January 21, 2008

Peace and Conflict: Why Is the MNJ Fighting?

Photo: Leaders of the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ). Photo credit: MNJ

Peace and Conflict: Why Is the MNJ Fighting?

When faced with a legitimate choice between fighting and not fighting, most of us would prefer not to have to take up arms and fight. Some people have no choice, and are conscripted into a national army to serve in the interests of our country -- sometimes for purposes that they personally may not support. Some people would not take up arms under any conditions whatsoever, whether to serve their country, or even in their own self-defense, even if it meant their demise.

There are those who question the major conflicts in the world today, and others who support them. In both categories, there are those who question the small-scale conflicts of sub-groups within a nation that have taken up arms against their own country.

Let's take a look at the Tuareg conflict to try to understand what the various opinions are, and why the rebels have taken up arms.

Peace Focused on Laying Down Arms

There are some who personally do not agree with taking up arms under any circumstances. You can see such views expressed in the Agadez-Niger Forum, for example, where numerous members argue for a "peace" focused on laying down arms -- both the rebels and the government. There, you will see people expressing the view that "peace" means no violence.

Peace Focused on Negotiations

For others, "peace" involves more than just laying down arms -- it requires negotiations: "Je souhaite aussi que le seul ancêtre (TANJA) qui refuse la paix soit contient de ce qu'il fait et qu'il appel au dialogue dans l'interêt de tous les nigeriens." (I also hope that Tandja, who rejects peace, is happy with what he is doing, and that he will call for dialogue in the interest of all Nigeriens.)

Peace Focused on Forgiveness, Tolerance, and Not Holding Grudges

And for others, "peace" is even more complex: "Nous ne saurons jamais progresser si nous n'avons cette hauteur de pardonner, de tolerer de débattre et de jetter la rancune dans la rivière." (We will never know how to progress if we don't forgive, tolerate debate, and throw away our grudges in the river.) Some people might take this perspective even further, to "turn the other cheek," and take the blows without resistance.

Peace Focused on Calm and Quiet

For yet others, "peace" involves a society that is stable, calm and "stays quiet." For example, one member posted: "Espérons que cette année sera synonyme de paix et de quiétude au Niger." (Let's hope that this year will be synonymous with peace and quiet in Niger.)


Patience Is a Major Virtue Among Tuaregs

For most Tuaregs, peace has all of the above meanings. Tuaregs are a very forgiving people. One of their core values is tezaydert -- Patience. Tuaregs feel it is very important not to react in anger, but to display calm at all times. One can see this in their interactions with one another. Tuareg parents do not beat their children or their wives -- something we see all too frequently in many other cultures, including America and Europe. Even in the case of adultery, a Tuareg husband does not beat or kill his wife, as is known to happen in many other societies. He may confront the male adulterer in a duel to settle his case. But he will not assault his wife or children. Tuareg men value patience above all else. Tuareg men feel it is extremely important to remain in control of their emotions, and to not display personal anger through physical violence, except very infrequently, man-to-man, in certain situations that call for the settlement of a serious score such as adultery. In Tuareg day-to-day life, there is a noticeable lack of displays of anger and violent behavior. This gives a very different feel to someone who has been raised in a culture where parents punish their children physically, and husbands slap and hit their wives. Tuaregs are rarely known to do that sort of thing. Such a physical outburst would upset the peace in a Tuareg household, and would result in a great deal of social ridicule across the community. Patience is one of the major priorities among Tuaregs. It's easy to understand how this is adaptive, since Tuaregs live in very small communities or camps of just a few households, and need for everyone to work together cooperatively for the survival and well-being of the group, and avoid inter-personal violence. Tuaregs value patience -- but patience can sometimes be pushed to an unbearable limit, and in the case of the current warfare, this is what has happened.

Tuareg Warfare

The Tuaregs have a history as renowned warriors, fighting in the past from atop their swift dromedaries in the Sahara, with swords and lances, and now with modern weaponry, showing great expertise and an inestimable knowledge of battle in the desert terrain. This is a different kind of violence from inter-personal violence within a community or household. There are very few societies in the world where the people do not fight to take or defend territory, or to control traffic through their lands, and the Tuaregs historically have been expert at warfare in the Sahara. We cannot make an exception of the Tuaregs based on their warfare, since nearly all societies practice warfare.

Those of us who disdain warfare on any grounds are apt to view Tuareg warfare as irrational or "wrong." In that case, we would also have to examine our own countries' practices of warfare and imperialist actions, and accept the fact that historically, Tuareg warfare has not been so different from our own wars. Those who view Tuareg warfare as "wrong" would likely be of the opinion that the warfare of any state is "wrong."

In the past, some warfare has been viewed as the right thing to do. For example, most Americans would agree that the War of Independence was the right thing to do. American Minutemen took up arms against the British colonizers and won their right to autonomy. Numerous other countries have a similar history, and many nations celebrate their Independence Day. Nearly all Americans felt that World War II was the right thing to do. Some Americans feel that the current warfare in the Middle East is the right thing to do, although some are not sure, and some disagree.

Why the Tuaregs Are Fighting Today

The Tuareg rebellions of the early 20th century were a form of resistance to colonization and oppression by the French.

The Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s were, in part, an attempt to gain an independent state comprised of traditional Tuareg territories in Mali and Niger, in response to marginalization and oppression by post-colonial governments.

The current Tuareg rebellions, however, are not aimed at establishing an independent country. They have taken up arms for other reasons, as citizens of modern democratic countries, Mali and Niger, to get some negotiations going, since normal channels of grievance haven't worked.

