Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Nigérien Touareg Rebellion

On December 24th, 2007, I ate dinner with a person who is perhaps the second most important person in the Nigérien military. He had traveled extensively in his life and even trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in the United States (very few Nigériens have such experiences). I asked him how well he knew his own country. He named some very remote outposts in Niger, including Tillia, Assamakka, Djado, Chrifa and Ngourti (all in the extreme north and east of the country). It was clear to me there was not a corner of his country that he had not visited, conducted exercises in or patrolled. I was in company with a very well seasoned veteran of Niger.

Later in the meal the table was lacking drinking water and as another went to retrieve a pitcher, I made the comment in the Tamasheq language, “Aman Eeman” which translated means “Water is the source of life.” The well seasoned veteran of Niger turned to me and asked me in earnest, “Is that the Arabic language?” I would expect such a response of people living in villages of southern Niger but coming from someone who has worked and lived many years in northern Niger where Arabs and Tamasheq groups live, this came as a shock to me. Certainly in his experiences he must have heard if not learned a few phrases of Arabic and Tamasheq, at least enough to make a distinction between the two.

I spent three months in Niger (October through December 2007) doing my best to receive approval to conduct and implement research regarding food security issues among pastoralists in the north. If I had succeeded I would have been interviewing many Tamasheqs and Arabs as they are the majority who herd animals in this remote region. I had concerns returning to Niger to conduct this research not because of previous experiences as I had an excellent site visit the year before, but because of the rebellion that started in February 2007 in the north. A group known as the MNJ: Mouvement dès Nigériens pour la Justice began to attack military installations, government buildings and the uranium mines around Arlit and Akokan.

When I returned to Niger in October 2007 I held no opinions about the political problems in the north. Receiving approval from the ministry of education to conduct my research was my main priority. I did not return to ask questions about the rebellion. For me, the rebellion was a distraction and an annoyance but I did ask people in Niamey if I should change the research site considering my initial plan called for returning to Arlit. Everyone, including the ministry of education encouraged me to work in the north. I pursued it.

I was back in Arlit in early December. I was delayed because of additional conditions the ministry of education continued to add to my request each time I returned to their bureau. When I finally fulfilled all of their conditions, I believed that this was the end of the difficulties and that I will have no problem starting my interviews. I made sure to conduct formalities with local officials, starting with the governor of the Agadez region. He initially told me my research was fine but to remain in the city limits of Arlit, Akokan, Agadez and Tchighozérine. There was no confusion over this as I knew the ministry of education gave me the same parameters.
I then returned to Arlit to settle in and look for a temporary residence, an interpreter and reunite with my collaborator and friends. Here too, I immediately conducted formalities with the commissariat and the mayor. The police commissioner told me the same as the governor: to remain in the towns and not to circulate in the countryside but that my presence was welcome and wanted. The mayor, however, ended any hopes of conducting my research. At first he tried to scare me off telling me my security was at risk in Arlit. Though I assured him I was as safe in Arlit as I was in Niamey or any other part of Niger (actually safer since I had friends and colleagues here) it did not matter. He eventually decided to be frank with me telling me he did not care for me or my research. He told me he would use all of his power to terminate my research immediately.

The next few days were full of drama. The police visited my collaborator at his office several times trying to find out more information about me, my research and contacts in town. When I had a private moment with him, he said it best, “They are afraid. They are afraid you will sit down with people from the countryside and find out how bad the government is handling this uprising.” Both my collaborator and I knew that my days were limited.

The authorities in Arlit had reason. People I bumped into on the streets were very willing to tell me of the atrocities that their government is committing in the countryside. From what people told me, there are frequent extrajudicial killings, there is excessive force and human rights’ violations including the killing of animals, destruction of property, poisoning of wells and the military planting landmines all over Niger. When I asked about how the MNJ were conducting their operations, people had nothing bad to say. They explained to me the make up of the MNJ: they are ex-soldiers, ex-gendarmes and ex-police who left their service in February 2007 and returned to their villages in the north to alert people of the upcoming crisis. People voluntarily left their villages for the towns. All over the region of Agadez, there are villages that have been completely abandoned. Only a few villages such as Timia have not moved. People went either to the large towns like Arlit, Akokan, Agadez and Tchighozérine or went south to other regions out of the conflict (Later, when I traveled near Tanout I saw a line of tents right at the administrative boundary of Zinder-Agadez. It was quite a surprise to see pastoralists making this imaginary line a physical reality).

