3.1 Introduction

In remote, rural parts of Niger such as the northern sections of the region of Tillabéri, Tahoua, Maradi, Zinder, much of the region of Diffa, and the entire region of Agadez, the state has a very limited presence, which leaves traditional practices of governance as the only existing ‘rule-of-law’ public services that are available. The traditional chiefs, a cadre of executives who draw their legitimacy from tradition (invented or otherwise),[119] and their decision-making resources from customs (unwritten and uncodified), oversee these services. In northern Tillabéri, northern Tahoua, and southern Diffa the systems they oversee have come under considerable stress from violent conflicts in neighbouring countries (Mali, Nigeria and Libya) and which have spread across the borders into these parts of Niger. These regions have thus become laboratories for studying the resilience of this form of local administration and the supports that build resilience, given the backdrop of violence. Violent conflicts bring into sharp relief contradictions that had been dormant or manageable in quieter times, and this chapter will take advantage of their impact to assess the position of traditional authorities in the context of Niger’s local governance dilemma.

To understand the nature of these dilemmas, it is necessary to look at the political economy of Niger. In this non-industrialised economy, most activities and livelihoods directly depend on natural resources (e.g., trees and water) and seasonal cycles, particularly because the rural economy is large.[120] The negative impact of this dependence on tree cover and aquifers is serious, particularly since there is very little transformative public or private investment in agriculture and herding. Most rural Nigeriens are struggling to preserve plummeting household incomes as natural resources deteriorate. This situation creates a number of problems, including the growth of a large unoccupied or under-occupied youth population in the countryside, and the weakening or collapse of collective rules for the sharing of natural resources and the settlement of disputes over them.

In this context, the government encourages traditional chiefs to support the distribution of development aid, while they also help communities manage and resolve conflicts caused by competition over natural resources.[121] This puts chiefs on the frontline in rural areas beset by many of these difficult issues. These political-economy issues are often more acute in the Sahel-Sahara than elsewhere. Different livelihoods – occupational (farmers versus herders) or communal (with an ethnic dimension often defined as Fulani versus Tuareg) determine the need for natural resources, as well as access to – and competition over – those resources. As resources become more and more scarce, this competition tends more frequently to lead to open conflict. The brittle context that thus emerges is more easily exploited by corrupt or criminal agents, such as illicit traffickers and violent extremists.

Moreover, and importantly, this is happening in a changing context for traditional chieftaincies. After Niger’s early decades of authoritarian governance, when chiefs were accountable to a stable regime of power, democratisation and political liberalisation – starting in 1991 – has brought with it a politization of their position, which is both seriously challenging and also an opportunity for reform and improvement. This chapter outlines these challenges. The first of the four main sections discusses empirical findings that reveal the roles of traditional, or customary, authorities in Niger. It builds on the insights from Chapter 2 that outlined how these roles are well defined within the framework of the country’s territorial (and judicial) administration. The two following sections present the challenges that could affect the work of customary authorities: first, general challenges to their legitimacy; and second, the specific challenges that arise from the security crisis in the areas surveyed. The chapter ends with conclusions and recommendations for (inter)national interventions that aim to foster (formal) local government and stability.

3.2 The roles of traditional authorities in Niger

As discussed in Chapter 2, traditional authorities in Niger are part of the formal state apparatus. Since the adoption of a law in 2010, and its further expansion in 2015,[122] traditional chiefs constitute a special corps in the formal administration system of the state and can be said to be participants in efforts to centralise administration. They enjoy background support from the central administration, they are in theory entitled to physical protection from the state, and they receive financial compensation and other perquisites of office in accordance with their rank in what one might call ‘traditional administration’.[123] In return, they play an active role in justice provision, administrative governance, surveillance, and conflict mediation.

3.2.1 Justice provision

Although their tutelary ministry is the Ministry of the Interior, chiefs are essentially agents of the justice administration in their routine work. Their court is the entry point into the justice system for Nigeriens living in rural areas – i.e., the majority of Nigeriens – for all civil matters. Many respondents note that when a party to a conflict skips the chief’s court and brings his or her case to a modern court, or to the gendarmerie, he or she is generally told to go to the relevant traditional authority first. Most cases, unsurprisingly, relate to struggles around rural resources (farmland and pastures, water points) and family (divorce and inheritance), with the occasional problem of social disorder (indebtedness, brawl, neighbour conflicts, false rumours, or violent rivalry between suitors).[124]

The justice applied by chiefs is informal and relies on a range of techniques, depending on the case; arbitration and conciliation seem to be the most frequently used.[125] The first technique is easier for minor cases – a fight between neighbours, an act of thievery – while more complicated cases require conciliation. When either of those fails, parties must pursue litigation in a (modern) court, a costlier and slow-moving process which many are keen to avoid. Conciliation requires a variety of resources from the chief’s court: not only a good understanding of the social and family connections and background of involved parties – as these might be invoked to assuage and prod them – but also assistance from other ‘customary’ personalities, typically a chief cleric, and, as has been noted surprisingly often in the districts of Tillabéri region in particular, a leading shaman.

As there is no customary law representing an established body of rules and regulations, decisions follow precedents and jurisprudence, and rely on the sociological and cultural tact that chiefs must cultivate as part of their obligations or ‘virtues’. In the administrative language of the 2015 law, this is described as an obligation of ‘neutrality, reserve, impartiality’ and a behaviour that signals a ‘dignified and loyal official’. And in the common language of local communities, this translates as being ‘trustworthy’, ‘kind’, and ‘sharp’. These latter words, from respondents in the Tahoua region, sum up the normal expectations of people in the communities – expectations on the basis of which chiefs might be taken to task if they fail to live up to them.[126]

3.2.2 Administrative governance and social support

The chieftaincy system was created by the French in the colonial era essentially so that chiefs could serve as governance middlemen – i.e., as both informants for central administration and as policy channels to the local population – and as tax collectors. In the postcolonial context, those functions have been retained. The latter duty – of a tax collector – is, however, mainly the preserve of lower-level chiefs (quartier, village and tribu), with higher-level ones (canton and groupement) only pooling the levies for transfer to the state tax agency. Chiefs are also – as mentioned before – important local agents for development and humanitarian aid, providing in this way a source of social support. But these roles are all closely linked. Thus, in the district of Abalak, we learned that a village chief was formally relieved of his duties by the groupement chief – his hierarchical superior in the formal customary order – for political reasons (he supported a political party opposed by the groupement chief). The villagers, however, remained loyal to their chief and continued to pay their taxes to him. But neither the groupement chief, nor the prefect, would accept taking the tax, and, in connection to this, the village, now considered formally chief-less, is starved of state support and ‘project’ (i.e., donor) funding.[127] This incident demonstrates that the administrative duties of chiefs and their ability to provide social support are two faces of the same coin.

3.2.3 Surveillance (including religious affairs)

Aside from their functions as justice of the peace, judge in small claim courts, and first echelon of authority in the state justice system – as well as the roles described in the previous subsection – chiefs also act as monitors for the surveillance of the territory,[128] in tandem with chief clerics regarding religious issues. This partnership between chiefs and clerics is – as far as the data shows – always along the lines of the old religious orthodoxy which Nigeriens call ‘traditional Islam’, i.e., a mixture of generic Sunni Islam and Sufi affiliations. This old orthodoxy is challenged by the emerging Salafi orientation, as was often noted in the interviews.

