Published March 10, 2016
Idrissa Sani Malam needs a new machete, and like any seasoned street fighter, he knows where to get one. On a bright December afternoon, he makes his way to his favorite knife dealer, weaving expertly on his motorcycle through the narrow alleyways of Dead Man’s Market.
Contrary to its name, this nest of corrugated-metal stalls in Zinder, a dusty city in southern Niger, teems with life. Merchants and shoppers barter, children dodge around the legs of cattle and camels, and chickens squawk before their necks are wrung. The market got its ominous label partly because Nigeriens imagine that only a dead man would give up the used Western clothing — jackets branded with sports teams’ logos, T-shirts screen-printed for long-gone political campaigns — sold here. It has also earned the appellation: Men have died among its booths at the hands of the violent youth gangs that rule Zinder.
Sani Malam, 32, is one of the city’s most feared and respected gang leaders. Some admirers say he’s Niger’s finest street brawler; others claim he’s the best in all of West Africa. His cheeks are speckled with the white scars of stab wounds, and his muscular arms, which test his shirt’s seams, look like they could break a man in half. His old adda, as Nigeriens call the thick, heavy blade that Sani Malam prefers to fight with, is dull from years of cutting into bodies. It’s time to replace it.
At the knife stall, wares line the dirt floor and lean against the walls, like metal soldiers standing at attention. Sani Malam, who goes by Baho—a nickname he reportedly shares with an old Bollywood actor whose characters were always getting into scrapes—skips over the short, blunt knives on offer. He chooses an adda that’s at least 2.5-feet long, with a sharp point. The vendor charges him $1.80, less than full price. Baho is used to this kind of respect; people in Zinder often part when he passes.
Beneath the glaring Sahel sun, Baho slides a finger across his new weapon. In a deep, quiet voice, he says, “I only fight when I have to.” It’s been two weeks since his last fight, when someone tried to cut his throat but missed and sliced his ear instead. A scab still lingers. Usually, though, there’s far less time between showdowns. Sometimes, it’s a matter of hours.
Days and nights punctuated by brutality: This is the pulse of Zinder, a city racked by poverty and feeble governance. The hundreds of gangs that operate here are called palais (French for “palaces”) because when members gather, they feel powerful. “Rich people fight with their money,” Baho says. “Poor people fight with our fists.”
For the palais, violence is a means of survival and an organizing principle. Gangs battle over cash and women, to seek revenge, or out of boredom. Alliances are fluid, prone to explosion. One day, two palais might be partners in crime; the next, they could clash over an insult hurled in anger, defending their honor by spilling blood. Gangs also attack civilians in order to steal, impress a rival, or simply remind Zinder’s residents who’s in charge.
As Baho purchases his machete, a few palais members mill around Dead Man’s Market. (Most gangsters sleep through the day and seek out trouble at night.) One of them is a young man named Ishau, whose skinny neck sticks out of his oversized shirt like a sapling branch. At 20, he’s a gang novice, yet he already bears a curved scar that runs from the corner of his lips up his right cheek in a menacing half-smile. A gash on the other side and he’d be the Joker.
Ishau approaches the adda stall and announces proudly, “I stole a cell phone!” He brandishes the kitchen knife he used to frighten the phone’s rightful owner. People who resist a palais mugging often wind up dead.
Noticing me, a foreign woman standing in Baho’s shadow, Ishau grins and looks pointedly into my eyes. Opening his disfigured mouth, he sticks out his tongue and slowly drags it along the length of his knife.
Before I can fully register, much less respond to, the phallic gesture, Baho turns to me, interrupting the scene. “Do you want to come to our party tomorrow, by the way?” he asks, referring to a gathering of palais members to celebrate fresh recruits’ first year of gang life. “I’ve told the others they’re not allowed to rape you.”
