Photo credit: Amnesty International (logo)
"Amnesty International is alarmed at the increasing number of extrajudicial executions of civilians by the army in the Agadez region and is asking the Niger authorities to put an immediate stop to them." - Amnesty International, December 19, 2007
The entire Nigerien population is increasingly affected by the ongoing conflict in Niger, in one way or another, but the country's president categorically refuses to try a peaceful approach to solving it.
The armed Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ, Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice), which many news commentators describe as "rebel raids," and which the government of Niger dismisses as "banditry," describe themselves as a Tuareg-led political movement that includes members from a variety of ethnic groups in Niger, whose goal is to get some dialogue going with the government about reforms and urgent improvements needed in the country.
The rebels say they can't get a voice any other way than to fight the military. Their attacks on the military occasionally make the news, but to date, no foreign powers have been able to convince the Niger government to sit down at a negotiation table and discuss the issues that are motivating them to fight.
According to the MNJ, the reason they have taken up arms has to do with the relentless poverty, as well as the serious lack of water and food security, jobs, health care, education and development across the world's poorest nation. Why is Niger so poor, they ask, when it is the world's 3rd or 4th largest supplier of uranium? They say they have no other choice left to them, since the country's president refuses to talk, or even acknowledge them as a voice representing the people's interests.
Unfortunately, the president of Niger has chosen to respond through force, to "finish off" the MNJ. MNJ says that his actions suggest those of a dictator, and not the elected head of a democratic republic.
Yesterday (December 19) the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in the U.S. and Amnesty International in Britain both released statements documenting serious human rights abuses in Niger. Apparently, the national army has gotten out of control with President Tandja Mamadou's mandate to "put an end" to the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ). The Human Rights Watch has accused the Niger army of:
- rape (2 recent instances)
- wanton and reckless shooting, beatings and reprisal attacks on innocent people in villages following MNJ attacks, when no MNJ were present (according to eyewitness interviews)
- shooting livestock that Tuareg families depend on for their daily milk; as a form of "collective punishment"
- laying landmines that have injured and killed civilians in urban areas distant from the conflict zone
- arbitrarily arresting 35 villagers, detained without charges in jails for months
- indiscriminate killing of people who are not connected with the conflict (20 people since September, and at least 13 civilians killed in the past four weeks)
- reports of "summary executions" of 3 elderly men at Tezirzayt, as well as 7 civilians traveling north of Iferwan, which the army claimed was "an accident"
- signs of torture to the victims, including cigarette burns, whipping, and many bullet wounds to the face (according to eyewitnesses who identified the bodies)
A Tuareg woman told Human Rights Watch about the following scene of the Niger army's reckless shooting and beatings:
"One day I was getting water in one of the wells in town [Iferwan] when, just down the road, a military vehicle ran over a landmine. After this, the soldiers went crazy and started shooting everywhere in the air, here, there and all over the village. They went into people's houses looking for the ones who planted it and beat people they came across. People ran everywhere and several of the villagers were injured as they ran."
A Tuareg man described the following scene of livestock animals wantonly shot dead by the Niger army:
"The soldiers have been killing our livestock - camels, goats, sheep, and cows. I've seen so many of them dead. For example, in mid-November I saw five dead camels with my own eyes - it was on the road out of Agadez to the west - between Azel and Elmeki. By the look of their bodies, it seemed they had been dead for two or three days. . . . Closeby I also saw a mother and baby cow. I saw bullets in their heads and bellies. A few days later, while grazing with my camels I found five sheep and seven goats - all dead. I know it was the military. . . . The Tuareg love their animals . . . we live by them - we would never kill a camel or a cow or goat. Never. They give us milk and cheese. . . . The soldiers just killed them to make us suffer."
A Tuareg man from the Gougaram area relayed the account of a rape:
"I asked the girl's mother to tell me. She described how the night before three soldiers had come into their house saying they were searching for arms. Whey they didn't find any, she said they took her daughter into a hut at the back of the course. The mother was so sad as she described having to listen to the screams of her daughter with those men. She said it went on for about 40 minutes and only after the soldiers left could she go to her daughter. . . . I saw the girl was bleeding a lot from below - like she had given birth. Everyone I spoke to said it was the military that was there those days."