The responses of chiefs in religious issues tend to be cautious. They are characterised by a form of patient reticence in contrast to the direct intervention of the state. Both of these attitudes are well illustrated by interview data from Ayarou, where we were told that followers of Tijaniyya – a Sufi orientation – are more numerous and the chief – himself a Tijan – had advised people to attend the preaching session of Salafi clerics, but to refrain from listening to their ‘provocations’. At the same time, to quell the conflicts between Sufi and Salafi that had erupted in the past, when the latter first arrived in the district, the prefecture had given some structure to the local preaching scene through the practice of issuing formal authorisations, and therefore putting the stamp of state supervision on religious activities.[129] [130]

In sum, there are Salafi groups – generally known as ‘Izala’ or ‘Sunnance’ in the surveyed districts – and interview respondents and focus group participants pointed out that while relationships with their leaders are often tense due to the radical narrative of their preaching, some appeasement is generally brokered (mainly by chiefs) and lines are drawn which ought not to be crossed. In some contexts, appeasement leads to a modicum of entente cordiale. Thus, in Abalak, the incoming Izala applied to the chief for authorisation to build their mosque. When outside clerics come to preach, they must submit the theme of their preaching to the imam of the grand mosque – who is a notable close to the chief, and also to the state.[131] [132]

Box 10
The history of Salafism in Niger

In Niger, the history of Salafism dates back to the early 1980s, when it was first introduced into southern parts of the country from northern Nigeria, as an extension of a group known as Izalatul Bidi’a wa Maqamatul Sunna (Izala for short). In the 1990s, Salafism grew and diversified, notably expanding into the western parts of the country (where the Tillabéri region is) and challenging state secularism in a bid to ‘Islamize’ state and society. This project, though radical, was nonviolent – although it stoked the religious fury that at times led to riots in the southern cities of Zinder and Maradi, and in Niamey. Salafism tends to be stronger in urban areas and to appeal more to the young. Although its doctrines are basically indistinguishable from those of extremist groups in the area, their mode of operation is preaching (persuasion), not coercion. The connection between this local Salafism and extremism is not straightforward. In one way, their preaching might prepare local populations to be more accepting of extremist attempts at governing; but in another way, the rivalry from Sufi groups – dominant in most rural areas – might also make the extremist onslaught even less palatable than it could have been.

However, not all our respondents embrace this surveillance function. Compared to the other municipalities we studied, respondents in the municipality of Ayarou feel particularly neglected and ignored by the state. Next to infrastructure and socioeconomic problems, respondents noted that lack of security is one of their key concerns,[133] and they are resentful of a state that asks for information and intelligence but comes to their rescue only after an attack.

3.2.4 Conflict mediation

Routine conflicts – as opposed to those that involve radical extremism and which are examined in the section on security challenges – generally involve dissension around natural resources (field boundaries, pastureland boundaries, aquifers) across all municipalities. In sedentary areas, field limits are not problematic because everyone knows the limit of each family’s plot, and even when there is a misunderstanding, it is quickly resolved through traditional authority conciliation. However, in pastoral areas, the status of the land is unclear to many of the nomads. And, given that boundaries are not definitively delineated, each year the patch of land dedicated to agriculture expands and pushes cattle further into areas lacking pastureland. Typically, conflicts around natural resources tend to be inter-community – i.e., cultivators versus herders, Fulani herders versus Tuareg herders – although that is not necessarily always the case. Thus, there are also conflicts between farmers or herders of the same community, even of the same family, over access to and ownership of land.[134]

In most conflicts related to natural resources, chiefs have a central role as mediators. Yet as was noted by one groupement chief in Abalak, their decisions in such matters are sometimes respected only when they are underwritten by modern courts, which leads chiefs to sometimes bring the matter to such courts themselves, to help the quarrelling parties.[135] Regarding conflict mediation, chiefs might need the help of clerics, shamans and other ‘traditional’ authorities such as the rugga and garso, who help manage and coordinate nomadic herding among the Fulani. They also rely on their routine, one might say intimate, knowledge of what goes on in the community. Conflicts for which rugga and garso intervene always involve the boundaries of pasturelands and fields. Often, rugga and garso work to resolve conflicts around natural resources within the Fulani herding community.

Box 11
Rugga and garso peace brokers

The rugga are peace brokers who travel extensively, at times across borders, often deep in the bush, to help resolve conflicts among Fulani herders, including even those which may have resulted in a fatality. The garso act as scouts who chart the way for herders in search of pastureland and aquifers, also leading them away from conflicts with other herders or with farmers. Although these officials have no legal status, they are confirmed by the canton or groupement chief (after being chosen by nomad leaders) and are enthroned in the presence of a representative of the central administration. The functions of rugga and garso are essential, given the movements of nomads. Groupement chiefs rarely move and tribu chiefs may move only with their tribu. The institution of rugga is said to be recent and the Fulani are attempting to persuade Tuareg herders to adopt it.[136]

As customs derive from both Islamic legality and local traditions – which hinge on relationships with local spirits – certain issues can be resolved by chiefs only with the assistance of clerics or shamans. Typically, issues of marriage or inheritance need the assistance of clerics, while land issues may require the involvement of shamans. Chief clerics (imams) are generally nominated or appointed by chiefs. Chiefs need to maintain good relations with elected officials and local administration as a way to uphold their role as contact persons for development and security policies in their jurisdiction, but this is not always easy – especially with elected officials.

As described above in the section on justice provision, the juridical methods used by chiefs are those of conciliation and mediation, which might have counterintuitive effects. According to a chief in Tchintabaraden, people may prefer modern court proceedings to mediation at the chief’s court when they know that they are in the wrong.[137] In this instance, the knowledge chiefs have of the community makes lying and other manipulations harder to sustain than in a modern court. This example points to the fact that the judicial pluralism denoted by the chieftaincy system gives potential litigants a range of options for adjudicating their cases.

Mediation is not necessarily the preferred option in all cases. In theory, mediation should be a popular option for certain types of conflict, particularly those with a more collective dimension (i.e., conflicts over the use of natural resources). The process of mediation, in such cases, would start with the low-level chief. If it does not succeed there, the case is escalated to the higher-level chief (groupement or canton). But the data suggests that people increasingly prefer either litigation in modern courts or administrative processes at the town hall to the chief’s court. Interview data from all the districts indicates that one key reason for this is the greater ‘cosmopolitanism’ of most chiefly districts – especially at groupement and canton levels – where people from many different communities might live, nurturing different expectations of the local chief, and sometimes having no feeling of allegiance towards him.[138] This means that chiefly mediation might work better at village or tribu levels than at groupement and canton levels.

3.2.5 An evaluation of the traditional authorities’ governance abilities

Expectations and drivers of allegiance among ‘subject’ populations – the revealing French term applied to them is les administrés – are complex and appear to reflect changed circumstances. These expectations shape the governance abilities of chiefs.

On the one hand, administrés attribute great powers both of doing good and of doing harm to chiefs, which creates pressures on them. In many ways, the central state has offloaded on to them the responsibility of making the first decision on some very rural thorny issues – especially those related to land and the sharing of natural resources. On such questions, chiefs can be accused by losing parties of being unfair or corrupt. Cases are then moved up to modern courts, an outcome which – depending on the context – is often perceived as a failure on the part of the chief. Expectations differ also in accordance with the rank of the chief. Village and tribu chiefs are ‘proximity’ chiefs who are expected to provide a greater range of services, including, for instance, chaperoning administrés in trips during which they will interact with modern officials; canton and groupement chiefs are expected to provide more services of the type that rest on influence and reach.