Niger never has enough of anything. Food, jobs, schools, infrastructure—the landlocked country, 80 percent of which is occupied by the Sahara, lacks it all. Since Niger sloughed off the yoke of colonialism in 1960, military coups, political instability, and ethnic rebellions have hampered tourism, mining, and other economic sectors. Jobs are scant; less than 20 percent of the population is able to read. Today, Niger is dead last on the U.N. Human Development Index.
If the country represents the extreme of global scarcity, then the palais sit on its most desperate fringe. Their roots are in Kara Kara, a Zinder neighborhood of yellow dirt roads whose name, Hausa for a kind of straw, references the meager materials that locals use to build homes. A leprosy clinic opened there in 1999, and a colony of people suffering from the bacterial disease—infamous the world over for creating social outcasts covered in red skin lesions—quickly formed. Stigma prevented many of Kara Kara’s inhabitants from getting jobs or educations, and most became beggars. Amid penury and humiliation, the first palais was formed in 2009.
Most of that gang’s original members are now dead, some from street violence. But Omar Amadou, 35, remembers how it all began: He and roughly a dozen friends in Kara Kara—many were leprosy patients’ children, treated after birth to make them immune to the disease—pooled their savings to buy a motorcycle taxi they would share to earn money. The fee to license it, about $200, was more than they could afford. They operated the moto-taxi anyway, until local police seized it and fined them around $50 to get it back. Even that fee was too much. So they turned to violence, creating a gang they called Ba Sani Ba Sabo (No Fear, No Favor). “We became criminals to take control,” Amadou recalls. “We attacked people to steal their money and pay the fines…. And after we did it once, it became easier.”
Word spread of Ba Sani Ba Sabo’s success. Other men in Zinder—Niger’s second-largest city, about 550 miles east of Niamey, the capital—felt emboldened to use their fists and crude weapons to steal money and assert authority. The number of palais swelled and spread throughout Zinder, fueled by a growing youth bulge. (Niger has the world’s youngest median age, at 15.2.) In 2012, a UNICEF-supported study reported that there were more than 300 gangs in the city, boasting anywhere from 10 to 50 members apiece.
The study warned that “solidarity is intense” within a palais; members often lose contact with their families and choose gang chiefs as their personal gods. (One of Baho’s followers, 23-year-old Abdoulaye Elhajidallas, says of loyalty to his leader, “We will die for him.”) Substance abuse is common. Economic opportunities are painfully slim. Attacking people, according to Abdou Ibrah, Zinder’s government youth director, has become the “only way to show people they exist.”
Like quicksand, a gangland born of desperation threatens to swallow a generation or more of Zinder’s youth whole. And in this overlooked corner of Africa, where development prospects are dimming as fast as the tides of Islamic radicalism are rising, the ripple effects could be sweeping. “Groups like the palais destroy the social fabric of a country, and that breeds regional instability,” argues Sophien Ben-Achour, the Sahel team leader with Search for Common Ground, an international conflict-resolution NGO. “The Sahel is geopolitically significant for so many reasons—migration, extremism, resources—and the last thing we want here are weak states with too many people and the presence of violence.”
Monique Clesca, the U.N. Population Fund’s representative in Niamey, puts it more bluntly. “Niger is in a race to stay alive,” she says. “And the youth factor is the key to everything that is going to happen.”
By day, children roam Kara Kara begging visitors for Plumpy’Nut, a high-calorie peanut paste used to treat severe malnutrition. Around here, it passes for candy. Every few hours, a call to prayer erupts from a short minaret, and men trickle toward the local mosque. (More than 90 percent of Nigeriens are Muslim.) After dark, however, Kara Kara is practically deserted. There aren’t street lamps, and most houses don’t have electricity, making the neighborhood nearly impossible to see.
One moonless night, I meet Abdul Aziz (whose gang name is Ziza) in front of a brown hut. The 22-year-old is the leader of Palais Char, Hausa for “bad habit”—or as my interpreter put it, “Something that you know is bad but can’t stop doing.” It is widely considered among Zinder’s most violent palais. Ziza is wearing a red polo shirt, and his eyes, thick with the glaze of drug use, are the same color. In a dispassionate voice, he describes his brutal crimes.