The MNJ does not represent all people of all different walks in Niger. If there are any Haoussa, Zarma or Kanouri individuals in this group, it is probably for their own ideological reasons. Their numbers are principally Tuaregs and Arabs. We in the West assume that these groups are fairer-skinned than other Africans and this has to do with the heritage of the Sahara: groups from Yemen migrating into the region after the 7th century. This is true but there are also dark-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs in the MNJ, having African ancestry but integrated into Tuareg-Arab society centuries ago when they were the slaves, blacksmiths and warriors of Saharan groups. So no, the rebels do not represent all ethnicities in Niger but they do represent the people of Northern Niger who have been neglected and ignored by their own government for over 40 years.

The government though neglecting northern people has not neglected northern natural resources. In the late 1960s, uranium was discovered around Arlit and Akokan and this contributed to the development of the towns of Arlit and Akokan. Over the 40 year period a hospital, schools, housing, electricity, running water and a paved road running all the way to Arlit (1200 km from Niamey) were built. These services were built with revenues from the mine but are used primarily for the workers of the mines, who are principally Haoussa and Zarma. Arabs and Tuaregs make up less than 20% of the manual workers, there are only 3 total Tamasheq engineers at the sites in Arlit and Akokan and none of the administration is Arab or Tamasheq. Perhaps one could argue that such statistics are fair since Arabs and Tamasheq groups are less than 10% of the population in Niger but such an argument falls flat when looking at the statistics of workers at the gold mine operations of Samira Hill and Libiri pits (near Niamey). 100% of the administration, engineers and manual workers are Zarma. There is no room for other groups. The Tamasheq and Arabs in the north are aware of this and resent the domination of Haoussa and Zarma groups in the mining operations on their lands. This is what the rebellion is about: IT IS A LAND RIGHTS ISSUE AND NOTHING ELSE. The MNJ, at least initially, has not demanded separation and independence from Niamey. What they are asking for is a better representation of Tamasheq and Arabs in civil service, working in the uranium mine and a fair cut of revenues invested in the development of the north. In the Agadez region outside of Arlit and Agadez, there are few schools, few cement wells and infrastructure.

Large numbers of Nigériens do not live in the north; they live in the south. But while the Nigérien government has profited from uranium revenues from the north, they have been able to rely on foreign organizations to contribute to if not provide development to populations in the south ever since the drought of 1973. Development in Niger is a political game with winners and losers. My first impression of Niamey when I first arrived was it is the capital of the NGO (non-governmental organization) world. Think of an NGO like Save the Children, Oxfam, Doctors without Frontiers, Action Contre la Faim (Action against Hunger), CARRITAS (a Catholic Relief Organization) and others and one will likely find an office in Niamey. Bi-lateral organizations are also numerous and operating here. The United States’ USAID, SNV (the Netherlands), DANIDA (Denmark), and even one from Monaco (Monegasque Official Development Assistance) are working on poverty alleviation in Niger. There are conditions with these humanitarian efforts, however. Their operations are often restricted to southern Niger and little assistance is implemented in the north. When I talked to volunteers of JICA (a Japanese volunteer organization that is similar to Peace Corps from the United States), I was told they are only allowed to work as far north as Tahoua and as far east as Zinder. It is obvious when one visits villages in the south and sees covered markets, new schools, cement wells and paved roads. Depending on whom one talks to, the reasons given for this uneven geographical development can be “for security reasons” (and certainly some NGOs have reservations in operating in the north for the safety of their staff) or because the invitation has not been given to them by Niamey. The Nigérien government holds the reigns to assistance in the north. No aid can be implemented there without the approval of Niamey. But they give little slack to NGOs and bilateral organizations. This is why northern Niger is poorer than southern Niger. The Nigérien government not only extracts northern resources without reciprocating, they also lock out foreign assistance.