But in all cases, the performance of chiefs depends on their own persona, as defined by training, experience and – increasingly – financial resources and social capital. Chiefs with little or no formal training are less well equipped to deal with certain situations of crisis, communicate with modern authorities, and understand the objectives and work of non-governmental organisations – which have often been criticised in our data by chiefs interpreting their actions as subversive and disrespectful. Less experience also means less understanding of the webs of relationships and power relations that shape conflicts, both potential and open, in their jurisdiction. Further, the issue of money and social capital has become salient with democratisation. Decisions by poor chiefs[139] are more easily challenged, as chiefs need a ‘full purse’ and other resources to monitor their jurisdiction and maintain a client base across the community; chiefs without social capital in the community and, importantly, in regional capitals or in Niamey may find themselves destabilised by politicians seeking to mobilise constituents in their jurisdiction or even to challenge their tenure.[140]

3.3 Challenges to legitimacy – rules of creation and accession

3.3.1 Accession

Under previous authoritarian political systems in Niger (the French colony, the single party regime and the military regime that succeeded each other from 1922 to 1991), chieftaincies were conservative institutions that operated in accordance with invented traditions that buttressed the position of ruling lineages and guaranteed stable cooperation with the central administration. Accession, though always subject to gendarmerie investigation, was mainly determined by rules derived from these invented traditions (i.e., invented during the changeover that integrated customary authority with modern administration in the early years of colonial occupation). This means that elite groups in the chieftaincy’s jurisdiction and in the state controlled the process.

In the current arrangement of traditional authority structures in Niger, where chiefs are ultimately members of the administration, legality determines their position. There cannot be chiefs without the legal sanction of the administration – in particular the Ministry of the Interior, which is their tutelary ministry, the Ministry of Finance, which pays their emoluments and other expenditures and which relies on them for tax collection, and the Ministry of Justice, which is another tutelary ministry. Yet the legal process depends on more informal rules for selecting people eligible for the position of chief, or groups eligible for having a chieftaincy, and those are subject to interpretation and contestation.

The general rule is that, unlike any other position in the administration, the position of chief is inherited, even when the chieftaincy is, in fact, a creation of the administration, which is the case for most chieftaincies today.[141] But this rule is interpreted differently by incumbents and by potential claimants. Incumbents tend to interpret it narrowly by asserting that the position is passed on exclusively from father to son, while other members of the larger family (i.e., potential claimants) may claim that it can be assumed by any member of the family. When a new chieftaincy is created – as happened often in the 2000s – the first incumbent is appointed either by agreement of state authorities and higher chiefs, or straightforwardly by a decision of the Council of Ministers. From then on, successors inherit the position, and first incumbents support the doctrine that a successor must be their son. The law of 2015 does not clarify the matter, stipulating vaguely that ‘any Nigerien from a given traditional or customary community can apply to the chiefship of said community if custom gives him the right to do so.’ But custom is interpreted and contested depending on the interests of claimants.

With democratisation, forces from ‘subject’ populations were channelled, via electoral politics, lobbying and community organisation, to challenge established practices (see Figure 3). This has generally affected ways of creating traditional authority structures (see below) rather than of accession – but these, too, have not been left untouched. Thus, for instance, in Ader, the 3rd groupement chief was previously nominated by a college in which the deciding vote was held by two clerics, the imam of Tchintabaraden and the imam of Abalak. But that rule was not applied for the nomination of the first chief of the democratic era (1999), which was decided via election by village and tribu chiefs.[142] The new procedure is, in this way, more formal than the earlier one – and is meant to improve the criteria of transparency and participation defining a democratic process. Thus, villages and tribus that have a right to the nomination vote are the décisionnaires ones (this term means they hold a décision, i.e., a recognition title from the central administration[143]) and the voting is supervised by the governor. For a religious notable in Tchintabaraden, a casualty of the new era, this new mode of accession spells the doom of the chieftaincy. ‘Democracy,’ he explained, ‘gives more freedom to the administrés and strips the chiefs of all the deference due to their rank.’[144]

Figure 3
Mode of accession of the Nigerien respondents in the six municipalities studied
Mode of accession of the Nigerien respondents in the six municipalities studied

Things have also changed at village and tribu levels. An outcome of the new rules, which is deplored by established chiefs at this lower level, is the increased role of money and politics in the accession of chiefs. According to the village chief of Bassikouana (Banibangou district), the position of village chief was by inheritance in the past (i.e., since the creation of the chieftaincy in the colonial era). Today, it is a formal process that involves household heads as electors and the canton chief as supervisor. As a result, people with money and influence can accede to the position, trumping the ‘rights’ of inheritance. ‘Everything,’ he concluded, ‘takes places between those with power and the big [i.e., canton] chieftaincies.’ The village chief of Banibangou agrees on the influence of politics now. In the past, he explained, one became a village chief in Banibangou by inheritance, but today, the village has six chiefs ‘who have inherited nothing’. This refers to the fact that the jurisdiction of the village chieftaincy of Banibangou has been divided by the creation of new villages out of quartiers.[145] The quartier chiefs were appointed by the village chief, but thanks to ‘politics’ (i.e., lobbying), now, ‘as soon as they have enough people [in their quartier], they get the support of the administration to become chiefs’, even though, in his view, their families have no right to such a position.

The influence of money is made clear by the fact that the process of accession may be quite costly to the candidate. Thus, although the procedures leading to accession are normally a public service (defrayed by the state), they are actually funded by the candidate, who may expect – according to an official interviewed in Abala – to pay the equivalent of anywhere between 765 and 920 euros to cover them. Among other things, the funds pay for fuel for the canton chief, the gendarmerie (which must travel for the administrative inquest) and the prefect, and the defence and security forces, who will have to attend and protect enthronement ceremonies.[146] Although these expenditures are in fact illegal, supervising authorities in a district – such as the mayor – cannot act without risking derailing the process. According to the official of Abala, interference has led to vacancies in some chieftaincies that has lasted for over three years.[147] The incident previously reported (in the section on administrative governance) of a village chief in the district of Abalak removed by his groupement chief for partisan reasons also highlights the influence of politics (in particular, electoral politics) on the position of chiefs, who often appear in that light as pawns in a rigged chessboard.

The general view – and this is paramount among old-style chiefs, i.e., chiefs who have secured their position under the pre-democratic system – is that these changes are subverting the chieftaincy system as it has been established from time immemorial (actually, from the colonial era). From the contender’s point of view, however, it is the legitimacy of an exclusionary and unrepresentative status quo that is under threat. On a broader level, chiefly positions appear to be vulnerable to money and politics. This affects the legitimacy of the traditional chieftaincy more generally, as it may make them less credible and only able to hold on to derivative power.[148]

3.3.2 Rules of creation

The creation of new chieftaincies often undermines the legitimacy of the ones they are breaking away from, creating tension between legitimacy and legality.

In recent regulations, the creation of a new chieftaincy has been streamlined into a semi-formal process whereby a critical number of household heads (for quartier and village/tribu chieftaincies) or of village or tribu chiefs (for canton/groupement chieftaincies) petition for this. In the case of new village or tribu chieftaincies, the application of the petitioners must be recommended by the canton or groupement chief, signed by the mayor, the prefect and the governor, and submitted to the Minister of the Interior. In the case of new canton or groupement chieftaincies, the first incumbent of a new groupement explained that the application must be supported by ten recognised village or tribu chiefs, or alternately by 20 chiefs of villages/tribus that are in the process of being recognised (by the Ministry of the Interior).[149] These particular stipulations perhaps reflect general experience rather than a written, formal regulation.