Ziza lives by a strict code: If one of Palais Char’s own is attacked, he will respond forcefully. On a chilly night in 2014, he did just that. A rival gang led by a guy called Big beat up one of Ziza’s gangsters. Three days later, when he heard that Big was watching a movie at the popular Cinema Galle, Ziza and about two dozen of his subordinates hopped on motorbikes and rode to the low-lying mud building. (In Zinder, cinemas are just places in which people crowd to watch a VHS on an old TV set.) With sticks and addas in their hands, Ziza and his men stormed the space. “We just started beating everyone,” Ziza recalls. “When people screamed, we felt strong…. So we beat the ones who couldn’t get away even harder.”
A few people climbed on the roof, about 15 feet high, and tried to jump to safety. The fall didn’t kill them, but it did fracture some bones, Ziza says with a smile. When one of Palais Char’s members spotted Big, the whole posse converged on his body, attacking him until he stopped moving. (Ziza says Big died, but I heard rumors he wound up in the hospital and left town once he healed.) After they finished, the gangsters returned to Kara Kara, where they celebrated with a feast of rice and beans, booze, and drugs. “We were happy,” Ziza explains. “We were proud.”
Similar stories reverberate through Zinder—of violence wrought by gangs with names like Ra’ayi Kanka (Of Our Own Opinion) and No Wahala (No Suffering). The monikers of Blak Pawer, Outlaw, and Big Respect speak for themselves. Often, palais attack with whatever is available to them at a given moment: sticks, rocks, ropes, pipes. But the gangs are anything but unorganized. Seeking legitimacy, they’ve adopted their own political structure. There’s an elected president who publicly represents the gangs to media and government officials. In the last, loose vote, held in 2014, many gangsters campaigned for the ever-popular Baho; he threw his support, however, behind the eventual winner—a man nicknamed “the Demon”—because he felt strongly that the face of the palais should be literate. Below the president, five experienced fighters oversee as many municipal districts, mediating disputes and setting rules, however slack, for the palais in each one. (Baho helms the largest.) Then, there are individual gang presidents, who decide when their palais should fight and—Baho wasn’t kidding that day at the knife stall—assault women.
Gang life is ritualized in other ways. Violence is so common that many fighters carry laya at all times: two small squares of leather sewn together to encase a piece of paper on which a protective spell has been written by a traditional healer. Before fights, Baho personally hires a healer, who writes a spell on a slate, washes it clean, and gives him the soiled water to drink. The ceremony is supposed to make him impervious to knives. The scars on his face, Baho claims, are from fights before which he couldn’t visit a healer.
Yet intimidation and corruption, not mystical armor, are why gangs are able to function with impunity. “Today, the police are scared of us,” says Amadou, who now runs the palais district where Dead Man’s Market sits. The old burns, lash marks, and knife scars on his body form a map of years spent fighting. “If we even see a police officer, we beat him.” Other gangsters brag of whipping cops on sight with electrical cords.
Some palais members have a warmer, if tricky rapport with police. They snitch on rivals, share gossip from Zinder’s criminal underworld, or act as vigilantes. At law enforcement’s request, Baho recently chased down a young boy suspected of using counterfeit money. The favors go both ways. At the local prison, where Baho estimates he has been taken dozens of times, smiling guards greet him by name. He’s never stayed there very long—at most, a few months—even after he viciously beat someone who had damaged his moto-taxi and refused to pay for repairs. As is the case after many of his brawls, that fight left Baho’s fists covered in the other man’s blood.
Among the gang offenses that police can’t—or won’t—stop is sexual assault. Although the palais have a few female members, many of Zinder’s women have become prey.
