Soft Targets, Porous Borders: Why Niger Republic Terrorists Are Trooping Into Nigeria

Soft Targets, Porous Borders: Why Niger Republic Terrorists Are Trooping Into Nigeria

They take advantage of the porous borders to launch deadly attacks in northwestern Nigeria and extort people who are mostly unprotected in the area — sometimes colluding with local terrorists.

With armed and menacing groups from the Niger Republic launching new waves of terror campaigns, violent attacks recently spiked up in the eastern parts of Sokoto, North West Nigeria. More people are killed, villages are pillaged more than ever before, and mass kidnappings happen in rapid succession.

“We’ve noticed this pattern since the beginning of this year, but will our voices be heard even if we had raised the alarm?” one villager in Sabon Birnin asked, wondering if authorities were aware of their situation.

Through interviews with victims, transborder traders, local chiefs and security analysts familiar with happenings in the area, HumAngle found that several terror groups are trooping into the forests surrounding Sokoto, aggravating existing criminal activities in the axis.

The forests sitting on the shore of the Niger Republic host up to seven terrorist camps, operating around the Bangi, Dankano, Galmi, Maradi, Masallata, and YarBasira areas of the country, according to local security sources. Many of the terrorist leaders, who are mostly of the Fulani and Asbinawa extractions in the neighbouring country, have relocated to Sokoto forests with their criminal gangs.

The most vulnerable villages to the Niger Republic terrorist attacks are Ruwawuri, Rafin Duma, Dumamaje, Dan-Ayagi, Takatsaba, Dama and Takinhil. Many surrounding communities, such as Gada, Gudu, Goronyo, Illela, Isa, and Sabon-Birni areas of the Sokoto East Senatorial District, are also at risk.

Nigeria shares a 1,608 kilometres-long border with Niger Republic, which is difficult to police. Map illustration by Mansir Muhammed/HumAngle.

Note: Mentions of ‘Niger’ in this article mostly refer to the Francophone country in the Sahel and are not to be confused with the state in central Nigeria. People from Niger are called Nigerien, while people from Nigeria are Nigerian.

Tukur Mamodu, a citizen of the Niger Republic based in Illela, a Sokoto town bordering the country, told HumAngle about the workings of the terrorists and their fresh interests in settling in Nigeria’s northwestern states.

“Most often, we have observed armed terrorist fighters migrate seamlessly from their bases in Niger and sneak into the Nigerian villages in Isa and Sabon-Birni,” he remarked. “They usually move in groups and without arms when crossing from Niger to Nigeria to escape the notice of the Niger security forces.”

Tukur, a 42-year-old transborder trader, shuffles between Konni in the Niger Republic and the Illela area of Sokoto state in Nigeria, putting him in a vantage position to know the movement patterns of the non-state actors. Other sources we contacted from Niger Republic, and Sokoto corroborated his claims, adding that the terrorists deploy several methods to smuggle firearms into northwestern Nigeria, outsmarting transborder crackdown.

“The deadly arms smuggled into the region are transported through cattle routes, linking Niger, Benin, Nigeria and Libya,” said Basharu Altine, the chairman of the Movement for Social Justice, a civil society organisation based in Sokoto state.

Basharu, who is also from the Guyawa village in the Isa Local Government Area of the state, noted that the Niger Republic terrorists now operate in and around the forests in Rafin Duma and Galmi of Illela axis. The criminals navigate the forests, crossing over to the Dukamaje community in Sokoto, which shares a border with the Nigerien Tambai village.

Since the beginning of this year, the invasion of Nigerian communities by terrorists from the neighbouring Niger Republic has worsened the humanitarian crises, especially in the Isa and Sabon-Birni areas of Sokoto. The Movement of Social Justice chairman says a recent survey his organisation conducted in the area showed that thousands of people have been displaced or impoverished as a result of the new wave of armed violence brought into Sokoto East.

Why are Niger Republic terrorists interested in settling in Nigeria’s northwestern communities, especially in Sokoto?

Security experts and locals who frequently embark on transborder activities suggested that the armed groups consider people from the eastern parts of Sokoto as soft targets for attacks because they are largely unprotected and neglected by authorities. They are keen on milking and extorting the communities with large local markets, hectares of fertile farm fields, and hundreds of cattle.

“Because most of our community people are farmers, it is easy to prey on them, kidnap them for ransom or ask them to pay protection levies,” Musa Isa, a local from Sabon Birnin, told HumAngle. “They can’t get all these when they stay in their country.”

HumAngle contacted two patrol immigration officers working around the Nigeria-Niger borders for comments on possible causes of the sudden infiltration. While asking not to be named because they are not in a position to reveal security details to journalists, the officers said Nigeria’s porous borders with Niger have allowed terrorists to move in and out of the country without getting caught.

“Do you know how many undocumented routes these terrorists can take to Sokoto? They are uncountable. They are also aware that security officials patrol borders, so they move discreetly,” one of the immigration officers said.

“Sometimes the terrorists mix with the people in such a way that you won’t be able to differentiate them from civilians, and because the two countries are close neighbours, they do this effortlessly. They can also follow the bush path unnoticed,” the other officer explained.

The officials stressed that surveillance of the borders becomes more tedious now that it appears security agents from Niger Republic have stopped collaborating with their Nigerian counterparts. The military had taken over power from the civilian government in Niger, attracting sanctions from the West African bloc (ECOWAS) leadership. The junta then decided to cut ties with African countries against their military system of government.