Once the application has been accepted by the Ministry of the Interior, the creation of the chieftaincy becomes a legal, more formal process. In theory, this process includes two investigations, or enquiries. A socioeconomic investigation is conducted by the planning office of the central administration, and which aims at understanding certain factors such as the real reasons behind the demand for creating a new chieftaincy, the actual number of supporters involved, and the length of time the applicant population has occupied an area. It also studies the question of the naming of the new entity (which will it be, with what meaning). The administrative investigation is conducted by the gendarmerie and verifies and validates the data collected in the first enquiry. The decision about the proposed chieftaincies follows the submission of the reports for these investigations.

The whole process as it exists today is favourable to the creation of new chieftaincies and results from the changed political context brought about by democratisation (the process was more tightly controlled before 1991). It implies that local populations have a much greater say in the creation of chieftaincies than before. And this is where new authorities appear to be challenging the legitimacy of older ones. Indeed, in Ader, the chiefs of groupements that view themselves as long established are critical of the creation of new groupements, blaming the government of President Mamadou Tandja (2000-2010) for its policy of easing this process and praising President Mahamadou Issoufou for the current tightening of conditions for the creation new chieftaincies.[150] Related misgivings are also observed in the districts surveyed in Tillabéri. The ‘proliferation’ of chieftaincies is said to devalue and trivialise the position of a chief.[151]

To protect their position (or their perception of it), some chiefs resort to the law, thus stoking a tension between the question of legality and the problem of legitimacy. Thus, the chief of the long-established 3rd groupement in Tchintabaraden questioned the legitimacy of breakaway groupements, which he described as mere ‘creations in a council of ministers’, while, in his view, ‘the laws regulating traditional chieftaincy in Niger did not provide for the creation of new groupements or cantons’.[152] One reason behind his criticism, however, was that some of the breakaway groupements were created following applications from Black Tuareg tribu, whose members felt they were excluded from consultation, decision making and benefits under groupements headed by light-skinned noble Tuareg, such as the 3rd groupement. The 3rd groupement chief mounted a legal challenge against the new groupements, claiming that in their founding application they had claimed support from groups that did not in fact support them. This challenge led to an administrative census implemented by the prefect and mayor of Tchintabaraden with a view of establishing that some Black Tuareg tribu chiefs still paid allegiance to him.

Another issue for the 3rd groupement is its viability. Since the Tuareg nobility is a minority social status group, if other social status groups are allowed to form their own chieftaincies, they risk moving below the demographic bar for the existence of a groupement (i.e., there is a risk that, with time, the groupement may be liable to be dissolved). Supporters of the creation of new chieftaincies, on the other hand, point out that the process is conducive to peace and stability.[153] One village chief under a recently created groupement stressed that new creations were a good way to assuage the frustration of being governed by remote chiefs born in communities that did not have the same cares and concerns as one’s own, thereby preventing possible destabilising actions.[154]

In sum, the issue of legitimacy is not a straightforward one, mainly because legitimacy derives from a dynamic context, largely prompted by the politics of democratisation. This may mean that what we have observed is very much a situation in flux or a moment of transition, one that is moving people from old-style chieftaincy towards a new (though not totally different) chieftaincy system. In such a moment, the parameters of legitimacy themselves are unstable, with old ones weakening and new ones not yet fully established.

3.3.3 Implications for traditional authorities

As much of the response data mentioned above suggests, the position of chief in local arenas is challenged or, in the reading of some, even undermined, by democratisation.

The challenge comes from decentralisation and the rise of elected officials, the interventions of vote-seeking politicians, the influence of money, and the ability of groups or individuals to use democratic rules to gain autonomy. This institutional menace appears so grave that some respondents in a focus group in Tchintabaraden claimed that the chieftaincy –with some of its key powers taken away by judges and gendarmes, and with the coup de grace coming from elected local governments, freedom and human rights justice that see some elements of customary justice as violations of human rights that may incur punishment[155] – has become so irrelevant that it could (or should) be abrogated.[156] It bears noting that this was a frustrated response to a question on the capacities of customary chiefs of assisting the administrés: nevertheless it echoes many other negative – if less radical – assessments of the kind heard during fieldwork.

However, and as mentioned before, any evaluation should take into account the fact that the chieftaincy in Niger is not an isolated institution. It is both deeply connected to state administration and embedded in local politics, so that major shifts in these two fields must affect it in ways that could feel more threatening than they actually are. First, negative assessments are made against the background of nostalgic beliefs that in the past things were stable and orderly – which is far from true. Indeed, similar statements are made about the state of Niger itself, which would have been a more functional and stable entity under military rule and is now going to the dogs owing to democracy and its corruptions. Second, the assessment is often contradicted by examples of the usefulness of chiefs, especially when their role is understood not in isolation but in collaboration with other authorities. For instance, in the same Tchintabaraden focus group, respondents concurred that other institutions, either ‘traditional’ – such as religious authorities operating in matters of marriage, inheritance, divorce, death – or ‘modern’ – such as the municipality, the gendarmerie – all need chiefs as a validating or mediating authority.[157]

The key concepts here are proximity and formality. The strengths that make chiefs indispensable despite the apparent crisis documented above are that they are much closer to the people than other governing authorities, and yet at the same time they have a formal status which makes them relevant to the population as an easy entry point into the world of government. Thus, in a post-fieldwork focus group held in Niamey with representatives of community organisations in northern Tillabéri and Tahoua, the crisis was acknowledged but the key recommendation was not to throw the baby out with the bath water, but to convene ‘estates general of the chieftaincy’ (discussed in more detail in this chapter’s conclusion) that would debate all the crisis issues and propose a reform agenda at national level.[158] In sum, the idea was that the chieftaincy needs to be updated.

3.4 Security challenges to traditional authorities’ legitimacy

3.4.1 Cross-border conflict in the Tillabéri region[159]

The governance challenges outlined above pale in comparison to the challenges that have hit the chieftaincy in the region of Tillabéri, with the spill-overs from the conflicts in northern Mali. The historical roots of the present crisis date back to the 1970s, when elements of the Malian army stationed in the areas of Gao, Ménaka and Kidal – that is, in what was, for them, a remote, neglected outpost of the national territory – got into the habit of pillaging Nigerien Fulani herders whose paths of transhumance crossed into Mali.[160] These were, in particular, subsets of Nigerien Fulani known as Tolleebe and Minikaabe (the latter noun meaning ‘those of Ménaka’, because their transhumance path led them to the area of ‘Minika’, a Fulani rendition of Ménaka).

This unlawful violence perpetrated by the Malian military was, at the time, occasional and never crossed into Nigerien territory. However, over the last two decades violence has worsened on the Mali and Niger borders due to increased rivalries between communities for control of land. Simultaneously, Malian and Nigerien states have struggled to regulate these conflicts over natural resources. Additionally, following the rebellions of the 1990s and 2000s, access to weapons made violence much more deadly. As a result, young Fulani and Tuareg Daoussak became increasingly involved in the conflict to protect their respective communities.