Two years ago, Habiba Hamani was on her way to a convenience store to buy a cola for her father when a group of six gangsters approached her, saying they wanted to talk. When the 22-year-old tried to walk away, one of them pressed a knife to her neck. “You have a choice,” she remembers him saying. “You can come with us, or we can cut your throat.” They dragged her to a house where two dozen other men were waiting. One by one, they raped her until she fell unconscious. When she woke up, she was at the hospital, with no idea how she’d gotten there. “My parents tried to find out who the boys were, but it was all in vain,” Hamani says.
Taking women to “rape houses,” as the palais call them, is a regular pastime. A gang snatches a girl and keeps her locked up, assaulting her until the men decide to move on to a new victim. A woman might remain in a rape house for up to a week. “Sometimes their parents or the police know that this is happening, but they’re too scared to go get her,” says Dodo Ouma Abani, the Zinder director of SOS Women and Children Victims of Family Violence, an NGO. “They know that these boys are very violent.”
Some gangsters think rape houses are a vicious step too far. In November, the Demon released a statement on two of Zinder’s largest radio stations condemning sexual assault. Perhaps because of that message, Ziza is quick to claim that Palais Char no longer runs its rape house. When he talks about abductions, however, he keeps slipping into the present tense. “When I order the men in my palais to take a girl by force, they obey me,” he says. “It’s the only way for me to see that I am respected as president.” It doesn’t bother him when the girls scream: “I don’t have pity in my heart for anyone.”
Ziza pulls out his touch-screen phone to show me a photo of his girlfriend, Mariama. She looks young and beautiful in a white hijab. They’ve already been together “one year, one month, and 14 days,” Ziza says with a smile, adding that they’ll probably get married soon. Yet when I ask what he would do if someone pulled Mariama into a rape house, the joy vanishes from his face. “I would kill him,” he responds.
Such is the illogic of palais violence: Do unto others what you would never tolerate them doing unto you. “My whole life,” Ziza explains, “I was so poor that people wouldn’t even look at me. But now, we know how to make them look.”
The palais have grabbed the attention of at least one dangerous and powerful audience. In March 2015, two cars rolled into Kara Kara. They had no license plates, and the drivers kept their faces covered. Within hours, word spread throughout town: Boko Haram had come to talk to the palais. West Africa’s most destabilizing force, bent on enacting radical Islamic law across the region, wanted recruits.
After a second Boko Haram visit, in July 2015, local police found the threat of the terrorist group infiltrating Zinder credible enough to tighten security on the route to the Niger-Nigeria border, an hour-and-a-half drive south. When I took the journey by car while reporting this story, I hit six police roadblocks; the year before, I’d run into just one.
Buoying fears is a palpable sense of radicalization among some palais members. In January 2015, gangs rioted in Zinder in response to a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed published in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. RFI, the French public radio service, reported that Boko Haram’s distinctive black flag was spotted waving among the crowds.
There’s also the specter of Diffa, a province in Niger’s southeastern corner that Boko Haram has been targeting for years, sending thousands of refugees to Zinder and Niamey. Last October, Diffa was rocked by twin suicide bombings suspected to have been the group’s handiwork; later the same month, 13 people in a nearby village were executed by militants who had used a canoe to cross the Yobe River, which forms part of the Niger-Nigeria frontier. According to Ben-Achour of Search for Common Ground, young men in Diffa have been given a few thousand dollars or new motorbikes to join Boko Haram’s ranks. There’s not an option to take cash and run. Ben-Achour says he has been told about several youth who tried to do just that; Boko Haram tracked them, brought them back to Diffa, and slit their throats. The situation is so concerning that the United States dispatched a small team of special operations forces to Diffa to support Nigerien troops and local leaders in security efforts. (Washington has also been operating drone bases in Niger for several years.)
Aliyu Musa of Coventry University, an expert on extremism in West Africa, points out that Boko Haram has always exploited “young, unemployed people who believed they had nothing to live for and felt let down by the state, which did nothing to give them hope.” It’s a description that matches Zinder’s palais. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” Musa says, “if Zinder becomes Boko Haram’s next target.” (Palais members I spoke to didn’t admit to knowing people who’ve joined or who support Boko Haram.)
