July 30, 2008

Niger's Human Rights Groups Take the Government to Task

Human rights groups in Niger took an important step today toward getting some clarification on where all the money is going in the deals between China's national petroleum organization (CNCP) and the Niger government.

This suggests heightened levels of popular action to fight government corruption through civic agencies. Government officials' appropriation of public funds is one of the main factors that has limited development in Niger. Neglect for development of areas inhabited by the Tuareg people in the north (jobs, education, medical care, economic programs, and environmental safety and conservation) has been one of the main motivating factors in the current Tuareg-led conflict.

China struck up a $5 Billion dollar deal on June 3, 2008, to exploit Niger's oil, and now, Nigeriens are beginning to question where the $300 Million dollars in up-front "signature bonuses" are going. The rights groups are organized into a "Network of Organizations for Transparency and Budgetary Analysis" (ROTAB). (Reuters, July 29, 2008)

ROTAB has called for a parliamentary investigation of the $5 Billion dollar oil contract. The rights groups are concerned that the funds won't be used to benefit the people of Niger, because the deal was made in secret, and Niger government officials refuse to explain to people how the money will be used. A mining union in Niger said that not only was the deal made in secrecy, but it was made with impunity, "with contempt for regulation" (BBC News, July 30, 2008) Analysts have noted that in many African countries, funds from foreign resource exploitation have benefited the political elites, without disclosure of where the funds went. (AsiaNews/Agencies, July 31, 2008)

During the colonial era, African populations never gained any significant development because their natural resources were appropriated by European colonizers. (BBC July 30, 2008) After Independence, the new African power elites have been making the deals for mineral exploitation, but still, development is sorely lacking in many areas. (See TCN's article on Neocolonialism in Niger, here.) Numerous energy-hungry countries around the world are vying for contracts and offering lucrative bonuses to government officials for contracts in Niger's mining and oil concerns. Enormous funds are going into government coffers, but they are not being parlayed into development projects to benefit the people.

The Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) has been asking similar questions over the past year and a half. MNJ has alleged that the up-front cash advances that China provided the Niger government for uranium exploitation went into the pockets of the power elites, instead of being spent on development for the country. (MNJ, December 9, 2007) The MNJ also accuses China of supplying weapons to Niger in exchange for uranium concessions. (Reuters, July 29, 2008).

The Tuareg-led MNJ claims that the reason they took up arms in February 2007 was because the government kept refusing to listen to their demands for development and an equitable distribution of income from the uranium deals. The MNJ is an armed political movement that says they want a democratic voice, and inclusion of all ethnic groups, including the Tuareg people who have been marginalized for decades. The Niger government has labeled the MNJ "bandits" and "terrorists" because they have used illegal force, including attacks on military installations, to try to get negotiations with the government. The Niger government has refused to acknowledge that there is a rebellion in the north, refuses to open a dialogue with the MNJ, and has been pursuing a military solution to silence the MNJ's claims.

Government corruption has been an ongoing challenge in Niger, and the U.S. has made efforts on several fronts to try and help Nigeriens combat corruption, according to reports from the Department of State. If corruption could be tackled, there would be more funds for development of the country.

For example, before Niger's president announced a "state of alert" in August 24, 2007 when travel to the north became restricted, the U.S. was participating in youth-oriented programs throughout Niger to help bring awareness to corruption issues, and to promote peace and tolerance between groups, as well as freedom of the press, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of State. (U.S. DOS May 23, 2008).

On May 2 & 3, 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey helped organize a 2-day workshop to promote freedom of the press, something the U.S. did last year, as well. (American Embassy, Niamey, May 2-3 2008 announcement) The government of Niger has had heavy restrictions on journalists over the past year, and has jailed and threatened journalists with the death penalty for reporting on news that is not authorized by the government. (See TCNs article on the Climate of Repression in Niger, here.)

Also, the U.S. has provided $23 Million funding and public diplomacy programs to Niger, in part, to help government officials identify corruption and combat it, through the "Threshold Program" signed on March 31, 2008. (MCC March 17, 2008) USAID will administer the program in Niger. "The U.S. government funds programs to reduce corruption through activities such as strengthening the legal framework, improving public procurement systems, and supporting civil society and media anti-corruption efforts." (U.S. DOS May 23, 2008)

The rights groups in Niger, Network of Organizations for Transparency and Budgetary Analysis (ROTAB), are demanding to know how the Niger government is going to spend the $300 Million it has already gotten from China in signature bonuses for signing the oil contract. They say there hasn’t been any transparency. Niger has been one of the world's poorest countries for years, even though it's a major producer of uranium and soon will become a major producer of oil, too. Why does Niger remain so poor, even with all the income from uranium and oil exploitation? Where is the money going?

"Official corruption" was one of the government abuses cited in the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights for Niger for the year 2007 (U.S. DOS March 11, 2008). "Government respect for human rights decreased during 2007," says the report, citing extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force by the army, arbitrary arrests and detention, interference by the executive branch of government with the court system, restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of movement, forcible dispersal of demonstrators, and violence against women. All these abuses have been documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which cited the rape of Tuareg women, forced "disappearances" of Tuareg civilians, slaughter of Tuareg civilians and their livestock, burning of Tuareg homes, schools and food stores, as well as mass graves of Tuareg civilians. (See TCN's article on the human rights situation in Niger, here, and a recent update, here.) Official corruption, considered a human rights abuse, increased during 2007.