In Niger, the Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice is fighting for justice -- fair and equal treatment of all Nigeriens, and incorporation of the Tuareg people as equal citizens. The members of MNJ say that the Tuareg people have been treated very badly for some decades, and have been politically and economically marginalized within the country. The results of this ethnic marginalization can be seen in unequal distribution of development funds and relief aid. Schools, hospitals, wells, roads, and jobs are severely lacking in Tuareg territories. Niger is a very poor country, but the people who are getting the worst of it, according to MNJ, are the Tuareg people, because of their ethnicity. The Tuaregs feel this inequality especially, because they live on land that is rich in natural resources -- uranium and oil, among others. Niger is one of the foremost suppliers in the world today of uranium; the uranium is in the middle of Tuareg territories; and yet, the Tuaregs live in abject poverty, with high infant mortality, malnutrition, food insufficiency, lack of education and development, and joblessness. Their drinking water and pasture lands have become polluted from the radioactive waste that the uranium companies have spilled on their land.

The MNJ feels this situation should be rectified. Their rebellion in the 1990s resulted in negotiations, and a peace agreement that required the government to provide development, jobs, health care, education, and incorporation of Tuaregs into governance and the military. But thirteen years later, the government of Niger has not come through with their end of the agreement. The Tuareg people are still suffering, and there is no sign of any improvement. The government denies that there is any problem, and refuses to discuss it through normal, democratic channels.

Why Can't They Just Lay Down Their Weapons and Be Peaceful?

The Tuaregs have taken up arms *in desperation,* because they can't get a voice in their democratic country. They continue to be marginalized, nothing has been done to move forward with the terms of the peace agreement signed 13 years ago, the government won't listen to their problems, and they feel they simply have no other choice left to them.

To understand their perspective further, we can learn something from David Kaplan's article, "The Coming Anarchy" (1994). In his article, Kaplan discusses current conflicts around the world, particularly in Africa. Warfare has a lot to do with resource scarcity. And Niger is the Poorest Country in the World( IRIN, 2007; UNDP Human Development Report, 2006). Food insecurity is an annual problem.

In America, it seems inconceivable that a group would take up arms because they have insufficient resources, except perhaps in areas where people are living below the poverty level -- gang wars in impoverished inner-city ghettos, for example. Most of us eat three decent meals a day, and have an income that supports a lifestyle that is unfathomly luxurious by Nigerien standards.

Middle-class Americans and Europeans will find it shocking that "a large number of people on this planet, to whom the comfort and stability of a middle-class life is utterly unknown, find war and a barracks existence a step up rather than a step down" (Kaplan, 1994). As Martin van Creveld says in his book The Transformation of War, "Just as it makes no sense to ask "why people eat" or "what they sleep for," so fighting in many ways is not a means, but an end" (p. 161) -- fighting itself becomes the only meaningful act left in a society where people don't have enough to eat, and not enough basic needs are getting met such as jobs and health care.

Kaplan expresses it best in his "stretch-limo" analogy: "Think of a stretch-limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction" (Kaplan 1994).

In Niger, it's especially pressing on the Tuaregs, who live on land that is rich in resources -- worth millions in uranium revenues -- and yet they are denied any benefit. The government has shown itself to be seriously corrupt -- enough to result in a vote of no-confidence in 2007 (IHT, May 2007). MNJ alleges that the President, Tandja, has stolen uranium funds that were designated for development in the North, and put them in his own foreign bank account (MNJ, Dec. 9, 2007). Ethnic hostility has been heated up, MNJ alleges, through government "hate campaigns" against the Tuareg people on national TV, radio and on the Internet (MNJ, July 14, Sept. 27, Oct. 5, Nov. 1, Dec. 4, 2007). The government has sent its army out without proper direction, and the result has been illegal arrests, torture and massacres of innocent civilians (Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, Dec. 19, 2007). The government has isolated the Tuareg people from the media, and banned relief aid and humanitarian efforts from reaching them (IRIN, Dec. 10, 2007).

From the Tuareg perspective, they are being treated like prisoners on their own land. The resources are there, on their land, but they cannot receive any benefit. Humanitarian aid has been cut off to them. The rebels are men who have decided to try the only thing left that might help their people get a voice, fighting.

Is Warfare a Rational Choice?

Those who would argue that all warfare is irrational or "wrong" and that the Tuareg rebels should put down their arms and "be quiet" can learn something about human inequality and conflict. Those who do not suffer inequality do not feel it. Those who suffer from unequal treatment and deprivation of basic needs feel it intensely.

In the end,
these urgent concerns of the Tuaregs are not acknowledged
and if their voice is not heard,
because the government has isolated and suppressed the Tuaregs,
and if president Tanjda refuses to negotiate,
* the only meaningful thing that remains *
for the Tuaregs to do,
is to fight.


Agadez-Niger Discussion Forum
Jan. 1, 2008.

Amnesty International
Niger: Extrajudicial executions and population displacement in the north of the country.
December 19, 2007.

Niger Humanitarian access cut to north. Dec. 10, 2007.

Niger: Humanitarian Country Profile. February 2007.

Human Rights Watch
Niger: Warring Sides Must End Abuses of Civilians. December 19, 2007
retrieved on the Internet on January 3, 2007

International Herald Tribune (IHT) - Associated Press
Niger's government dissolves after no-confidence vote. May 31, 2007.

Kaplan, Robert D.
The Coming Anarchy. The Atlantic Monthly. Feb. 1994.

Niger Movement for Justice - Blog (MNJ)
The man worth 3.5 million. December 9, 2007.

Human Development Report. 2006.

van Creveld, Martin
The Transformation of War. Free Press. 1991