Reportedly, political entrepreneurs relied on these young men to establish community-based militias, mainly in Mali but also in Niger, with Fulani militia mainly in northern Tillabéri, the area affected by violence. While these militias claimed to serve the interests of their nomadic populations, they also relied on violence to pressure the state and generate economic incentives. Tuareg Daoussak were also accused of infiltrating the Tillabéri region and seizing livestock belonging to Fulani herders. The Nigerien government failed to address this security issue while battling Tuareg rebellion in northern Tahoua and Agadez regions. As a result the Tolleebe and Minikaabe eventually formed a militia to resist the Daoussak and carry out revenge razzia (attacks). The following months and years in the 1990s were characterised by a series of retaliation attacks from both sides and across the borders. The situation continued to worsen, despite efforts by the Nigerien government in 1999, which were in fact inadequate.

In 2007, the Nigerien Haut Commissariat à la Restauration de la Paix (HCRP, the precursor organisation to the current Haute Autorité à la Consolidation de la Paix, HACP), under Mohammed Anako, organised a peace-brokering convention in Gao, attended by the governors of Tillabéri, Tahoua and Gao regions as well as representatives of the armed groups. Anako secured a truce and a monitoring committee was created to observe the ‘restoration of peace’ between the Fulani and the Tuareg in the area. Unfortunately, attention soon turned on to the new Tuareg rebellion in Agadez region; the committee never saw the light and fighting continued.

In 2011, with peace restored in northern Niger and a new government of Niger in place, Prime Minister Brigi Rafini convened a forum in Ménaka, Mali in August, during which Tuareg Daoussak and Nigerien Fulani combatants were persuaded to disarm. It was then that the Fulani militia disbanded and promised recruitment into Niger’s armed forces. While disarming combatants might have been successful in Niger, this was not the case on the Mali side due to the new rebellion of January 2012, which was a major setback to bringing an end to the conflict in Tillabéri region. Under these conditions, the Tuareg Daoussak did not disarm, much to the contrary, and the Fulani, who had abided by the terms of the agreement of Ménaka, were left at their mercy. Additionally, the Nigerien government failed to deliver on its promises and to reintegrate Fulani combatants into Niger’s med forces.

Tuareg Daoussak seized the opportunity of a chaotic northern Mali to continue its acts of banditry against Fulani communities. With state absence and lack of protection, the Fulani gained support from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a jihadist group that was occupying most of the Ménaka and Gao regions in 2012. In exchange for weapons, military training and protection, members of Fulani communities agreed to support or join the group. Fulani militiamen might not have agreed with the religious ideology of MUJAO, but both actors shared the same enemy, Tuareg Daoussak.

In 2013, after the French Operation Serval had chased extremist groups from key cities in northern Mali, many of the Nigerien Fulani who had previously joined extremist groups chose to return to Niger, saying they had no issues with the Nigerien state[161] but needed protection against the Tuareg. Such protection, however, was not forthcoming. In autumn 2013, attacks on transhumant Nigerien Fulani resurfaced. For instance, an attack near Ansongo, Mali caused 55 casualties. The Fulani community requested a judicial resolution of the case but no judicial action took place to hold those responsible accountable. In response, the Fulani carried out a retaliation attack against Tuareg Imghad in February 2014, starting a new cycle of inter-communal violence. As a result of this attack, the Fulani were labelled ‘terrorists of MUJAO’ by Mali’s then minister of public security.[162]

Retaliation and revenge attacks from both sides did not stop. Tuareg Imghad struck back at a Fulani camp in Nigerien territory, killing eight Fulanis and seizing livestock. However, Fulani gunmen responded with an armed assault and recaptured the stolen livestock in addition to killing a number of Tuareg Imghad. Despite evidence, Nigerien authorities were accused of mishandling the situation by arresting Fulanis involved in the violence.[163] This reaction outraged the Fulani, many of whom felt betrayed. For protection and defence, they felt they had no other choice but to turn to the extremist groups who already had been trying to lure them in. The situation continued to deteriorate afterwards, especially after French forces of Barkhane aligned themselves with Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA) and Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA) armed groups in a counterterrorism campaign from 2017 to early 2019.

What role could chiefs play in this difficult configuration of conflicts? What is its impact on their position?

3.4.2 Impact on the position of chiefs

The worsened security situation in northern Tillabéri has affected chiefs in several ways, including: (1) chiefs fleeing their position, (2) chiefs being killed or abducted, (3) chiefs joining the militants, or (4) chiefs staying put and incurring either the suspicions of the state, or threats from militants.

Moving beyond the municipalities under study here, there have been several systematic assassinations of community leaders in the Inatès’ area of Tillabéri. Since May 2018, no less than eight customary chiefs were killed by jihadis assumed to be from Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).[164] The impact tends to be greater among lower-ranking chiefs, although the assassination of the Inatès groupement chief,[165] and two months later his son, who had inherited the title,[166] shows that higher-ranking chiefs are also targeted. The threats on chiefs’ lives come from different sides: Fulani fighters, extremist groups, and perhaps also Tuareg armed groups operating in the transborder area. Fulani fighters seemingly only put pressure on Fulani chiefs – and may be behind the abduction of the groupement chief in Abala. Extremists target chiefs of any communal origin, asking them, under threat, to levy and pay the ‘Islamic’ impost of the Zakkat. Further proof of their indiscriminate targeting of chiefs is the ethnic origin of the tribal chiefs killed: Fulani, Arabic, Gomnika, Tuareg and even Galashi.[167]

This trend is not exclusive to the departments of the Tillabéri region bordering Mali, as other cases of abduction and assassination of traditional leaders have been observed in three other departments bordering Burkina Faso, in the more central Tahoua region[168] and even in the Diffa with Boko Haram.[169] As a strategy, intimidating traditional leaders, seen as auxiliaries of the state, aims at weakening the hold of the Nigerien state on those already inaccessible areas, thus consolidating the grip of non-state armed actors on local communities, the former sometimes going as far as setting up their own governance system to fill this power vacuum.

What this means is that chiefs are between the rock of the armed groups and the hard place of the state, a situation similar to what has been happening to them in the Lake Chad area, with the Boko Haram crisis. Because their legitimacy is drawn from the community while their legal position is derived from the state, chiefs can be suspected by both antagonists to be the agent of the other. The state may want to rely on them for surveillance and monitoring, which would make them spies in the eyes of the armed groups; on the other hand, armed groups may want chiefs to warn them about state (and allied) operations, meaning that they would then be accused of ‘terrorism’ by the state.

In such conditions, most chiefs prefer to lie low and remain ‘neutral’ in the conflict. Chiefs will be indispensable and useful in the process of peace restoration and consolidation, but in their current position, there is not much they can do in the securing of peace. However, if the state decides to talk with the Fulani fighters – including those who joined MUJAO – chiefs will play a key role as channels of communication and participants in a deradicalisation and reinsertion scheme. To understand this conclusion, it is necessary to grasp the nature of the role of chiefs in a peaceful society. Their roles are essentially to prevent, defuse or consolidate. It is difficult to document exactly the first role, since the evidence of success here is that nothing has happened.