The reports allege that the MNJ has engaged in abuses, including robbery and beatings of non-Tuareg civilians on the road to Agadez, and the theft of one or two vehicles owned by a non-government organization. BBC reported on Oct. 24 that five unidentified men held up two vehicles on the road north of Agadez; the vehicles belonged to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Doctors Without Borders, to provide medical services in the Air Mountains (BBC October 24, 2007). The human rights reports attributed this to MNJ, although the assailants were unidentified, and MNJ does not claim any responsibility for the attack. MNJ says there have been occasional incidents of armed robbers on the roads who are not related to MNJ, including smugglers.
HRW and Amnesty International also claimed that MNJ was laying anti-vehicular landmines on the roads around the Air conflict zone in the North. According to their report, it was meant to deter and intercept military travel through the region, which killed numerous soldiers and several civilians being escorted by the army to Arlit, the uranium town in the North. However, back in July 2007 when some of the first news of landmines appeared, MNJ's website (Monday, July 16) reported evidence that it was the Niger army that was laying the landmine that exploded on a track near Gougaram on July 15, 2007. MNJ added that they witnessed the Niger Army laying mines overnight at Gougaram, and MNJ members removed them the next morning. MNJ said they also removed many landmines laid by the Niger army around several villages in their area in July. MNJ said that the mines were of Chinese manufacture, part of a weapons supply which China had recently provided to Niger in anticipation of its uranium extraction activities to begin in the conflict zone in the north a few weeks later in August.
The Niger government accuses the MNJ of laying additional landmines in urban areas hundreds of miles to the south, in Tahoua and Maradi, where several civilians were recently killed when they drove over them. However, the MNJ denies this, and says it is the Army that has been setting the mines in urban centers in an attempt to discredit the MNJ movement. They say they have information that the Niger army recently held an internal meeting to create a committee to investigate the disappearance of 9 landmines from the Tondibiya military reserve near the capitol, Niamey, which indicates the urban landmines were the work of the Army. (MNJ, December 20, 2007)
The latest news from the independent newspaper Le Republicain reports that for the past few weeks landmines have exploded or been discovered in Dosso, Maradi, Tahoua, Tanout, and even as far from the conflict zone as Niamey. The newspaper questions why the Nigerien authorities are not being more diligent about pursuing the "real" perpetrators. At Tanout, a Tuareg man was arrested on suspicion of laying a mine, but the newspaper questions whether this person was actually guilty. (Le Republicain, December 20, 2007)
According to MNJ, Niger's president, Tandja, has refused to try a peaceful negotiation with MNJ, and he has lost credibility as the country's leader for a variety of reasons:
August 15: 3.6 million people in Niger were suffering and dying from serious food shortages in the wake of a devastating locust infestation and drought. Some of the people hardest hit were Tuareg and Fulani families living in the Saharan regions. News reporters from many countries, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, went to Niger and aired horrifying footage of "pencil stick" babies and dying children. Tandja responded to the national crisis by repeatedly denying that a famine existed. (Anderson Cooper, CNN, August 15, 2005)
June 3: Niger was declared the poorest country in the world by the United Nations. The country placed last of 177 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, which ranks them by quality of life based on income, education, health care and life expectancy. (Reuters, June 3, 2007)
June 23: Tandja's main supporter, Prime Minister Hama Amadou, was accused of involvement in a corruption scandal. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars of education funds, most of it from foreign donors, had been embezzled" by someone, although Amadou himself denied being involved (Reuters, June 23, 2006).
June 8: Reports from two Nigerien agencies indicate that "Niger is heading toward a permanent food crisis." The National Council for Sustainable Development (CNDD) and the Niger National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRAN) show that food insufficiency has become an annually recurring fact of life in Niger. The country lacks adequate drinking water, food, sanitation, and health care. (IRIN, June 8, 2007) However, the price of basic food is beyond many people's meager incomes in Niger. Farming interests sell the crops for higher prices in Nigeria, the richest country in Africa, where people will use it to feed their chickens and livestock. The people of Niger cannot pay such high prices for food to sustain themselves, and farm subsidies are not provided to keep the prices down for the benefit of the local populations.
June 23: Tandja has refused to negotiate with the Niger Movement for Justice in the north, "which will cost his government heavily, undermining social spending and the potential gains from expansion of the besieged uranium sector and new oil strikes." (Reuters, June 23, 2007). Tandja's determination not to negotiate with MNJ throughout 2007 has been immutable.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press have always been suppressed in Niger, but new levels of media repression have emerged during Tandja's administration. He has had numerous news reporters arrested and deported or incarcerated who interview the MNJ or write stories about the conflict in the north that do not support his political viewpoints.
