The 135 million people of Africa’s Sahel region work with thin resources as they labor to stabilize their countries against layers of crises—extremist violence, the COVID pandemic and natural disasters. But in one of the world’s poorest regions and countries, a community in Niger’s capital city has united to produce what can seem like a small miracle of self-reliance. With the simple tools of community meetings, cellphones and voluntarism, a network of residents worked with police services and officials to help contain COVID, prevent violence, reduce crime—and even save residents from a disastrous flood.
Confronting Violence in the Sahel
The improvement of security in Niamey’s fifth district, Niamey V, defies the patterns of extreme poverty and rising violence in the Sahel. Vitally, it offers a partial answer to a security and humanitarian quandary facing governments and international institutions: As wars, refugee displacement and now COVID expand the populations needing government assistance, financially strapped nations must find ways to improve security using the resources they already have. In Niamey V, that resource has been human: a carefully organized series of dialogues and problem-solving workshops that drew in long-excluded groups, healed divisions and engaged citizens to work with government officials and the security services. The result has been reduced violence and better governance.
The contrast between progress in Niamey V and worsened conditions in the Sahel is striking. Niger borders six countries undergoing civil warfare or turmoil: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali and Nigeria. Four of those nations rank among the world’s 10 lowest countries measured by people’s access to education, health and income. Warfare involving extremist groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State has spread, killing more than 4,000 people in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso in 2019, and drawing in French and U.S. military forces. As 2020 began, Niger’s death toll from violent clashes had spiked five-fold in three years, claiming lives of French aid workers and U.S. troops. In August, Niger extended a state of emergency to the region surrounding Niamey.
Yet Niamey V improved security and peace with grassroots work that can be sustained by citizen energies and modest funding by the local government. For policymakers, Niamey V offers one crucial way to advance peace and stability not only in Niger and the Sahel, but across the dozens of weakly governed, “fragile” states that have bred most of the world’s recent warfare and extreme poverty. The urgency of stabilizing fragile states is reflected in the United States’ current overhaul of its policies abroad under the Global Fragility Act.
A Sprawling Security Challenge
Most of Niger’s 22 million people farm or herd cattle amid its starkly beautiful desert and savannahs. Yet drought and land use practices have shrunk productive lands and deepened people’s struggles for survival, including food. Niamey V is the capital city’s poorest district. On the southern bank of West Africa’s largest river, the district combines crowded urban neighborhoods, marketplaces and dirt-paved streets, plus farmland and rural villages outside the city proper.
“Niamey V is the port of entry to the city for people who have fled violence or economic needs in their homes—in Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire,” said Ali Hassane, the head of a development organization in Niamey. “It is what you would call a ‘melting pot’ of people and cultures.”
In 2017, Niamey V’s residents and security forces shared, as much as anything, mistrust. “The population did not collaborate with the police; they did not want to even smell the police in the neighborhood,” said Adamou Mamadou Dembelé, a social activist and former policeman. At the campus of Niger’s biggest university, “students effectively had prohibited the police from entering,” said Hassane in an interview. “So criminals in Niamey V knew they could be safe at the university. If the police were chasing someone, he they would run for the university and, once he got over its perimeter wall, he was safe.”
Joining Grass Roots to Government
So Hassane’s organization, called the Support Network for Local Initiatives, began working with USIP to convene a broad swath of community figures—elders, religious and traditional leaders, women and youth representatives—with local government and police officials. “These groups had never sat together previously to hear or understand each other on the most basic problems of security facing the entire community,” said Hassane. “The tensions were high, and we even feared there could be scuffles between different groups. The security forces sat on one side of the room and residents sat apart in their groups. They did not trust each other.”
But the conversation, organized in what USIP calls a Justice and Security Dialogue (JSD), began to break down the divisions. Among the hours of methodical discussions, “an important part of connecting people for the first time was the coffee breaks,” Hassane said, laughing. “Then you could see residents start approaching the police, or vice-versa, and a lot of the real conversations and relationships began.”
The JSD process built not only trust but new citizen engagement. “People worked together to improve the community in ways that had been impossible before,” said Hassan. “A group of citizens organized a program to clean up trash around various parts of the city. One day they organized volunteers to go out and clear trash from the cemetery. The police were ready to help but had no transport. So the students brought their university bus. The students transporting the police? This was unthinkable before the JSD!”
The police also changed, focusing more on winning cooperation and less on enforcing compliance, Dembelé said. Students and police negotiated an agreement to let police enter university grounds when pursuing criminals—ending the sanctuary for fugitives. Residents began volunteering information to security services about crime and security risks. The cooperation helped police dismantle a gang that was stealing and selling televisions, and another that was stealing motorcycles at the university.
The Justice and Security Dialogue’s participants formed a network of 22 neighborhood committees to coordinate with residents and officials. The dialogue committees worked with community members, security services and local officials to shape an overall plan to improve security. In an unprecedented commitment by the government to such a community-generated security plan, Niamey’s regional governor allocated funds to support its implementation—"a big step forward in advancing inclusive, collaborative approaches to security in Niger,” said USIP’s Ena Dion, who leads the Institute’s work on JSD processes.
A Test: COVID and Floods
When the COVID pandemic struck last spring, the government ordered a nighttime curfew and a halt to communal prayers in Niger’s mosques. Young men in Niamey and other cities revolted in protest. Police responded with mass arrests, beating curfew violators.
“In Niamey V, we quickly mobilized,” said Dembelé, who chairs the Justice and Security Dialogue’s Niamey V coordinating committee. The committee partnered with health workers to explain the crisis to residents, street by street, and persuaded shop owners to close 15 minutes before the curfew to let people get home. The district’s police applied their shift to nonviolence, explaining the urgency of the curfew to violators and sending them home rather than jailing them. The district remained so calm that the regional government re-deployed police officers from Niamey V to violence-stricken parts of the city, noted Dembelé and Hassane.
Weeks later, the Niger River flooded, pouring muddy waters waist-deep into streets, homes, businesses across much of the city. “It was difficult to respond to the floods under the limitations of the coronavirus,” said Zakari Garba Amadou, the government’s chief administrative official for Niamey V. “But the networks and relationships created through dialogues has given the community a habit of organizing itself.” The dialogue committees organized rescue work via text messages and WhatsApp groups.
A Community’s Message for the Sahel
Years ago, Amadou traversed Niger to help build its telecommunications network. He saw many local security problems that he says can be alleviated through the JSD process used in Niamey V. “This great experience that we’ve had here, I want people to see to what extent we can perpetuate it, enhance it, and extend it to other regions of the country,” he said. “I have discussed this with the minister of the interior [responsible for security matters], who assured me the government also wants this.” In expanding local security dialogues, Amadou underscored “the primary importance of including women. … Women manage the household and are primary in influencing the youth and in hearing and sharing information in the community.”
“My great concern is that we are at the doorstep of extremism and terrorism that is spreading in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Niger,” said Dembelé. “The dynamic of dialogue at the community level can thwart it. … A full response to these crises will require great resources to achieve great actions. But today in Niamey V, working with few resources, the result is brilliant.”
The community dialogue in Niamey V fits a pattern of the past five years, in which the same process has yielded improved security and practices in localities of Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria. In all five countries, dialogue participants and government officials are working to apply the improved practices to security policies at national levels.
“These dialogues are just part of the overall solution for security,” said Dion. “Stabilizing fragile states also requires institutional change that improves security forces’ responsiveness to public needs. The power of JSD and these problem-solving workshops is that they energize communities to build relationships that have been absent between residents and the security services. Those engaged populations and those relationships advance both the demands and the possibilities for change upward to national levels,” she said.