Recently, the Nigerien military hosted a Counter-Boko Haram summit, with support from Spirit of America and US Forces. The event took place in the southern Region of Diffa, near the border with Nigeria, where Niger’s Boko Haram problems have been centered. The one-day event was an impressive feat for the fledgling Nigerien Civil-Military (ACM) team who has been trained and mentored by the US Civil Affairs team in the region for the past 6 months. here and can help contribute to Nigerien community action against violent extremism here. Christopher VanJohnson Field Operations Project Manager – AfricaThe Counter-Boko Summit brought together 75 local, traditional, and religious leaders from the 15 most vulnerable villages in the area with Senior Nigerien government and military leaders to discuss the Boko Haram threat and how they could best address it at the community level; stopping the flow of recruits, policing their own villages, protecting themselves from violence, and connecting more thoroughly with the government and security forces in the area. In the weeks leading up to the event, word of the summit reached the President’s office and he personally dispatched two delegates to observe and report back what was discussed to the highest levels of national leadership. The Nigerien ACM team in Diffa took the lead on planning and running the event after repeatedly hearing requests from the communities they serve during patrols and assessments with their US counterparts. The US Civil Affairs Team in the region chose to take an advisory roll in the event rather than being the primary driver. This allowed them to further develop the capacity of the ACM while at the same time ensuring that the results of the summit would have community buy-in. They embraced the ground-up, local approach to this problem as opposed to the top-down, heavy-handed approach which is much easier but generally far less effective. The event started with addresses from the government and military officials but quickly took on a “town hall meeting” style discussion. After voicing local concerns and opinions to the senior government and military leaders, a rare opportunity in and of itself, Sergeant Fougou, the ACM leader, facilitated a breakout session for local and traditional leaders. This allowed the village representatives to develop a grassroots community-based strategy that was presented to the government officials later in the day. Most impressive was the inclusion of both women and representatives from the local refugee population. Not only were these vulnerable and important groups included in the event but they were encouraged to speak, voicing their experiences, concerns, and opinions on the best ways to proceed. One woman spoke of the heart-break of having her son join Boko Haram and change into someone she no longer recognized. Another local representative talked about the pervasive fear in his village, mistrust of unfamiliar faces, and the future difficulty of needing to reintegrate former-Boko fighters. Frustrations with the current Nigerien strategy for addressing the Boko Haram problem were also voiced. However, by doing so directly to government officials in an open and honest way, the frustrations were aired productively and became a source of strength and inspiration as opposed to a wedge driving communities and the government apart. At the end of the day, the event was a tremendous success. The strategy recommendations developed by community leaders during their break-out session were formally endorsed by the government and military leaders present and forwarded on to the President for his consideration. Coverage of the event was also broadcast across the region via local TV and radio stations, informing even those in the most remote villages of the efforts being made. Community representatives left knowing that they had informed policy and with a unified way forward to address Boko Haram’s barbarity, violence, and fear. You can read more about this event and other US efforts in Niger
Chris is a US Army veteran having served as an Armor officer with a deployment to Baghdad in 2008-09 and then as a Special Operations Civil Affairs Officer with multiple deployments to Nepal in 2011-12.