January 17, 2008

Tuaregs: The Best-Kept Secret In the World

Photo of a lovely Tuareg girl in Niger, by professional photographer Jason Hall, extremeboh, on Flickr.

Tuaregs: The best-kept secret in the world

Europeans have been exotifying the Tuaregs for over a century. Tourist agencies feature posters of "The Blue Men," the fabulous remote Tuaregs, peeking through their "veils" mysteriously with grinning eyes, or sauntering along on swift white camels toward the remotest edges of the Martian-like Saharan landscape.

But today, you will not get to visit the Tuaregs in Niger, because Mamadou Tandja has closed the doors on them. They are a best-kept secret.

Something is going on up there in the North. There are nasty, horrible secrets that the Niger government doesn't want us to find out about. Every year, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported abuses of one sort or another in Niger, some of which may also be found in U.S. Country reports for Niger, but this past year it was particularly bad: The rights reports confirm that the government's army has been going around torturing and killing Tuareg civilians and livestock in the Air Mountains, and leaving mass graves in their wake.

Civilians in the Air have fled the area, leaving their homes in shambles. It is winter in the Sahara, and these families are huddling in the cold, in makeshift camps in the middle of the Sahara, far from their homes, with nothing to eat, in fear, with no hope forthcoming. The government closed off tourist traffic through the area months ago, banned humanitarian aid to the Tuareg people, and essentially declared that anyone who dared to report on the situation would face the death penalty. It's a secret!

For months, the Tuareg-led rebels kept posting messages on their website, pleading for journalists and rights groups to come interview them, and document the government's crimes against civilians. Tuareg civilians in the northern Air Mountains fled in fear of the army's predation on their villages. Because of the news blackout and government's gagging of the press, the only voice left for the Tuaregs was "The Voice of Free Men" -- the Niger Movement for Justice, the Tuareg rebels, who have a website where they regularly report on the developing situation. For months, they kept calling for help, for journalists, for human rights, to come there and see for themselves.

Voice of America reporter Phuong Tran somehow managed to get up to the North and traveled with the rebels for eleven days. Her report came out on Nov. 28. There were no photographs or videotapes, and very few details -- nothing about the army's arrests, torture, and execution of civilians. Most of her report could have been learned by reading the posts on the Niger Justice Movement's website. Her report was heavily guarded, to avoid conflict with Tandja's mandate. After all, it's a secret!

Human rights groups -- Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch -- went to Niger in December to investigate the abuses, but apparently, according to their reports issued on Dec. 19, it seems that they were held in Niamey, and never made it to Agadez or the Air Mountains to see for themselves, and interview the rebels and local people. It would appear that even the human rights groups were limited mainly to hearsay and the opinions of foreign diplomats on what the actual situation was. The bad stuff going on in the North is not to be seen by anybody, because the Niger government has isolated Tuareg regions from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the army has continued to carry out its abuses, slaughtering Tuareg livestock, and terrorizing villagers (as reported on MNJ website). Most of the news about the rebels and the Tuareg population was based on what the MNJ rebel website was reporting, because that was the only voice left in the area. The rebels have been diligent, posting every few days on the army's abuses, accompanied with the grim photographs of mass graves.

Finally, two top-notch European reporters headed out there in early December, Thomas Dandois, and Pierre Creisson. They got permission to report on the bird flu in the south of Niger. Intrepid and daring, these two remarkable men, who recently produced brilliant coverage of the situation in Darfur, figured out a way to get to northern Niger. They found the rebels and they got the story, complete with camera footage. Tandja had his spies following them, and arrested them for interviewing the rebels. He has had them in jail for a month now, awaiting trials and the threat of execution. The Tuareg rebellion in the North is a big secret! And it's a taboo topic in the Niger news, unless reporters practice self-censorship and only say things that reflect the state's bias against the Tuaregs and their rebellion.

Over the past year, numerous reporters have tried to interview the rebels by telephone or through local contacts. But the government had at least 14 journalists arrested in 2007 (IRIN Jan. 14, 2007), for doing what they were trained to do -- and for doing what the Niger Constitution expressly allows them to do -- freedom of the press. Four reporters are languishing in jails right now, awaiting sentencing. Nigerien president Tandja Mamadou has threatened them with the death penalty. Although Niger is allegedly a democracy, and freedom of the press is an integral part of its constitution, Tandja has declared that no reporters shall report impartially on the Tuareg situation in the north, because such reporting is a "threat to security."

Finally, this week, the uranium mining company Areva was able to get a deal -- they paid 50% more this time around, to renew contracts to exploit Niger's uranium. And they vowed to "stay out of Niger's politics." No mention was made of hiring the local Tuaregs to work at the company, which is built on traditional Tuareg lands. No mention was made of making sure that the Tuareg regions would receive development funds -- something that was guaranteed by the Peace Accords of 1995. These are some of the most important reasons that the rebels have taken up arms: in the 13 years since rebels signed a peace agreement, the government has continued to marginalize the Tuareg people, and refuses to honor the terms of the Peace agreement.

The French administration longs for uranium, at such a cost -- the perpetuated impoverishment and cruel treatment of the people on whose lands they have squatted and taken their only riches, with no returns to the local Tuareg population.

Tandja and his cronies are lining their pockets with the uranium funds. They have stepped up the deals with numerous countries, to garner as many advances as possible before their time is up. According to MNJ, Tandja is ferreting public uranium funds designated for development in the North, into foreign bank accounts and real estate. Elections are coming up soon, Tandja is on his way out, and there's no time to waste. Other corrupt politicians may take his place in this racist, sadistic dictatorship.

France wants the uranium. Tandja wants to line his pockets, quickly. Other world powers don't want to interfere; they have their own interests to protect. They turn their heads on the horrors of what's going on in the North, and make deals with a minor Hitler of the third millennium.

SHAME ON AREVA! Shame on the world powers who sit in silence, while thousands of men, women and children are suffering because of your best kept secret!

With local and international reporters incarcerated and awaiting death sentences for even interviewing the rebels for their news reports,
who would dare speak out for justice
-- except for rebels?

"There is no voice of the people
that would dare speak out
against the current dictatorship."

-- Ahmed Akoli, political secretary for MNJ. December 21, 2007


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

Human Rights Watch (report)
Warring Sides Must End Abuses of Civilians.

Dec. 19, 2007

Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice
Niger Movement for Justice Blog (MNJ)

Reuters -- Marie Maitre and Abdoulaye Massalatchi
Areva renews Niger uranium deal, pays 50 pct more.
January 14, 2008

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
Niger: Press Harassment Hinders Development, Watchdogs Warn. January 15, 2008.