December 22, 2007

Ahmed Akoli (MNJ) - Exclusive Temoust Interview

Photo: Ahmed Akoli
Photo credit: MNJ

"The MNJ is campaigning for the advent of a united Niger in which each citizen is proud to be part of their country every day."

Temoust's exclusive interview with Ahmed Akoli, political secretary for the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).

Original interview, in French, is on the website of
Temoust and MNJ.
December 21, 2007

Temoust: Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in Niger. Dozens of civilians have been killed by Niger's army, which clearly has not been able to gain the upper hand over the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ). On the political front, Niger is moving towards a chaos that seems inevitable if the authorities do not decide to take things seriously and to seek ways out of this crisis. . . .

Temoust: For nearly a year, your organization, the MNJ, has confronted Niger's army in the North. Can you tell us exactly what your Movement is demanding, and how you distinguish your group from those of the 1990's?

Ahmed Akoli: The first rebellions were initiated as a result of injustices done to the Tuareg community by the Niger authorities who succeeded to power. Citizens in the North had used all of the legal means to try and be heard at the time of their distress. They met only indifference and incomprehension on the part of Niger's political elite. It was after several attempts at solving the problems had failed that young fighters took up weapons, to be heard through force. This [the first Tuareg rebellion] followed the tragic events of the 1990's, including the killings at Tchintabaraden [1990] and others that have remained unpunished to this day, continuing the crisis. At that time, the rebellion mainly affected the North, and the demands revolved around the establishment of a federal system.

It was after five years of conflict that the rebel movements and the state joined in negotiations that culminated in signing the Peace Accords of April 24, 1995. These agreements, unfortunately, were never respected by the Niger government. In essence, the question remains the same [in this rebellion]. We denounce the injustice done to Nigeriens who have been marginalized and reduced to the status of second class citizens. It's about Nigeriens whose regions have received no socioeconomic benefit, despite the significant quantities of resources that have been exploited [from regions in the North]. It's about citizens who have been peripheralized, even though they constitute the second largest component of the nation, according to the latest census of the population, which the powerful elites curiously refuse to publish. The MNJ has no territorial claims, and requests that the rights of every Nigerien should be acknowledged. MNJ includes combatants from all ethnic groups and from all regions of Niger. Because of the marginalization suffered by the people of northern Niger and the great injustices done to the region and to the communities who live there, citizens of the North are the most numerous in our endeavor and in the direction of the Movement.

The MNJ, no matter what its critics say, is a national movement and its fighters intend to claim their full citizenship. There are several ways to look at Niger, and many Nigerians can not accept the current situation, one of great disparities in regional development that have been deliberately created [by the government]. For us, it is high time to correct this situation and restore a balance, which is the only guarantee of a just and lasting peace for the country.

Niger must be managed collegially by all the nation's communities, and it should not be a gift given to some, or a luxury that can offered to others, but a legitimate right and a prerequisite for stability.

Temoust: Today, how do you see the situation, in view of the authorities' refusal to negotiate with you? Can your claims can be heard and find solutions through the democratic system?

Ahmed Akoli: Niger is only a facade of democracy, since the State has been unable to build stable institutions. The country is plagued by arbitrariness and corruption in its management; both the political majority and the opposition agree on this issue. Since Independence, [the Niger government] has been a system based on ethnic and regional cronyism. Bloody crimes and other political offenses and abuses are rarely brought to justice, which casts discredit on the state and its Justice system. These affairs are often used to settle scores between powerful clans, as we have seen in recent days. Freedom of the press is restricted, and journalists are silenced and imprisoned under false pretences. There is no voice of the people that would dare speak out against the current dictatorship.

Temoust: What is the position of your Movement in relation to the peace accords signed in 1995 between the Tuareg movements and the government of Niger?

Ahmed Akoli: The peace accords of 1995 were a significant step forward in resolving the problem in the North. But the lack of political resolve and the bad faith that has characterized the attitude of those in power has prevented the effective implementation [of the peace accords]. The [peace accords] represent a major legal right for the country as a whole.

