Niamey—Hundreds of people took to the streets in southeastern Niger on Saturday to protest against the government’s decision to halt the deportation of thousands of Mahamid Arabs back to Chad.
Niger’s cabinet on Friday announced it was suspending the deportation of the nomadic Arabs, who fled warfare and drought in neighboring Chad during the 1980s, and taking a month to find alternative measures to defuse tensions in the southeast region of Diffa.
Local communities accuse the Mahamid Arabs of harassing them with illegal firearms and depleting local supplies of water and pasture land with their livestock.
The march through the streets of the regional capital Diffa was intended to urge Niamey to press ahead with the deportation of the Arabs as the only way to solve environmental and security problems, according to a statement read on local radio Anfani.
Hundreds of people attended the march but there was no violence, eyewitnesses told Reuters.
The government estimates only around 3,000 Mahamid Arabs live without residence papers in Niger. But community leaders say the nomads numbers tens of thousands and local government officials put the figure as high as 150,000.
The cabinet on Friday created a special commission, including officials from the ministries of environment, animal resources and interior, to consider the alternatives to expelling the nomads.
The Mahamid, meanwhile, would be free to take their livestock to all of Niger’s grazing regions, including Zinder and Agadez, the government said.
The expulsion plan provoked alarm among the country’s broader Arab community. But Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja’s government insisted the aim was simply to tackle illegal immigration and it denied Arabs were being ethnically targeted.
Communication Minister Oumarou Hadari told Reuters on Friday that certain neighboring countries, which he did not name, had intervened to ask that the expulsions should not go ahead.
Hundreds of thousands of Niger citizens live in other states throughout the region, many in Arab countries such as Algeria, Libya or Sudan.
Niamey—Niger’s Arab community expressed alarm on Wednesday at the government’s decision to expel 150,000 Arabs who fled warfare in neighbouring Chad and it warned the move could stoke racial hatred in the West African country.
Niger said on Tuesday it would deport the Mahamid Arabs, who settled in the southeastern region of Diffa in the 1980s as civil conflict raged in Chad, as their presence was raising tensions with indigenous tribes.
“This decision by the government is extremely dangerous; it will fuel the hatred between ethnic communities in Diffa and will lead to a widespread conflict whose wounds will take time to heal,” Arab leader Hamed Ahmed said in a statement read to the media, expressing the fears of the broader Arab community.
Niger’s government said the repatriation would be carried out with respect for human rights. It accused the Arab population of possessing illegal firearms and said they were a serious threat to the security of local communities.
But Ahmed said the expulsion would violate international treaties, including the charter of the 53-nation African Union. He appealed to President Mamadou Tandja to rescind the decision.
“To return these Arabs and their livestock is physically impossible. They will only move under force, and all violence will produce more violence,” Ahmed said.
On Chad’s eastern border, the Sudanese region of Darfur has descended into brutal racial conflict since 2003 which has killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced another 2.5 million.
The government of Khartoum is widely accused of supporting Arab militia, known as Janjaweed, which have killed, raped and looted non-Arab communities, which favour greater regional autonomy. Khartoum denies any connection with the militia.