In a matter of five days after talking to the mayor of Arlit, I was ordered by the police commissioner to return to Agadez and meet with the governor once more. They would not tell me what it was in reference to but I could sense that I was being pushed both out of my research and out of Niger. I visited my friends and collaborator one last time and explained the situation. They too sensed the injustice of the mayor and their government. I did not come to Niger to interview MNJ members and cover the rebellion, but at this point it did not matter. Even if I had started to interview people, the rebellion was likely to corrupt any data I collected.
Agadez is where I began to shift my allegiance from being independent from the rebellion to sympathies towards the MNJ’s cause. It started with the about-face the governor took with me. I was told that my research was suspended until I visit the ministry of interior and the ministry of defense and receive approval from both ministries. This decision on their part was right at the eve of Tabaski, perhaps the largest Muslim holiday and in Niger, a very big affair. It is the celebration of when Abraham was prepared to kill his first born to show his faith in God, though God intervened and instead a ram was sacrificed. People actually take out loans to buy the needed sheep to slaughter during this celebration. I asked for permission to stay in the area for a week as I knew there would be no one at any ministry during the holiday. I was denied and ordered to return to Niamey. They made no arrangements for me to return to Niamey, however and instead I decided to shift my mission from researcher to tourist for the next three weeks. Christmas was a week after Tabaski and after that the New Year. I needed a break from the frustrations and I wanted to opportunity to see other parts of Niger.

I visited Tanout but by the start of Tabaski I was in Zinder. From there I moved on to Diffa with the intentions of going further north to Nguigmi but this is where problems and interrogations started. I was carrying all my belongings with me, including maps in a map case, my computer, GPS and audio-recorder. The gendarmes in Diffa controlling the route to Nguigmi stopped me but when they saw my approval from Niamey, they let me continue my travels to Nguigmi. I arrived there at night but in the morning, I made sure to pass the commissariat and register with the police (it is a fairly remote place, near the Chadian border). I had befriended someone in town and actually started asking questions about the Kanouri and Toubou languages (I have an avid curiosity and thirst to learn African languages ... something that also was problematic in future run-ins with Nigérien authorities) but the gendarmes had come for me, not giving me enough time to collect all my belongings and this time transporting me back to Diffa under armed guard.

I covered up nothing. I explained to the commandant in Diffa that I was a researcher, but that I had some time before I needed to go back to Niamey to meet with officials and that I was merely acting as a tourist. He didn’t believe me and he told me he was going to expose my true mission. I had nothing to hide. He looked at all my maps and asked for the receipts for them (I managed to find them all). He looked at my computer and audio-recorder (only pulling them out of the case and opening them, not turning on the power. I would not have let it go that far; I would have asked him to contact my embassy if he made such a request). I spent two days answering his questions. He was uneasy with the amount of Zarma, Haoussa and Tamasheq I had learned over three months. After his attempt to learn more about my mission, he was ready to send me back to Zinder to meet with the commandant there but I insisted that my belongings left in Nguigmi be returned to me. He had no choice but to order one of his men in Nguigmi to return to Diffa with the things I was missing. I delayed my return to Zinder by one day.

Once again, I was brought from Diffa to Zinder by armed guard. I arrived in the town in the early morning and only had a few hours to sleep before meeting with the commandant. I wasn’t in the best of moods when meeting with this man. The meeting was brief, he basically ordered me to return to Niamey immediately. I asked him if he makes such requests to tourists frequently. He replied that he does not meet with tourists (the threat of my presence in Niger was never more apparent then at this moment). I wasn’t going to comply easily. I quickly remembered that it is Christmas Eve and I told him that I do not travel on Catholic holidays. He had no choice as to deny me the opportunity to enjoy an important religious holiday and attend church the next day could have been scandalous for his government. I stayed in Zinder for Christmas Eve and Christmas, staying at the gendarmerie and under 24 hour surveillance.
The commandant who I had Christmas Eve dinner with and was ignorant of the difference between the Arab and Tamasheq languages was this man. He was generous to me, providing me with an escort who drove me from place to place around town, offering me the best quarters at the gendarmerie and my meals but I would have preferred my freedom and being responsible for my needs. I already knew the town pretty well from my first visit a week earlier. I checked my e-mail earlier in the day. My advisor had told me to terminate my mission in Niger. This was both relieving and disappointing to me: relieving because the harassment and constant detainments from the authorities was frustrating and fruitless; disappointing because I grew aware of the injustices that take place in Niger both currently and in the past. I enjoyed my Christmas without incident, but my mind was certainly focused on my friends and colleague up in Arlit who I was going to have to contact and inform that my time was ending soon in Niger.