It is undeniable that the rebellion of the '90s has led to decentralization, of which all Nigeriens are proud, and which they see as an indisputable democratic achievement. This decentralization, however, remains unfinished and the means for accomplishing it remain paltry. Thus, several municipalities were unable to establish themselves, or soon ceased to function. A number of mayors and elected officials threw in the towel and some have returned to MNJ to denounce the state's inertia. In addition, there are those in power who manipulate these communities through the regional governors, who make and unmake laws as they please, to the detriment of true democracy at the grassroots level. Yet decentralization constitutes a hope and an effective means of adjusting policy to the real needs of the people. That is the only way to take into account of the social-political configuration of each region, by addressing their economic, demographic and cultural specifics. One should note that there are important variations in administration, depending on whether it's a region that's oriented toward sedentary agriculture, or one that is located in pastoral and nomadic areas.

Over the last 40 years, the successive regimes in Niger have been characterized by the clear intention of strangling the North and the communities that live there. The entire population is now aware of this situation and the state can no longer continue the same policy without endangering national unity.

The political class must take into account the multiethnic reality of our country, so that each of our communities can flourish according to its specific culture. This would further consolidate our national unity. It is incumbent upon the State to guarantee fairness and equality of citizens before the law and ensure the balance necessary for national cohesion. It is a pragmatic and realistic way of understanding the reality of our country. The state must stop hammering its demagogic and hypocritical discourse that fails to bring about national unity and social justice, because when these values are actually experienced, there's no need to cry out loud and strong. The birth of rebellions in Niger is justified by the inability of politicians to diagnose the disease that's rampant, and to find a solution other than punishing these uprisings at all costs through weapons. The monopoly of violence belongs to the State legitimately only when it fulfills its mission vis-à-vis its citizens.

Temoust: Your struggle for justice does not seem to meet the support one should expect on the part of Niger's civil society?

Ahmed Akoli: Civil society is not by definition a particular organization, it's the way of the people. The vast majority of Nigerians want peace and have been making regular appeals to the government to enter a rational dialogue. These appeals are routinely rejected by those who hold power. The government has created its own "civil society" to which it gives a monopoly in public debate. This policy was pushed to unacceptable levels, when a minister of the Republic in his full capacity participated in a debate organized by the national television station, in which a character known for his extremism called for the extermination of one sector of the national community.

Such an attitude runs counter to the desire of Nigeriens to build a common destiny.

Temoust: Why don't you seek to enter your struggle into the democratic process, which was beginning to lead to decentralization and the birth of political parties?

Ahmed Akoli: There are problems that can not find solutions in a system where the dice are rigged in advance. The apparatus of state and its institutions have remained the same since the country's Independence, and are in the hands of an ethnic and regional oligarchy that bases its strength on its tribalistic army. The current political class has caused enormous harm to the country, by including in the Constitution an amnesty to the assassins of President Baré, thus accrediting it with the issue of its [the political class's] complicity in the crime. This malfeasance has the effect of weakening the state's image to its citizens - an image already severely shaken by corruption in all our institutions to the point where no one wonders how a mere civil servant may become a millionaire within a few years.

Democracy is always a goal to which we must aspire, but which is never attained because it implies human perfection … However, in order to function, a State needs rules that citizens view as fair and just. In Niger we have to build these rules and MNJ wants to help create conditions for the debate. Nigerians who value peace and justice must reinvent institutions adapted to our reality, with which every citizen can identify. After all, democracy is a choice of society, where the debate is based on ideas and not on our intrinsic differences of identity which can not be the subject of negotiation. With us, every community has brought its territory to form the current Niger, and its history is quite recent.

Human rights are being trampled by the State of Niger. Beyond their universal and sacred character, they [human rights] are a pillar that makes it possible to structure the idea of the state in a country like ours, where in reality a modern state largely remains to be built.

Temoust: The government accuses you of being traffickers and bandits. How do you respond to that?

Ahmed Akoli: For us, the accusations of those in power in Niamey can have no credibility, because the reality is that we have unmasked the real sponsors of these trafficking trades, which are actually to be found in the circles of political power. The MNJ can not accept for northern Niger to be given over to traffickers of all kinds and for it to become a foothold for adventurers in the service of foreign interests in the region.