Ibrah, Zinder’s youth director, argues that “there is worse than Boko Haram out there.” He might be right. Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State are operating in neighboring Libya. Al-Mourabitoun and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are in Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania. And Niger has already proved vulnerable to encroachment: Most famously, in 2013, a week after Islamists claimed responsibility for suicide bombings at an army base and uranium mine in the country’s north, militants attacked the main prison in Niamey and released 22 inmates, including convicted terrorists.
In a January dispatch from Niger, the New York Times reported that “as Africa’s jihadists come under the wing of distant and more powerful patrons, officials fear that they are extending their reach and stitching together their ambitions, turning once-local actors into pan-national threats.” Baho narrates a story from his childhood that illustrates why the palais might become those actors: Older boys in town offered to pay him 10,000 CFA ($16) to drive about five miles at top speed on a brakeless motorcycle. He’d seen other kids take on the challenge and suffer various injuries—a few had even died—but he didn’t care. “I was going fast, so fast, through the streets, dodging death, but I didn’t think of what could happen to me,” Baho says. “I could only think of the money I would get when I returned.”
“So can you imagine,” he concludes, “what the palais boys will do if Boko Haram offers them a million CFA?”
Zinder has some cautious optimists—people who hope the palais might have a happy future. Ibrah is among them. “The palais … have so much positive potential,” he says. “It’s a place for young people to come together and discuss their problems. If elders would come and listen to them, it’d be a great opportunity.”
To that end, in 2014 the Zinder youth ministry helped organize a forum where palais members could speak their minds. Ibrah recalls a teenager standing up to address the crowd about the city’s lack of opportunity. His speech quickly turned threatening. “One day, all of us will rise up, and on that day, no one can stop us,” Ibrah remembers the young man saying. “We know there will be guns, but [the government] won’t have enough bullets for all of us.… There are too many of us, and you have every reason to be afraid.”
In that moment, Ibrah’s optimism shrank. For the first time, the enormity of the palais threat was clear to him—and he felt scared.
Other efforts at reforming the gangs have fallen short. In 2014, UNICEF offered vocational workshops to palais members, but it was able to accommodate only 50 people. (At the time of reporting, the agency was planning to train another 300 individuals this February.) When Ibrah requested about $20,000 from the national government to equip the participants with professional tool kits to do the jobs for which they’d received instruction (saws and hammers for carpentry, for instance) he says he never heard back. This is in keeping with what some critics say is the Nigerien government’s general disregard of the palais problem, which may be rooted in Zinder’s reputation as a hot spot of political opposition. (Mahamane Ousmane, the leader of the city’s most popular party, the Democratic and Social Convention, was running against the incumbent president in national elections scheduled for Feb. 21, after this article went to press.) “It would be a bit much to say that Niamey is ignoring the palais because they’re in Zinder,” explains a high-level government official who asked not to be named. “But I will say this: I think Niamey would handle this problem much differently if it were happening in [other cities].”
Palais leaders may be the only ones capable of pushing gangs in a different direction. Most never will; the power they’ve amassed is too intoxicating. Baho, however, says he wants to turn over a new leaf. “We are in [the palais] because we have nothing to do,” he says. “If we had something—workshops, classes—we would rather do that.” In lieu of paying jobs, he’s asked his followers to clean up litter, fill potholes, and dig graves in their district.
He’s also called on them to avoid “unnecessary” violence. (Stealing to survive, fighting in self-defense, and standing up to the police are all still acceptable.) Personally, he tries to flip his new adda around when striking people, hitting them with the handle instead of the point. That way, death isn’t likely. Bones are merely crushed or broken.
When prodded about whether this signals that Zinder’s most famous gangster is, deep down, an honorable man, Baho shakes his head. “Don’t make that mistake,” he warns, walking past a row of straw shacks in Kara Kara. “Never think that I am good.”