March 18, 2008

Abe Lincoln in the Sahara

"We will bring our confrontation to the heart of the country, in the heart of this monster that absorbs all the soul of a democratic country whose sons have shed their blood, to emerge as "the power of the People by the people and for the people." -- Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), March 18, 2008

Abe Lincoln in the Sahara

The news blackout continues in Niger, and the only news about Tuaregs these days comes from news releases from Niamey to the international press, or else the Tuareg-led rebels' internet site. Both local and international journalists have been incarcerated and threatened with the death penalty for attempting to report impartially on the rebellion in the North. The Niger government refuses to open a dialogue on significant social, economic and political issues that the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) has made public through its website and through interviews with its representatives which have made international press. The Niger government has persistently labeled the rebel movement "armed gunmen" and "bandits," denying that there is any "rebellion" going on in Niger.

However, the facts speak for themselves: the multi-ethnic, Tuareg-led MNJ is a modern army with political objectives. Their actions over the past year reveal that they are a well-trained and highly successful military organization with a focused, clearly articulated political agenda. They have attacked numerous military installations, appropriated substantial government arsenals and vehicles, and taken dozens of military hostages, including government representatives. Their range of operations extends well beyond their Air Mountain stronghold, to Tanout in the south -- and this week, just 125 miles north of Niamey at Banibangou in the far west. They have initiated one successful attack after another, and have demonstrated that they are a substantial force to be reckoned with. Niger's army has been defeated repeatedly.

A daring pair of French reporters made a clandestine visit to the MNJ headquarters in northern Niger a few weeks ago. On French TV they aired candid views of MNJ President Aghaly ag Alambo seated amid some of their prisoners, including the Prefet of Tanout (see TCN news summary in the left-hand sidebar; view photo story here). The video footage reveals what appears to be a well-organized military operation, MNJ soldiers in uniforms, substantial sophisticated weaponry, rigorous training programs, and a calm, focused leader.

The actual number of MNJ forces is unknown, but according to their website, as of seven months ago they had over 2,000 fighters. They have received more fighters since then, including many soldiers who have defected from the Niger army and the FARS (the Tubu-led Forces armées révolutionnaires du Sahara), headed by Commandant Kindo Zada. They are a multi-ethnic force that includes Hausa army officers.

MNJ has an elite commando unit, the TIR (Troupes d'Intervention Rapides) that has staged many highly-successful commando-style surprise attacks, for example, the Agadez airport last summer and the major military installation at Tanout in January to mention a few. Many MNJ members were trained by U.S. marines as part of the Pan Sahel and Trans-Sahara anti-terrorism initiatives in 2003-2006. One source suggests that all 130 members of the U.S.-trained Niger Rapid Intervention Company defected from the army to join the MNJ. The MNJ, then, appears to be far more than "armed gunmen" or a "tribal army," but a modern military organization with seasoned soldiers trained in the best of traditions, by the American military. What makes the Tuareg-led MNJ formidable vis-à-vis the national army is their heritage of native navigation capabilities and combat experience in the Sahara, in addition to their sophisticated military training with U.S. marines and their ability to mobilize their units quickly, efficiently and effectively. In short, the MNJ is well-equipped and well-prepared to handle security issues in the Sahara. It has been suggested that Niger would do well to create a special force of these skilled trackers and fighters, and use them to protect the country's borders, instead of waging war on them (Thomas-Hensen and Fick 2007).

MNJ says that it is pro-democracy, and the reason they are fighting is because there is no democracy in Niger: the national government is a sham, a cruel and corrupt dictatorship run by a few political elites who have created a climate of repression and fear in the general population through threats, intimidation, arrests, rape, torture and extrajudicial executions (all of which have been documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Dec. 19, 2007).

According to MNJ (March 18, 2008), there is no legitimate government in Niger. The current regime came into power through the criminal assassination on April 9, 1999 of the people's democratically-elected president, Mainassara Baré, and then the same criminals put themselves in power and wrote a new constitution absolving themselves of the crime. Amnesty International (2000 report) called for an investigation, but there never was one. MNJ says that those in power in Niamey are the very criminals who assassinated the legitimate president, and therefore, MNJ does not recognize them as a legitimate government.

From the perspective of MNJ, there are no democratic channels they can go through to pursue their claims peacefully, because there is no democratic government in Niger. They claim that Niger is a government of unpunished crooks and assassins operating outside the Constitution, who create ethnic hatred, promote inequality, oppress the people and embezzle public funds instead of putting the funds toward the country's development and alleviation of the dire poverty in Niger. They claim that the current regime persistently abuses human rights and suppresses freedom of speech so that citizens are afraid to speak out, identify and discuss the issues.

Following their successful attack Monday, March 17, 2008 on the administrative post at Banibangou just 125 miles north of Niger's capital at Niamey, MNJ says it is dedicated to the establishment of true democracy in Niger, and they will continue their fight: "We will bring our confrontation to the heart of the country, in the heart of this monster that absorbs all the soul of a democratic country whose sons have shed their blood, to emerge as "the power of the People by the people and for the people," referencing a famous statement by American President Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, which is reproduced below:

"Four score and seven years ago [1776, the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war [1861-1865, the American Civil War], testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war [Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle was fought July 1-3, 1863; it was the battle with the most casualties, often considered the turning point of the American Civil War]. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people [democracy], shall not perish from the earth." (Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address dedicating a national cemetery to those slain in the battle there.)


Amnesty International
Niger: The Right To Justice. [Call for investigation of Pres. Mainassara Baré's April 9, 1999 assassination.]
2000 report

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

Human Rights Watch
Niger: Warring Sides Must End Abuses of Civilians.
December 19, 2007

Mouvement Nigerien pour la Justice (MNJ)
The Constitutional Lies of an Illegitimate Regime.
March 18, 2008

Thomas-Hensen, Colin and Maggie Fick
Foreign Assistance Follies in Niger. CSIS Africa Policy Forum. (Center for Strategic and International Studies).
Sept. 4, 2007

Pourquoi les rebelles touareg se battent. Photo story.

Second Tuareg Rebellion. [Note: None of the sources referenced in this article by the statement that all 130 members of the Niger Rapid Intervention Company defected from the army to join the MNJ actually contain that information; therefore, while it could very well be true, the information remains merely an opinion or suggestion until the source is properly verified.]