In an interview, Abou Tarka, the current president of HACP, put forward the perspective of a territorial administrator, such as a prefect. This official, he said, is quite isolated in a small town where he is an outsider, sometimes even with little mastery of the local language, and far from the bases and resources of the state. Without the chiefs, there is not much he can do, including in terms of preventing a conflict from getting out of hand. But if this does happen, if a conflict gets out of hand and turns into an armed conflict, chiefs are generally powerless, since resolution will imply the armed intervention of the state. Chiefs can still play a role in resolving armed inter-community conflicts, but typically only as handmaiden to the state. Thus, for instance, chiefs were not present in the peace restoration meetings organised by Mohammed Anako in 2007 and Brigi Rafini in 2011, but in each case it was expected that chiefs would play a role in the social or community reintegration of fighters (as we have seen, this did not happen due to other crises that erupted right after those meetings), including by organising dialogue at local levels.

Regarding the current conflict, the context is more complex than any that Niger has known, as it involves on the one hand armed inter-community conflict, and on the other hand, the involvement of radical extremists. Chiefs can play the expected role – of helping to organise dialogue at local levels – in the resolution of armed inter-community conflicts, but the radical extremist threat is another matter, because it is a war against the state and chiefs are pressured (by both state and militants) to take sides. Our analysis is, that as long as the radical extremist war is not won (by the state) and over, resolving inter-community conflicts will not end the violence, meaning that chiefs cannot work in optimum conditions.

Finally, it is important to note that this security crisis has one particular impact that complicates the work of chief, namely the displacement of large groups of people, many times of entire villages, who relocate into refugee camps or disperse in other villages or towns. The impact can be assessed in at least three ways. First, in the case of the sudden arrival of large groups of refugees, the strain on the host community makes it ‘suffer’,[170] causing a rapid rise in conflicts over primary resources such as food and water. This increases the workload of chiefs. ‘The chief who is managing the displaced has a lot more on his plate, he must be much more responsible and serious in his work,’ said a chief in an area with refugees.[171] Traditional authorities (higher-ranking ones such as the chef de canton) are the first involved in the procurement of property for refugees to live in. Then they need to contact the administration to organise visits and conduct a census for emergency assistance programmes. The counting of refugees is done by lower-ranking authorities such as the chef de quartier, who forwards the information to the chef de village, then to the mayor, who will coordinate with NGOs.

Second, displacement may suspend a chieftaincy since, in some cases, the administrés leave and scatter, and the chief himself becomes an internally displaced person (IDP). The refugees look forward to returning to their place of origin but have no control over when that might happen. Third, refugee populations might have positive effects on chiefs and their communities. In some cases, displaced populations bring in income, aid funds and services, and even a level of social and economic integration that may increase the resources of the local community. The work of the chief, in this case, is to help ensure that such benefits offset the trouble that a sudden influx of strangers might create.[172] We do not make clear recommendations on this issue in the next section, mainly because it is so largely circumstantial and any improvements would need to be envisioned on a case-by-case basis.[173]

3.5 Conclusions and recommendations

Traditional or customary chieftaincy in Niger is a powerful asset for local governance, given the political-economic structures/conditions in the country. Contrary to Mali, Niger did not break with the colonial policy of formalising and integrating the chieftaincy into the territorial administration and the justice system. The chieftaincy system has therefore grown into what it is today, through the watershed moments of independence (1960), democratisation (1991) and decentralisation (1998). Since 2015, chieftaincy has been organised by a law that further integrates it into central government.

In this chapter, we have reviewed and analysed some of the roles chieftaincy currently plays in Niger, and under what conditions. The challenges presented by, in particular, the processes of democratisation and decentralisation have often led to a sense of an institutional crisis of the chieftaincy relative to the position it held under the single-party and military regimes. That sense of crisis might be about a process of change in the chieftaincy system, which is not accompanied by any regulatory effort from the state. But in the regions studied, and especially in Tillabéri, that is compounded by the pressures that are bearing down on the system – almost crushingly – from the entangled forces of community and radical extremist armed groups, Nigerien defences forces, and Western military interveners.

Although both northern Tillabéri and northern Tahoua are Sahel-Sahara areas where state governance is limited and fragile, a key difference between them is that the security crisis pertaining to what one might broadly call the radical extremist threat from northern Mali (though we have seen it is a bit more than that), which directly affects northern Tillabéri more than northern Tahoua. Thus the benefit of studying the two regions is that one can compare problems related to the chieftaincy system in districts with roughly the same background, and assess the effect of the radical extremist threat, i.e., high insecurity, versus the effects of the other issues identified in the study. Our conclusion thus has two subsections: general issues and recommendations, and security issues and recommendations.

3.5.1 General issues and recommendations

The chieftaincy in Niger is not directly politicized. It is normally secluded from politics by the fact that chiefs are, to all intents and purposes, administrators – therefore enjoying (in theory) the autonomy that administration normally has with respect to the political class. Yet, if one could sum up the many issues that beset Niger’s chieftaincy today into one world, it would be politization – together with lack of resources in the case of lower-level chiefs. This problem is far from restricted to the chieftaincy. Niger’s entire administration suffers from politization, today even more so than in the past. The problem extends even to local government, especially as the country has not organised local elections since 2011. In effect, Niger’s Seventh Republic is based on shaky constitutional foundations; it is meant to be run by a government elected at national and local levels, which is not the case today. The general issues for the chieftaincy should be considered with this in mind.

In large part, politization is consequent to democratisation. Although elections in Niger are not of the highest quality in terms of freedom and fairness, they are still relatively well run, meaning there is always a risk that the incumbent will lose power and opponents gain ground. To limit those risks, politicians from both the majority and the opposition parties make extensive use of their powers of manipulation. If state administration has, in this way, been turned into a bastion of the ruling party and its allies, the chieftaincy, which is ‘soft’ administration and close to constituencies, is a battleground for the political class. Thus, as mentioned in the subsection on administrative governance and social support, there was the case of a village chief removed from his post for political reasons. However, the reverse situation can also occur, where chiefs are put into post by the government because they are expected to toe its line.

All the functions of chiefs are liable to be politicized. For instance, their administrative work relies on good relationships with mayors, prefects, judges and civil servants in ministries in Niamey. The very diversity of these authorities can help chiefs withstand against undue pressures. Well-established chiefs – at groupement and canton levels particularly – might be well protected by their personal prestige and status, but they could still lose their positions if those in power deem it necessary. A chief’s prestige and status often rests on their ability to provide for their administrés, notably by being seen as prime movers in securing development projects and the building of social services infrastructure (e.g., school, infirmary). That ability is easily dependent on political connections shaped by partisanship. Many more examples could be given, but the upshot is that the legal autonomy of chiefs as arms of the territorial and justice administration, and particularly their invaluable roles in preventing conflicts and in post-conflict peace consolidation efforts, must be protected if their usefulness to the state and society is to be preserved or salvaged. Three key recommendations may be advanced to ensure such protection.

Uphold the law: While the law governing the chieftaincy system is generally perceived to be solid, the underlying problems (mostly related to politics) uncovered in this study impair it to some extent. To ensure that the chieftaincy does not lose its positive governance function, an ‘estates general convention’ could be organised. Such a convention’ (from the historical French process of the états généraux, of revolutionary fame) would convene delegates from all branches of a particular sector across the country to debate problems and recommend solutions.[174] 'Estates general’ should propose solutions and then build consensus around them. Bringing the Ministry of the Interior on board (i.e., a body headed by a member of the political class) would be a key step to push such a convention forwards.

