, obsessively, pragmatically, about how to better manager their affairs – while setting aside this hatred that they love to have against the French.