The day after Christmas, I returned to Niamey. There, I was free to circulate and move about without surveillance. I immediately went to the embassy of Mali and requested a one-month visa. If Niger was going to be a loss then I was going to take some time and revisit people who aided my research in Mali. I was more sensitive to the media and peoples’ opinions of the rebellion at this point. People in the south are kept ignorant by their government. Constantly, the news programs broadcasted from Niamey attached the word ‘terrorist’ to the MNJ and accuse them of planting land mines and attacking civilian vehicles in the north. I had passed back and forth between Abalak, Agadez, Arlit and Tanout several times without incident. Yes, I was lucky. But the media fails to tell Nigérien citizens of the tactics the military is taking to stamp out the MNJ and protect the uranium lorry. Most of the soldiers and arms are committed to protecting the uranium, not civilians traveling to or from the north.

People who remembered seeing me on the streets in October and November stopped me and asked me why I had returned. I explained to them the problems I encountered. Haoussa and Zarma groups would constantly blame the rebels for my misfortune. I made sure to reply back that perhaps the government has some guilt in my aborted mission since they have neglected the north for so long but profited from the uranium reserves. Some Haoussa and Zarma did not even know where Arlit or Agadez was. They thought I was coming from Algeria or Libya. It is ignorance like this that has helped Mohammedou Tandia (the president of Niger) and his administration keep their power in this crisis. A month before the rebellion, there was a “No Confidence” vote passed down from the Nigérien Congress but this criticism was shelved when problems escalated in the north. People forgot their grievances and have blindly followed Tandia’s no tolerance policy with the MNJ.

Groups of Tamasheq that I crossed paths with were curious about my quick return, too. When I explained to them my misfortune and interrogations they smiled and shook their heads. They replied to me, “Now you know. Now you know what we encounter each and every day ... injustice.” When I told them about the commandant’s ignorance of the difference between the Arab and Tamasheq language they responded without hesitation, “Yet we are forced to learn Zarma and Haoussa when we work and live here in Niamey. Tell me in your opinion, who makes the effort to be Nigérien in this country: a person from the north that has to learn Zarma and Haoussa to work and make a few CFA or a person in the south who know only their mother tongue and sit behind a big desk in a tall ministry?” They had reason. Niger is currently not a state where people have a sense of nationality and unity. It is a territory where ethnic groups are looking out for their own selfish interests. I hate using this word but it is appropriate here: Niger is experiencing the phenomenon of tribalism.

Whether the Nigérien government has profited from outside assistance by calling the MNJ a terrorist organization is something I am unaware of. However, Mohammedou Tandia has nothing to lose in calling the MNJ a group of terrorists and accusing them of drug trafficking. It has kept southern Nigériens ignorant of the uneven development in their country and the land rights’ issue the MNJ bases their actions. Such a claim appeals to Western powers to assist against these so-called “terrorists.” I read recently an article that hypothesizes the possible connections of Al Qaeda to the Tuareg rebel movements both in Niger and Mali. As a researcher that has traveled and lived for the past year-and-a-half in these regions I found the article preposterous. The Tuareg have little in common with Arabia and Central Asian groups and little interest in what is happening in Middle East. They do have a connection to Libya because of Tuareg groups that work and live there and I don’t deny a connection to Mummar Qadaffi but many of the Tuaregs I talked to were critical of the Libyan president seeing him as a profiteer like many of the local politicians of their own countries.I wish not to post this article without some criticism of the MNJ. No political movement is saintly and free of committing atrocities 100% of the time. It is likely that they are funding their military actions against the Nigérien government through drug trafficking, human trafficking (the rebellion is taking place in the routes that clandestine Africans take) or other dubious activities. Certainly their relations with Ibrahima Bahanga in Tin-Zaouaten (northern Mali) complicates matters as there is stronger evidence that Bahanga’s group does engage in drug trafficking and currently holds two Austrians kidnapped at the Tunisian-Algerian border two weeks ago. But the MNJ’s conduct during the first year of this conflict must be commended. They did not target civilians, at least people not connected to the uranium operations. Only Nigérien authorities and services related to the uranium mining operations were attacked. They warned civilians in the countryside of the upcoming violence. I conducted many interviews with victims of the 1990s rebellion in Mali who complained to me of rebels stealing their animals, destroying their property and killing family members but no such complaints were passed on to me when I was in Niger. I have fears that in the future the MNJ will be forced to shift their tactics to attacking citizens, banditry, kidnapping foreign nationals that come across their paths and other malicious acts. But considering that the Nigérien government is already killing people in the northern countryside, poisoning wells, killing animals, destroying property, spreading propaganda and pushing out any form of independent coverage of the rebellion in order to stamp out the MNJ, what choice do they have? Little ...