Provide resources: Such resources would be both material and non-material. This recommendation should be nuanced: higher-level (canton and groupement) chiefs generally receive material resources (payments and equipment) but lower-level chiefs do not. If it is a difficult proposition, that such chiefs, who are much the more numerous, be on the payroll of the state, they should at least receive indemnities and compensation in specific cases, and especially when taxes are low. They also must receive training and assistance (non-material resources) for some of their other roles. Such support could markedly improve chiefs’ performance and the faith that administrés have in them, increase chiefs’ confidence in administrative personnel, and possibly improve chiefs understanding of the risks and benefits of democratic governance. With decentralisation, local authorities have been given many additional responsibilities, but these have not been matched with an equal ability to raise taxes locally or receive fiscal transfers from the central government.

Codify customs: The codification of customs – even only on the basis of jurisprudence – and the standardisation of procedure, although delicate processes, could result in significant benefits in the stabilisation of chiefly authority and insulate their position from undue influences, thereby countering politicization. Aside from the transparency and objectivity that could give customary justice the same appeal as modern justice, such reforms might reduce or eliminate the problem of justice by allegiance (to the chief) and the fact that, in a changing world customary justice is becoming increasingly irrelevant or inadequate, while its legitimacy hints it may have an important role to play in Niger today.[175] In order for chiefly authority to retain legitimacy vis-à-vis the outside world, it will be important to understand the extent to which different forms of traditional justice are in line with international human rights principles.

3.5.2 Security issues and recommendations

The security threat is specific to the region of Tillabéri – even if Tahoua has not been completely immune to some of its effects. But the recommendations below include some elements that are generalisable even to areas not in the throes of armed conflict.

These recommendations are grouped into four categories: institutional, political, regulatory and de-escalating. The institutional and political recommendations seek to address the issue of the marginalisation of the Fulani who, although they are a sizeable minority in northern Tillabéri, lack the power and influence of the Zarma/Songhay, Hausa (Kurfey), and Tuareg – which largely explains the longstanding state indifference to their plight. The regulatory and de-escalating recommendations seek to address potential sources of conflict that lie beyond the power of chiefs, and which, if developed, could lighten the burden for them.

There are two key institutional recommendations. One is to create more Fulani groupement chieftaincies. In the present context, there is only one Fulani groupement chief in northern Tillabéri, and it lacks legitimacy because it is based on the small Woodaabe segment of the Fulani community. Not coincidentally, the chief of this groupement was abducted shortly after we interviewed him. Groupement chieftaincies are important because their leader communicates directly with state authorities and has a voice on the public stage, unlike tribu chiefs who have to go through higher-ranking chiefs and often lack the financial and material resources to tackle problems before they grow too big. Another institutional recommendation is to hold a forum on the role of the chieftaincy. While this harkens back to the ‘estates general’ notion that was mentioned in the previous section, it will also offer a forum to discuss institutional changes that are specifically geared toward strengthening the physical security of the office of chief.

The political recommendations boil down to securing a fairer representation for the Fulani in the political institutions, especially in parliament and perhaps in organisations such as the Haute Autorité à la Consolidation de la Paix (HACP). In the present context, the composition of electoral districts in northern Tillabéri means that while no candidate can hope to win a seat at the national assembly without the vote of nomadic minorities (Fulani, Tuareg, and Arabs), deputies regularly hail from the sedentary groups. Special limitations – reserved for minority voters – have been instituted in Banibangou and Bankillaré, but anyone (i.e., not just a person from a minority group) can run for deputyship in those areas. Our recommendation is that in those areas, an ordinary circumscription (open to candidates from majority groups) be created alongside the special circumscription (reserved for candidates from minority groups). This will effectively create a minority quota that will allow minority representatives from those areas to be elected for the national assembly and will advance the interests of their constituents against state indifference or unresponsiveness.

The HACP was created in the late 1990s – then under the name Haut Commissariat à la Restauration de la Paix – to address the grievances of Tuareg rebels. It has since remained a de facto Tuareg-controlled and Tuareg-focused institution, although its mission is to protect the peace, especially in the Sahel-Sahara where Tuareg coexist with Fulani and sedentary farmers. A solution must be found whereby the institution becomes more open, particularly at decision-making level, to non-Tuareg groups, perhaps via a permanent board.

The regulatory recommendation concerns the regulation of small arms and light weapons. The region is awash with such weapons, which makes deadly conflict more probable – i.e., the kind of conflict that lies beyond the remit of customary chiefs, and which can easily escalate into some sort of war. In the early 2000s, customary chiefs played an important role in the campaign against small arms in the region of Diffa, mainly as ‘agents of sensitisation’ who facilitated state communication with local populations on a sensitive matter.[176]

Finally, what we call here de-escalating recommendations relate to measures that should be taken (1) to end the conflict in northern Tillabéri, and (2) to strengthen inter-community ties via mechanisms of traditional and customary authority. The proposed measures to end conflict are not, in themselves, original, but might be seen as innovative in the context of northern Tillabéri, where they have not been tried previously. In the region of Diffa, a deradicalisation centre has been set up (in the town of Goudoumaria) and a ‘disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration’ process has been set under way, even though militants there have been, on average, much more violent – and seemingly, much less open to dialogue – than those in northern Tillabéri.[177] In fact, when the Fulani militia disbanded in 2011, one of the promises made was that the fighters would be integrated into Niger’s defence and security forces – as had happened with Tuareg and Tubu rebels in the past. That promise was not kept, a fact that helps to explain the Fulani sense of betrayal. Such a process must be promoted in the region, even though the role of chiefs will be limited, in part due to the transborder nature of the issue.

Regarding the strengthening of inter-community ties, it would require further research on the nature of those ties and the mechanisms that could be further developed to aid the process. One example that could be mentioned here is that of the Fulani offices of rugga and garso mentioned in this report, which play key roles as itinerant justices of peace, sometimes involved even in defusing conflicts that have led to violent deaths. At the moment, these offices are mostly (though not exclusively) restricted to Fulani communities but could be extended to Tuareg ones and, indeed, play a defusing role in relationships between Fulani and Tuareg groups. In addition, traditional authorities could play a key role in setting up inclusive inter-community dialogues for different communities to get to know and trust each other, learn from each other, and even work together.