July: The government suspended local FM radio broadcasts of Radio France Internationale (RFI) for one month, because they seemed to be broadcasting news that was sympathetic to the MNJ, and saying things that made Tandja's regime look bad. RFI is the major world radio broadcaster for France, as is BBC for Britain, and Voice of America for the U.S..
Sept. 20: The manager of Radio Saraouniya, Moussa Kaka, has been detained in jail since September 20th for interviewing a member of the MNJ over the telephone, even though a Nigerien judge said the conversations were taped illegally and cannot be used as evidence. (RSF, October 15, 2007)
Oct. 7: Francois Bergeron, an independent French documentary film-maker, was deported from Niger after being held in jail for a month after allegedly taking film footage involving members of MNJ. He had been filming Tuareg nomads in the Agadez region when he was arrested. (Reuters, October 6, 2007; The Times, South Africa, Oct. 7, 2007)
Oct. 9: Aïr Info news editor Ibrahim Manzo was arrested October 9 and accused of being “the correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Agadez." He was later charged with "criminal association," because of some articles he wrote that mentioned the MNJ, and remains in prison with murderers and thieves. (RSF, October 31, 2007)
Oct. 25: Daouda Yacouba, the In Gall correspondent for Aïr Info, was arrested and detained for six days because he allegedly interviewed a member of the MNJ. (RSF, November 2, 2007)
Dec. 17: Just three days ago, two French TV journalists, reporter Thomas Dandois and cameraman Pierre Creisson, were arrested for interviewing members of the MNJ; they remain in jail in Niger. (IHT, December 20, 2007)
The Niger Movement for Justice accuses Tandja and his associates of pocketing funds advanced to Niger for uranium production, which Tandja said he had placed in a special "priority fund" for the country's benefit. MNJ says Tandja and his colleagues placed the funds in their personal bank accounts abroad and purchased expensive foreign real estate ("capital flight"). (MNJ Blog, December 9, 2007). They say the funds were allocated for the development of health, education and jobs in the Tuareg regions where the uranium is being exploited.
The International Herald Tribune notes that Tandja is "already in his lame duck period." (IHT, December 6, 2007). Since Independence, Niger has gone from one military coup or presidential assassination to the next. Tandja was a participant in a coup d'etat in 1974, and came to power in 1999 after the country's president was assassinated.
Based on the news reports, it appears that in his capacity as President of a military government, Tandja promotes ongoing violent conflict instead of negotiating solutions peacefully. He is not responsive to the needs of his country's citizens; he fails to deal with crises diplomatically and democratically; his decisions promote intimidation and suppression of the media and unjust arrests; his army is out of control; and he seems to have lost credibility as a competent leader.
Niger: Extrajudicial executions and population displacement in the north of the country.
December 19, 2007.
Anderson Cooper - CNN
Hungry season preys on Niger's youngest. August 15, 2005.
IRIN news (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
Niger: Population surging while farm land is shrinking. June 8, 2007.
IRIN news (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
Niger army reprisals kill civilians - rights groups. December 20, 2007.
International Herald Tribune (IHT) - Oxford Analytica
Prospects for West Africa in 2008. December 5, 2007.
International Herald Tribune (IHT) - Associated Press
Reporters Without Borders urges release of 2 French journalists detained in Niger.
December 20, 2007.
Le Republicain - Oumarou Keita
Propagation de l'Insecurite: Les Mines et Blogs de la Deslation! December 20, 2007
Niger president names former minister as Premier. June 3, 2007. By Abdoulaye Massalatchi.
Niger expels French film-maker accused of rebel ties. By Abdoulaye Massalatchi. October 6, 2007.
Warring sides must end abuses of civilians. By Human Rights Watch. December 19, 2007
Niger army reprisals kill civilians -rights groups. December 20, 2007
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Moussa Kaka must be free. October 15, 2007.
Newspaper editor charged with criminal association, transferred to Agadez prison. October 31, 2007.
Aïr Info correspondent freed after six days in police custody. November 2, 2007.
The Times, South Africa
French Journalist Expelled From Niger. October 7, 2007.