Also, with regard to crime and delinquency, the government wants us to forget the billions that have been embezzled by its partisans, which could have been used to build schools or health clinics, or prevent Nigeriens from dying of hunger.

Temoust: Among your claims there is the issue of equitable distribution of the country's wealth. Can you tell us more?

Ahmed Akoli: Over the past 40 years that uranium has been exploited in our country, it has not served to ameliorate the living conditions of the local populations. The money from this uranium has not been used to dig water wells that would have alleviated the suffering of the people of the area. ... It has not served to educate the children, to create health clinics ... In the area of employment, the indigenous peoples of the region are not being hired, even for unskilled jobs. By contrast, the environmental risks associated with mining operations are becoming increasingly important. Many illnesses have emerged in recent years in the indifference of the state and the [French-owned] Areva Corporation, which is exploiting the two mines in use today. There, too, the MNJ can not accept the ongoing plundering of natural resources in the region, unless the interests of local populations are taken into account. We are demanding that Areva and the other multinationals interested in our wealth to respect us, and understand that things can no longer be like before.

The mineral wealth of our regions have been exploited so far in total obscurity, and Areva has been content to fatten the politico-military oligarchy in Niamey without worrying about the plight of the Tuareg populations.

Temoust: The government of Niger has been distributing [uranium] exploration licenses to multinationals in a frenetic manner - what are the consequences of this new policy on the populations?

Ahmed Akoli: We believe that the diversification of partners is a good thing in itself. But this should not be done on the backs of the people and the real interests of the country. Today, the one thing that's clearly at risk is the fate of the people who inhabit the areas concerned. Some families - even whole tribes - are ejected from their customary lands without any consultation or accompanying measures that could clarify the legal and material implications of these decisions. The people have been dispossessed of their vital habitats, which will have the effect of destabilizing the social and economic fabric of these regions. This also raises the question of grazing land already abused by the Rural Code, which gives de facto rights to sedentary peoples more than to nomadic pastoralists. It's an implicit means of sanctioning the supremacy of agriculture over livestock breeding, which is nevertheless the second udder of the national economy after mineral riches.

Temoust: Let's go back a bit, to the demands of MNJ.

Ahmed Akoli: Our document of demands is prepared and will be published in due course. These demands are fair, for they back up an unquestionable diagnostic of the situation in our country.

That is why they are shared by a majority of Nigerians, even if some are still living in illusion believing that things can change all by themselves!

The State of Niger must recognize its current problems and agree to reform, in order to better meet the expectations of the population.

The claims of MNJ cover three main areas:

#1 One of the things essential to the stability of the Niger and thus its development is the effective participation of all national components in the exercise of political power. Appropriate mechanisms must be found to allow each community to feel involved in the way the country's affairs are conducted. This will put an end to the marginalization suffered by a portion of the population. Other known issues need solutions, including the current imbalances of recruitment in the civil service and generally in the body of the state. There is no justification for our government's administration not reflecting a greater diversity of the population. It is incumbent on the State to ensure diversity, and stop hiding behind the hypocrisy that actually exists, which involves parading a speech and being allowed to perpetuate practices that maintain inequality among Nigeriens. We hope that the decentralization of the government's powers and initiatives will be accelerated, and that the means will be put in place by the state to give it a tangible and perceptible content by citizens.

#2 From this central concern arises one that is connected with the search for a better allocation of scarce resources of the State in order to achieve socio-economic infrastructures in our regions. To do this, we mean for the benefits of the uranium mining to be used primarily for economic growth in the regions concerned and the country as a whole. There are disparities between regions, which should be corrected by better planning policies. We now know that the best development projects that have a real socio-economic impact are those that are systematically directed in a manner that's very discussable. There are so many injustices for which taboos must be lifted, as they are at the root of frustrations that push thousands of youths in regions that are discriminated against to take up arms in order to be heard. It does not give them any other option than exile or renouncement.