Much of what is considered traditional in the Nigerien context derives from pre-colonial practices that colonial and postcolonial states reinvented to suit their own objectives.
According to the World Bank (2016), 80.5% of Nigeriens live in rural areas. Indicators of access to infrastructure that reduces dependence and the impact on natural resources are especially negative for rural areas. For instance, only 4.8% of the rural population has access to electricity (compared to 65.3% in urban areas), and only about 2% of Nigeriens (both urban and rural) have access to clean fuel and appliances for cooking. See: World Bank Dataset. 2016. ‘Niger’, link (accessed on 6 September 2019).
Chiefs are incentivised to support programmes that donors are interested in because they want development projects in their districts. Programmes pertinent here include the stemming of population growth through, e.g., the ‘empowering’ of women and the fight against early marriage. For a general analysis, see: Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 1998. ‘Chefs et Projets au Village (Niger)’, Bulletin de l’APAD, (15).
The law officialised and organised a situation that has existed de facto since the early colonial era and that the French had begun to formalise in the late 1940s. For the situation before 2009, see Tidjani Alou, M. 2009. ‘La chefferie au Niger et ses transformations’, LASDEL | Etudes et Travaux, 76; Soulas de Russel, D. 1998. ‘Niveaux et degrés d’intégration des "modernités" chez les chefs traditionnels: l’exemple du Niger’, Africa Spectrum, 33(1), 99–116; Abba, S. 1990 ‘La chefferie traditionnelle en question’, Politique africaine, (38), 51–60.
Violent rivalry between suitors is a recurring cause of conflict among the Woodaabe Fulani in particular, due to instances of abduction of the spouse or the fiancée by the losing suitor.
Chiefs also used to adjudicate in cases of homicide by imposing the diya, or ‘price of the blood’, on culprits. But respondents say this practice belongs in the past. It seems to survive in remoter parts of the national territory, for instance among the Tubu of the far eastern regions. In the district surveyed, the state’s penal law system has superseded this custom.
Focus group, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 20 March 2019.
Interview with Respondent #38, Demoted tribe chief, Abalak, Tahoua Region, 7 March 2019.
Traditional authorities in communities hosting refugees, for example, noted that they monitor and investigate displaced populations to identify anyone who might potentially be a problem, for example someone who might pretend to be a refugee in order to gather information that would allow them to attack the security forces.
In response to these types of issues, the government eventually adopted, in summer 2019, a law formally allowing the territorial administration to oversee religious activities for the sake of public order. As seen here, the law is only giving official cover to a practice that already existed in some places, such as Ayarou. The law also means that this oversight is going to be more systematic and more uniform across the territory.
Interview Respondent #52, Groupement chief, Ayarou, Tillabéri Region, 9 March 2019.
Imams of grand mosques in Nigerien areas are always members of the state-sponsored Association Islamique du Niger (AIN), a national organisation which has been in existence since independence (it had a different name before 1974).
Interview with Respondent #28, Abalak, Tahoua Region, 5 March 2019.
As will be discussed in more detail in the section on security challenges below, armed groups have filled this vacuum – now collecting taxes (Zakkat) in return for their ‘service provision’.
Other conflicts for which chiefs are often approached involve marital issues, debt, fights between neighbours, theft and rape, heritage, unsatisfactory conciliation decisions, and election grudges.
Interview with Respondent #35, Groupement chief, Abalak, Tahoua Region, 5 March 2019.
Several respondents in focus group, Niamey, Niamey Urban Community, 24 June 2019.
Interview with Respondent #111, Groupement chief, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 18 March 2019.
The issue of financial deprivation is greatest among lower-level chiefs who do not receive a salary but receive a percentage of the tax money they collect – which can be a very small amount, or even nothing, when impoverished populations are unable to pay the tax. This then opens the way to corruption, an egregious harm to the position of a chief.
See interviews with Respondent #34, High-ranking civil servant, Abalak, Tahoua Region, 4 March 2019; Respondent #68, Village chief, Banibangou, Tillabéri Region, 24 March 2019; Focus group, Niamey, Niamey Urban Community, 24 June 2019.
The exceptions are those chieftaincies that trace their origins back to pre-colonial times. But even these have, in fact, been reinvented by the administration and keep only the trappings and pedigree of their ancient origins.
Interview with Respondent #123, Religious leader, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 19 March 2019.
The implication also is that, in the past, the status of voting groups was not formally established.
Interview with Respondent #123, Religious leader, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua region, 19 March 2019.
The quartiers, or neighbourhoods, of a village are in fact separate settlements, which are created close to the main/earliest village and can grow to be as big as it is.
Interview with Respondent #16, High-ranking municipal civil servant, Abala, Tillabéri Region, 13 March 2019.
Interview with Respondent #16, High-ranking municipal civil servant, Abala, Tillabéri Region, 13 March 2019.
Objectively, the power of old-style chieftaincy was also derivative. But the claim is that it now derives from multiple and unstable sources – politicians, the wealthy, ordinary residents, including sometimes those of low-status groups – which all take something away from its powers.
Interview with Respondent #122, Village chief, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 17 March 2019.
Interview with Respondent #120, Groupement chief representative, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 20 March 2019.
Interview with Respondent #74, Village chief, Banibangou, Tillabéri Region, 27 March 2019.
Interview with Respondent #111, Groupement chief, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 18 March 2019.
Interview with Respondent #89, Groupement chief, Kao, Tahoua Region, 25 March 2019.
Elements of customary justice are perceived as violations of human rights that may incur punishment. For instance, the treatment meted out to ‘witches’ in accordance with customary rules would be considered battery under Niger’s penal code.
This was not a general opinion, but it expressed a general sense, in the focus group, that the chieftaincy is in crisis today. In: Interview focus group (Resource persons), Niamey, Niamey Urban Community, 24 June 2019.
Focus group, Tchintabaraden, Tahoua Region, 20 March 2019.
Interview focus group (Resource persons), Niamey, Niamey Urban Community, 24 June 2019.
This entire section is based on interviews conducted in Niamey in April 2019 with leading members of associations representative of the communities in northern Tillabéri, including a former leader of the Fulani militia of the late 1990s-early 2000s.
International Crisis Group. 2018. The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy. Africa Report, no. 261, Dakar/Brussels.
Also see: Cocks, T. and Lewis, D. 2017. ‘Why Niger and Mali’s cattle herders turned to jihad’, Reuters, link (accessed 12 September 2019).
Flynn, D. and Lefief, J.-P. 2014. ‘La mort de 31 Touaregs dans le nord du Mali imputée au Mujao’, L’Obs, link (accessed 12 September 2019).
There was also a crackdown on former Fulani militiamen in Niamey, including one person who was working as adviser to Prime Minister Rafini. Eventually, most of those arrested were cleared after a trial in Niamey, but a few remained in the high-security prison of Koutoukalé, a short distance from Niamey. The prison was attacked in May 2019 in what a government communication called a ‘terrorist attack.’
Danish Refugee Council, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Protection Cluster. 2018. Rapport d’analyse mensuelle des données du monitoring de protection, juillet 2018 Tillabéri, Niger, link (accessed 12 September 2019).
‘Niger: un chef touareg tué par des hommes armés près du Mali’. 2019. RFI Afrique, link (accessed 12 September 2019).
‘Niger: un chef traditionnel touareg assassiné près de la frontière malienne’. 2019. RFI Afrique, link
EUCAP Sahel Niger. 2019. Rapport d’analyse/ANREP 6/19: Assassinat d’un chef de tribu à Inatès, Tillabéri, Niger.
UNOCHA. 2018. Niger: Plan de réponse humanitaire 2019, December, link (accessed 12 September 2019).
Chahed, N. 2019. ‘Niger: Un chef coutumier tué et deux personnes enlevées par Boko Haram à Diffa’, Anadolu Agency, link (accessed 12 September 2019).
The word characteristically used by Respondent #6, Tribu chief, Abala, Tillabéri Region, 15 March 2019.
Respondent #6, Tribu chief, Abala, Tillabéri Region, 15 March 2019.
See interview with Respondent #15, Village chief, Abala, Tillabéri Region, 23 March 2019.
Such conventions typically start and end with plenary sessions, and they organise committees to discuss each major issue area identified as a source of problems.
There is political will at the Ministry of Justice for such a process, although the Finance Ministry has not as yet allocated the resources for it to be undertaken.
See: Col. Kassouma, M.M. 2008. Rapport national sur l’application du programme d’action des Nations Unies en vue de prévenir, combattre et éliminer le commerce illicite des armes légères sous tous ses aspects, Commission Nationale pour la Collecte et le Contrôle des Armes Illicites (CNCCAI), May.
In the early 2000s, customary chiefs also played an important role in the campaign against small arms in the region of Diffa, mainly as agents of sensitisation who allowed the state to communicate with communities on a sensitive matter.