According to the U.S. Department of State report, corruption in Niger "remained pervasive" in 2007 (U.S. DOS March 11, 2008). Judges feared they would be reassigned if they gave decisions unfavorable to the government, and kinship, clan and ethnic ties influenced court decisions; big-time criminal suspects were let go, and they could leave the country if they wanted to. Military personnel demanded bribes at checkpoints throughout the country, and civil servants demanded bribes from citizens for processes requiring bureaucratic red tape. Even though there are laws against corruption in Niger, "officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity," and the World Bank said that "corruption was a severe problem." Such practices were described in the DOS report as "a culture of impunity."

Among the corruption cases cited in the DOS report were embezzlement of $53,600 by the director of the government-owned city planning and construction corporation; $205,000 by the president of the Niamey city council, $89,000 by the president of the city council of Maradi, just to mention a few. (U.S. DOS March 11, 2008). In May 2007, Niger's government was dissolved after a "no confidence" vote in parliament, following allegations that the Prime Minister Hama Amadou and his cronies embezzled $1.2 Million dollars of international aid that was intended for Niger's impoverished schools. (IHT, May 31, 2007) He resigned in 2007 but remained in charge of the governing political party MNSD. In July 2008 the former Prime Minister was tear-gassed and violently arrested and jailed on new charges for embezzling nearly $240,000. He says the charges were trumped up to keep him from running for president in the upcoming elections, and to pave the way for the current president, Tandja Mamadou, to illegally extend his presidential term another five years without opposition. (TransWorld News, June 27, 2008)

Over half of the people of Niger struggle to survive off less than $1 a day (UN Common Database: 60.56% in 1995), and many are malnourished. This includes the majority of the Tuareg people in the north, living on the seasonal pasture lands where contracts have been handed out for foreign uranium mining, where there has been little government-funded development for decades. In 2005, some 3.5 Million Nigerians were reported by international agencies as malnourished and starving, and the government denied there was a famine.

A Gallup Poll of 1,000 Nigeriens that was conducted a year ago in August 2007 showed that people's trust in the integrity of the media and confidence in their government had dramatically declined since the previous year. Only a little over half (57%) of the people had confidence in the media, and less than half (47%) had confidence in the government. Two out of three Nigeriens say that government corruption is "widespread." Nigeriens have become increasingly less confident in the honesty of elections (46%) and the judicial system (49%). (Gallup Poll, July 22, 2008)

The United Nations has also pointed to the role of corrupt government leaders in connection with drug trafficking in West Africa. Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says that the drug cartels that have set up smuggling bases in Mali and Niger are fueled by "corruption in local governments and authorities." (Fletcher Pascal, Reuters, July 10, 2008)

Some foreign donors have been putting pressure on the Niger government to fight corruption, and a few citizens and civil society organizations have been trying to do something about it, although corruption in Niger's political and legal systems make people fearful of speaking out.

The U.S. has been providing funds and training to help Nigeriens remedy the corruption, through the new "Threshold Program" that just started this year. Citizens and officials have been afraid to speak out in the past, fearing government retributions. But now, it seems, the human rights organizations in Niger are finally beginning to come into their own, encouraged, in part by the American anti-corruption programs. This is a positive step in the direction of achieving a more democratic governance, but the rights groups must now follow through to achieve their goal of government transparency.

If the people of Niger can get control over the corruption problem, there's a chance that the country's income from uranium and oil could provide some much-needed development for the entire country, including the Tuareg people who live in the middle of the uranium mining area in the north, who are living in abject poverty, as well as the many Tuareg refugees who have fled in fear of the army's killing and torturing of civilians over the past year.

The human rights groups have made a good start. The move toward democratic processes must come from the people themselves.

For a good introduction to the problem of government corruption in African countries written by a Kenyan student, click here. (Business Daily Africa July 28, 2008)

For an incisive overview of China's role in Africa, with commentary on China's role in promoting government corruption, click here. (MailOnline UK, July 18, 2008)


American Embassy, Niger
U.S. Sponsored Media Workshop on Press Freedom.
May 2-3, 2008.

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

AsiaNews/Agencies. July 31, 2008
Protests in Niger Over Oil Extraction Deal with China.


BBC News. Will Ross.
Outcry Over China-Niger Oil Deal. July 30, 2008


Business Daily Africa. Mfonobong Nsehe (Kenyan student, communications major).
Leaders' Excesses Will Sink Africa Into Deeper Poverty. July 28, 2008.


Fletcher, Pascal. Reuters. July 10, 2008.
World Must Act to Halt Drugs Threat to West Africa -UN

Gallup Poll. Magali Rheault. July 22, 2008.
Trust in Government, Media Declines in Niger.


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

IHT. International Herald Tribune. Associated Press.
Niger's Government Dissolves After No Confidence Vote. May 31, 2007.


MailOnline. UK. Andrew Malone.
How China's Taking Over Africa, and why the West should be VERY worried.


Massalatchi, Abdoulaye. Reuters. July 10, 2008.
Thousands Protest In Niger Against Power, Food Woes

MCC Millennium Challenge Corporation
Niger Launches $23 Million Millennium Challenge Threshold Program to Promote Girls’ Education, Combat Corruption, Reduce Red Tape

March 17, 2008


Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) Blog.

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

PANA. June 16, 2008.
Amnesty International Nails Niger Over Extra-Judicial Killings.

Reuters, Abdoulaye Massalatchi
Niger groups condemn $5 bln oil deal with China
July 29, 2008


TransWorld News.
Former Niger Prime Minister Hama Amadou Arrested on Corruption Charges. June 27, 2008.


U.N. Common Database


U.S. Department of State
Niger: Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports 2008
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
May 23, 2008

U.S. Department of State
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2007
March 11, 2008