#3 Another of our demands concerns security for the northern regions. Our position is a matter of common sense and pragmatism. It has been proved today that neither the police nor the so-called national army are able to ensure the safety of citizens in these regions and prevent them from becoming lawless areas. The army would do better to defend its territorial integrity against any outside threat. Based on this observation, which is widely shared by the observers interested in the issue, we want the establishment of a headquarters to oversee specific issues of security and defence in the 3 regions of the Aïr, the Azawagh and Kawar. The military recruitment will be primarily, but not exclusively, from populations in these regions. The reorganization of our defense system is an imperative dictated by the reality on the ground and geostrategic implications, which are the basis of geopolitical developments that we see around us. The current FNIS may very well be the first components of this new force and already have an autonomous command which could multiply their effectiveness on the ground. On the political front the army will finally be perceived by the people of these areas as an extension of society, and not as an occupying army that engages solely for the trafficking mafia and persecution of all kinds. The massacres of civilians which we are witnessing today in the North are partly explained by the fact that the military do not identify with the local population. The integration into the army of the MNJ fighters who choose the profession of arms is a strong sign of a balance and a rediscovered unity. In short it's about creating a genuine and Republican national army whose composition, command and mission reflect our national realities. The army must stop being manipulated by clans who serve themselves, and leave the country immobilized, preventing its progress.

Temoust: Do the Niger authorities accuse you of being in the pay of foreign interests?

Ahmed Akoli: The government seeks to discredit our struggle using the most far-fetched arguments. The MNJ finds its resources solely by its actions against the army. But we have always wanted to have peaceful and responsible relations with all countries friendly to Niger and we are not desperate to convince them to contribute to the restoration of peace and stability in the region.

We also believe that the role of the international community is essential to help to ease the current situation. Our goal is not necessarily to win the war on the ground militarily, but to arrive at a political solution because we believe that this is in the interest of the country. We call on international institutions: the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS SEN-SAD… to break their silence in order to avoid having this conflict take more serious proportions, and thus becoming more complex.

Temoust: In recent weeks the Nigerien army has been engaged in an offensive presented as decisive against your movement. Can you take stock?

Ahmed Akoli: The offensive was doomed to fail because this is not the first time that the army made such an attempt to destroy us. It so happens that our fighters are disposed of a management and knowledge of terrain that give them control of military engagements. The soldiers sent to the front have no motivation because they may not understand that they are asked to fight their brothers who want nothing more than justice for all Nigeriens. These soldiers often live in pitiful conditions in the indifference of politicians who send them out to terrorize civilian populations. Indeed, the massacres of civilians has continued and the State's power visibly seeks to sow terror in the North of the country in an attempt to turn the population against the MNJ.

Temoust: Your organization is strongly suspected of being behind the explosions recorded recently in several cities across the country.

Ahmed Akoli: The MNJ maintains the position that it always has, which is not to harm civilians or private interests. We know that the Government is prepared to do anything to try to discredit our movement because we take on the debate of the real issues that affect the country's future.

Temoust: Does your movement maintain relations with the group of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga in Mali?

Ahmed Akoli: The group to which you refer is campaigning for the recognition of the rights of the Tuareg community in Mali. In this respect we are in agreement, for in Niger also we have the same type of claim. The justice that we want for all Nigerians assumes that the marginalization of the Tuareg will cease and that citizens are placed on an equal footing.

Temoust: Anything you'd like to add?

Ahmed Akoli: Let me take the opportunity of this meeting to address all Nigeriens and tell them that the MNJ is neither a separatist movement nor a movement that advocates a particular community, but an organization that refuses the situation in which the current power wants to maintain our country. A movement that seeks justice for all Nigeriens and that will not accept for corruption to become practically the only means of upward mobility. The MNJ is determined to fight enemies of the country who seek to oppose Nigeriens, and to enable our cultural diversity.

Finally, the MNJ is campaigning for the advent of a united Niger in which each citizen has reason to be proud of his country every day.

For this reason, we ask that decentralization be pushed to the maximum in order to allow each of our regions to flourish and to contribute to the economic and cultural development of our country.

Interview conducted for the website of the association Lifeline Tuareg-TEMOUST