The Diffa region, in the southeastern part of Niger, has become a place for armed violence since February 2015, when it experienced the first attack by Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS/Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram). Over the last two years, the patterns, nature and levels of violence in the region have transformed as a result of the humanitarian and security response and of the internal dynamics of the insurgency.
Following the February 2015 attack, the Nigerien government declared a state of emergency in the Diffa region. The measures included limitations on freedom of movement (curfews, bans on motorcycles), restrictions on the trade in pepper and fish, as well as the closure of some markets in order to cut off supply to the insurgents. Its main objective was to prevent the spread of the insurgency into Nigerien territory. Nevertheless, JAS had expanded its military operations into Niger so as to occupy a significant portion of the Lake Chad islands. Difficult to access for conventional armed forces and endowed with abundant resources, the islands are an excellent rear base for insurgents. However, limitations on livelihood activities based on the perception that communities support the insurgency through economic strategies produced controversial effects on the ground, leading to frustration and growing distrust between the local population and state authorities.
Furthermore, the displacements mostly triggered by the 2015-2016 attacks caused an enormous strain on resources and are contributing to exacerbate social tensions among the population. In the Diffa region there are about 260.353 people (internally displaced persons as well as refugees or asylum seekers) currently living in villages, refugee sites and spontaneous settlements, almost half of them from Nigeria. After the April 2015 attack on the Karamga Islands, authorities evacuated people from Lake Chad, provoking social discontent because some 28.000 of them were compelled to leave their property and cattle behind.
With the state of emergency and a formal ban on navigating Lake Chad, the population has had to completely re-invent their livelihood strategies. The measures have affected peoples’ autonomy, cutting them off from traditional means of production and subsistence, and made them dependent on aid. The humanitarian response provided basic assistance: however, mechanisms conditioning the distribution of aid on the geographical stability of the population (like registration at a specific refugee site) were not adapted to the local context and contributed to distorting the complex socio-economic dynamics of the region where mobility has always played a crucial role. Competition between the displaced populations for assistance, stimulated not only by its shortage but also by humanitarian mechanisms (like defining who is “vulnerable” and who is not) and producing at times casualties as a result of stampedes for aid distribution, has also exacerbated feelings of frustration. Finally, mobility mainly linked to pastoral and fishing activities on the islands persisted despite the formal ban that was partially lifted and reintroduced again. Conflicts over land and resources within the Lake Chad region contributed to increase inter- and intra-community tensions, intertwining in a complex way with the insurgency.
Consequently, the security and humanitarian responses put in place should be related to an understanding of these transformations. A sole focus on security or on humanitarian readings seems to be misleading. With the insurgency, new forms of violence have developed. They were nourished not only directly by the combatants themselves, but produced by other correlated factors. These forms of violence are based mostly on the principle of exclusion (for instance, from humanitarian assistance), social stigma – like in case of “Boko Haram repentants” – or access to land resources, which may be combined in a complex way. Violence, omnipresent, has become diluted and dissolved in the everyday life of the population, deeply modifying representations of “social norms” and the meanings of being a Muslim.
The complexity of interactions between the islands and refugee sites is also translated through the circulation of goods, fish and cattle and is also partly due to a reduction of humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, some people choose to return to the islands in the territory controlled by armed groups: there were for instance registered cases of population movements to the islands of Lake Chad through January-February 2018. The fact that some persons prefer to engage in socio-economic activities with the insurgents is interesting as it also translates a “soft” approach that seems to be privileged by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The ISWAP indeed used to occupy important areas in the Diffa region, developing socialization processes with local communities, and contrary to JAS was mostly engaged in operations against military structures rather than civilians. However, high levels of violence produced by ISWAP and other armed groups that engage in competing or collaborating relations with the IS franchise characterize social interactions in the region: targeted assassinations of people accused to cooperate with the authorities or refusing to pay taxes to the insurgents; killings of villagers circulating in the “outlawed” geographical space; civilian causalities resulting from bomb explosions; sexual violence.
If the violence in the Lake Chad region cannot be reduced exclusively to the “jihadist” threat, it is however important to underline emerging trends within the central apparatus of the Islamic State in Niger, which seems to give a growing importance to its branch in the Lake Chad. For instance, in March 2019 the label “ISWAP” appeared for the first time on the photos of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) combatants – mostly active in the western regions of the country – and was published in the official Islamic State newspaper, Al-Naba 175. A long video released in January 2020 by the Islamic State detailing operations in the Sahel, including the most recent deadly attack in In-Atès in December 2019 in Niger, also appeared under the label of “ISWAP” and not as “ISGS” anymore. It is still difficult to evaluate the extent of cooperation between the two branches of the ISWAP, the “Sahelian” and the “Lake Chad”, in terms of circulation of arms, combatants and instructors.
Violence in the Diffa region as well as in the Western Sahel is not necessarily produced by the “jihadist” groups themselves. It is also nourished by other factors, as some mechanisms of the humanitarian response, struggles for land and water resources, inter and intra-community tensions. The internal dynamics of the insurgency is co-related with all these factors, but deep changes, modifying representations of social and religious norms, are already being produced in the region.
 See propaganda analysis by @historicoblog4 on twitter.