For the past two months, Yusuga Maiga has watched with concern as the refugee camps near Mali’s border have swollen. As the governor of Tillaberie, one of the regions most affected by the hunger crisis, he’s worried that the new arrivals will tussle with his poor constituents for food and other resources.
But Maiga, who is also a military general, is most concerned about an infiltration of Ansar Dine, whose name in Arabic means “defenders of faith.” The Islamist group, which rules northern Mali, is aligned with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, the terror network’s North and West Africa affiliate. Fighters from both groups, along with other smaller Islamist factions, are across the border, and Maiga has dispatched his soldiers to patrol the area day and night.
Since March, when northern Mali was seized, more than $80 million of the national budget has been diverted to defense and security needs, senior government officials said. The funds, they said, were previously allocated for education, justice, health and social development.
Even so, Maiga conceded that it is difficult to prevent the flow of fighters and weapons. The 510-mile-long border is, in most places, a mere imaginary line in the desert sand, easy to cross unnoticed.
“Any problems affecting Mali will affect Niger,” Maiga said. “We are the same ethnic group. We dress the same. We use the same turbans. We drink the same tea. It’s very difficult to identify who is from Ansar Dine.”
The case is the same along Niger’s 930-mile-long border with Nigeria, where several tribes also live on both sides of the frontier.
Still, the Nigerien government has had some success in thwarting Boko Haram’s aspirations. Since March, at least 13 loyalists and fighters have been arrested on the way to northern Mali, apparently to support the rebellion or receive training from AQIM, said Justice Minister Amadou. In January, a United Nations Security Council report stated that seven Boko Haram loyalists passing through Niger were arrested with “names and contact details” of AQIM members.
In Diffa, authorities arrested several dozen suspected Boko Haram members in February and seized homemade explosives and grenades, said government and U.N. security officials. The group, authorities said, was trying to set up a cell in the area.
U.S. and U.N. officials are worried that Gaddafi’s arsenal, including rocket-propelled grenades, light antiaircraft artillery and shoulder-fired missiles, could end up in the hands of Boko Haram and AQIM.
While anecdotal evidence suggests links between Boko Haram, AQIM and the Islamists in Mali, security experts say it remains unclear whether any relationship has been formalized.
In Niger, there are no such doubts.
“They are all part of the same network,” Maiga said.
Fear among Christians
Hundreds of miles away, in the town of Zinder, fear grips Pastor Prince Uzoigwe. Last Christmas, Boko Haram threatened to target churches across southern Niger. The local police dispatched 20 officers to protect his small chapel.
In recent weeks, unknown people have thrown rocks into the church compound and destroyed its security lights. Others have hurled insults from outside the gate. In one incident, his wife was pelted with stones as she left the church. Uzoigwe blames the attacks on Boko Haram and its sympathizers here.
“They are planning day by day to attack us,” Uzoigwe said. “They need just one day to remove Christians in Niger.”
“Zinder is the center of Islam in Niger,” he added a few moments later. “They hate Christians. They hate us.”
U.N. and local officials say Islamic fundamentalism is creeping across southern Niger. There are more mosques that preach sharia law and radical brands of Islam. More children now study at Koranic schools. More women wear veils or floor-length garments; more men have beards.
“Diffa is the place where the insurgents go and rest,” said Guido Cornale, the chief of the United Nations Children’s Fund in Niger. “Zinder is where you have the religious side of Boko Haram gaining ground.”
Some locals openly expressed their support for Boko Haram.
“If I was attacked by Boko Haram, it’s like being attacked by God,” said Al Haj Abdu Maharaju, a trader in Maradi who makes frequent trips to northern Nigeria.
“It’s God wish. I have no problem with that.”
Violence tempts the idle
In the town of Goure, tens of thousands of men who once worked in Libya are now languishing, unemployed. They once supported dozens of relatives with their remittances; now most of those relatives are also unemployed and searching for food. Local officials blame the returnees for a sharp increase in robberies and other attacks.
They worry that some of them will join the Islamists in Nigeria or Mali. “All is possible,” said Alassan Mamam, an aide to Goure’s mayor. “They have nothing to do. They don’t possess anything, and they are hungry and poor.”