Niger hit by Nigeria's Boko Haram fallout
- 22 April 2014
- From the section Africa
A member of a gang in Niger says Boko Haram Islamist militants from Nigeria regularly come across the border, looking for recruits.
"We can't contact them, they come to us," says the young man, who looks like he is barely out of his teens.
Five members of this gang in Diffa, near the border, have joined the group; two have since been killed on operations, he says.
In total there are about a dozen gang members in a tiny, dark room, built with local mud-bricks.
There are a couple of homemade stools and weights for them to exercise just outside the door.
When I ask if they agree with Boko Haram's reason for fighting, they answer in unison: "No. We only do it for the money."
They had agreed to meet us earlier on a street corner in Diffa.
Arriving one by one, they all wore skinny jeans, bright coloured T-shirts and shiny chains - like those seen around the necks of American rappers on music videos.
Their attitude and brand new clothes make them stand out when they walk down the dusty streets of Diffa.
The fashion style is clearly inspired by Western consumerism rather than Islamist militancy.
The gang members agreed to talk to us on the condition that we would not reveal their identity.
"We break into houses for cash; sometimes we beat people for money, we steal their animals so we can eat and then we gather up and take Tramol [an opiate drug], smoke ganja [marijuana] and drink alcohol," one says.
"We have no jobs; some of us are still at high school but we need money. Violence has become a form of work for us."
Taking us back to their hangout, they explained their association with the Nigerian militants.
"They have paid 500,000 Nigerian naira ($3,085, £1,835) to those of us who followed them over there," one of the young men says.
"The rest of us, here, we give them information.
"When they come, we inform them about what's going on, what the security forces are up to."
But the ideals for which Boko Haram is fighting - the imposition of strict Sharia, an Islamist caliphate and the banning of Western education - hold no interest for them.
Officials in the region say that several attacks allegedly planned by Boko Haram on Niger's territory have been foiled over the last months; and dozens of men suspected to have links to the group have been arrested.
"We know that Boko Haram members come across the border, but we are watching them closely," Diffa government representative Inoussa Saouna, says.
"Just last December, we arrested two dozens of men - we believe they were planning to kidnap the regional governor, the military zone commander and myself."
Military police, customs officers, as well as national guards conduct daily patrols along the porous border to mitigate the threat.
'Home of peace'
On paper, the border is supposed to be secured by joint patrols with soldiers from both countries. However, they have yet to start.
Niger's security forces are receiving training, logistics and intelligence support from both the US and France.
Most of the border between Niger and Nigeria is naturally drawn by the Komadougou Yobe River.
On either side of it, people have enjoyed strong links for centuries, sharing ethnicity, culture and living off the cross-border trade.
At the Bosso border point, many people cross on foot through water knee-high as the river is at its lowest level in the hottest month of the year.
It allows motorbikes and cars to drive through easily too.
Most cars showing Nigerian plates come from Borno State bearing the slogan "Home of peace".
But this seems a reality long gone for the north-eastern state where Boko Haram was born and has its bases.
Boko Haram at a glance
- Founded in 2002
- Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
- Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
- Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
- Some three million people affected
- Declared terrorist group by US in 2013
The UN refugee agency says more than 50,000 people have now crossed into Niger, fleeing the relentless violence.
Human rights groups estimate that more 1,500 people have been killed in the north-east of Nigeria since the start of the year alone.
In the small Niger village of Guessere - a 45-minute drive from Diffa - we found half the population of Gashagar, a Nigerian village located only 3km (2 miles) over the river.
Abdou Dotia says people decided it was time to leave after the Islamist militants attacked Gashagar for the fourth time, in January.
Eight people were killed and dozens of shops and cars were burnt down.
As he points his finger towards Nigeria, Mr Dotia explains that the border should keep them safe for now.
On Lake Chad, the south-eastern tip of Niger, Nigerians are also fleeing by boat.
The UN estimates 500 cross into Niger every week.
The many lake islands are now home to thousands, and a lot of people, like Mourtalla Souleymane, have made it to the trading post of Krikri on Niger's shore.
He arrived last month with his two wives and six children and works on the huge wooden canoes that traders use to cross between the two countries.
"I was going to bed when we heard the first gun shots," Mr Souleymane says, recalling the time they were forced to flee.
"When we ran to escape, a little girl was shot as she fled her burning house."
He says he counted 50 dead in the streets and recalls a group of wounded soldiers, three of whom had had their hands amputated.
Niger has a growing refugee crisis but without camps, which the authorities are reluctant to allow, fearing they could become new targets, or worse, recruitment centres for Boko Haram.
But how many more people can one of the poorest countries in the world take in? Borno state has a population of five million - 10 times more than Niger's Diffa region.
The UN refugee agency says it will try to build new homes and expand existing neighbourhoods rather than setting up camps.
Drought and hunger have made communities in Niger vulnerable; coups and rebellions have made the country unstable.
This fragile state is now threatened by an insurgency next door that is fuelled by extreme poverty and neglect, conditions which both exist here.
"There is no reason why it wouldn't spill over the border," says a Western diplomat, who declined to be named.
"But in Niger, at least, there isn't this dynamic where security forces drive populations into Boko Haram's arms."
The heavy-handed and often indiscriminate response of the Nigerian security forces to the Islamist insurgency has long been criticised.
The Diffa government politician believes that the emergency rule in place in north-eastern states of Nigeria has not changed anything over the last year.
"It has radicalised Boko Haram more than anything else and generated other gangs and groups of bandits," Mr Saouna says.
The young gang members we met in Diffa showed us a stash of machetes, knives, knuckle-dusters and traditional axes. They also claimed to have firearms and grenades but refused to show them.
In a report published this month, the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group noted that Boko Haram has "resorted to forced conscription and recruiting criminals and thugs, paying them for attacks".
Boko Haram has shown that it can hit the Nigerian state in different ways: Bombs, village raids, school attacks and child abductions.
For now, Nigeria's neighbours are only dealing with the consequences of this violence.
But the prospect of the same violence spilling over is becoming more of a question of "not if but when".
"If they tell you to set off a bomb and it succeeds, if it kills a lot of people, they will pay you a lot of money," one of the gang members said.
"We are ready for that."