In November 2023, the Niger Republic authorities announced their withdrawal from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a combined military formation established to combat terrorism and insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin (with member countries including Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria). Experts warned that the withdrawal could cause a setback for efforts to fight cross-border insecurity.

Joshua Bolarinwa, the security and strategic studies head at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), noted that the absence of Niger from the MNTJF will create a void, leading to an increase in attacks on the outskirts of Lake Chad and the influx of weapons and militants from the Sahel. Niger has often served as a conduit for the smuggling of arms into Nigeria from Libya and other places.

Before the invasion of criminal elements from Niger Republic, rural Nigerian terrorists had ravaged communities in Sokoto East, turning many parts of the area into ungoverned spaces. Bello Turji, a terrorist leader in northwestern Nigeria, is notorious for coordinating some of the deadliest attacks in the area, including sacking hundreds of communities for failing to comply with his illegal tax demands, deposing village heads to replace them with terrorist allies, and burning of a commercial vehicle full of passengers travelling along the highway.

Turji had fled Zamfara, a neighbouring state, after military offensives against his criminal syndicate to hide in Sokoto’s forests.

However, some Nigerian-born terrorists who have lived and operated in Niger seem to be aiding the influx of criminals from the country. For instance, two Nigerian brothers based in the neighbouring country have, on many occasions, led criminals from Niger to pillage Sokoto villages and abduct the people for ransom.

The brothers — Abdun Manin Abanka and Na Manin Abanka — masterminded the abduction of over 10 peasant farmers on June 7 in the Idi community of Isa. The two had recruited dozens of the Niger Republic terrorists, who hopped on around 30 motorcycles to raid the community for hours during the day.

The terrorists would later collect a ransom payment of ₦5 million, release only six of the captives, and hold on to four others. A local chief, Bashir Guyawa, told HumAngle that the criminal leaders are of the Bugaje tribe, whose parents hailed from the Gobir town of Isa but relocated to the Niger Republic.

A similar situation was documented in Zamfara, where two terrorist leaders, known as Black and Standa, attacked civilians in the rural Zurmi area. The terrorists, hailing from Nigeria, had recruited some Nigerien criminals to terrorise Nigerian towns and villages.

The recruited criminals were in charge of collecting illegal taxes from villagers, especially peasant farmers and meting out punishments to defaulters, including tortuous abductions, mass killings, cattle rustling and robbery.

Local Nigerian terrorists have always worked with their accomplices from Niger, said Rabiu Maru, a local security agent in Zamfara. Due to the proximity of the country to many northwestern states, it is easy for the Niger terrorists to infiltrate Nigerian communities. On many occasions, Nigerian terrorists have been shielded by their allies in Niger, especially during military onslaughts.

“Even if they don’t settle in a Nigerian forest as they are doing now in Sokoto, they can launch attacks in many Nigerian communities in Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara from bases in their country and go scot-free,” Rabiu added.

HumAngle contacted Ahmad Rufai, the police spokesperson in Sokoto, about the developments, but his line was not reachable all the times we dialled it in June. He has also not responded to our message asking what the police authorities are doing to quell the crisis.

In Katsina, another northwestern state, terrorists move freely from Niger to attack civilians daily. Sources we spoke to in the area told HumAngle that since the military gained power in Niger, terrorists from the country have chosen to attack Nigerian communities.

“Unlike the democratic government, which seems to focus more on fighting Boko Haram, the military authority in Niger is not giving the rural terrorist any breathing space,” one of the sources said. “The local terrorists (in Niger) would prefer the ousted president to the current military leader.”

The source noted that most of the terrorists move from Dan Isa in Niger to settle in communities like Mazayan and Hirji to launch their attacks. When they face military offensives in their country, Nigeria becomes their next hideout, he added.

“The Niger terrorists are using forests lying around the Jibya (in Katisna), Zurmi (Zamfara) and Maradi (in Niger Republic) as cover for attacks and atrocities committed in Nigerian communities,” another source corroborated.

It is unclear if the Nigerien terrorists settling in Sokoto East have any affiliations with international terrorist syndicates. However, Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, recently stated that jihadist fighters from the Sahel were crossing into Nigeria through the Benin Republic border.

Many countries in the Sahel — especially Mali, Burkina Faso, the Niger Republic, and northeastern Nigeria — have been plagued by terrorist organisations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. There have also been reports of a spike in the spate of violent attacks by the jihadist fighters operating in and around these countries.

In 2023, for instance, HumAngle reported that violent extremist groups were still active in the Niger Republic despite assurances from the new military government. According to the Clingendael Institute, the operations have now seeped into many Nigerian communities.

The report claimed some volatile areas in northwestern Nigeria have been dominated by the activities of the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), a terror group with operations across the central Sahelian countries. Other extremist groups were said to have settled in the Kainji Lake National Park in Niger and Kebbi, both states in Northern Nigeria.

“Evidence suggests this involves Sahelian extremists (likely JNIM). Another group would be Darul Salam – a group linked to Boko Haram if not fully affiliated — with an open attitude towards bandits,” the report stated. “Bandits [homegrown terrorists] and unidentified armed groups are known to move towards Kebbi state from Sokoto. It is alleged that these include various Darul Salam fighters with links to the Sahel.”