July 11, 2008

The Tuaregs at "Ground Zero" of Climate Change

Photo credit: (MNJ) Captain Asharif Mohamed-Moctar.
MNJ claims Asharif, Vice-President of MNJ, was taken alive by the Niger army during MNJ operations that destroyed two MI 24 helicopters that President Tandja had bought with public funds, one crashed at Arlit and the other was brought down at Amar n-Ibliss.
Tandja had sent the helicopters to try to destroy the MNJ base
at Tezirzayt on June 28, 2008, but Tandja's plan failed.
The Niger government claimed that Asharif died in the fighting.
But his body was not recovered. MNJ suspects that the Army is keeping him a prisoner of war.
MNJ has vowed to step up their efforts if they find out he was harmed or killed by the Army after being taken alive as prisoner.
MNJ has abided by international agreements and treated prisoners of war with respect, and releases prisoners of war unharmed.
Asharif ("Asha") is missing in action.


Last night, the Tuareg-led MNJ (Niger Movement for Justice) staged a commando raid and mortar attack on the military post and governor's headquarters in Agadez (regional capital of northern Niger), according to today's MNJ website article, which also features a photograph of an MNJ soldier hoisting a rocket launcher. They say this is only a prelude to what is yet to come. Independent news from Niger is impossible to obtain, since the government of Niger has banned freedom of the press, has forbidden any reporting on the conflict in the north, and has jailed and threatened with the death penalty numerous French and Nigerien reporters who have attempted to report on the conflict.

According to posters on the Agadez-Niger Forum (an Internet blog), it was said that MNJ fighters attacked in massive numbers in vehicles equipped with heavy artillary, launched rockets, and sent the soldiers fleeing in 80 military vehicles back toward Niamey, the capital of Niger. One blog poster also claimed that sporadic gunfire is still being heard in the city tonight; another rumored that the governor's headquarters had been destroyed; and another speculated the MNJ may have taken hostages. (Update: A poster on the Agadez-Niger Forum offered a provisional death toll from the fighting, which they said was confirmed informally through local Agadez sources: 37 military personnel dead, including 3 stationed at the governor's headquarters, and the rest presumably at the military garrison. The same poster also said there were skirmishes between mutinous soldiers and pro-Tandja soldiers. Agadez-Niger Forum, July 12, 2008).

The only authorized sources of news from Niger are certain government officials, and since they represent the state position on the conflict, they are likely to be biased. (Update: The governor of Agadez later told Radio France International that the MNJ raid involved "rocket and heavy weapons fire" but the damages and casualties were not "serious." - Reuters July 12, 2008).

Last week, MNJ also took down two helicopters sent out by the government of Niger to attack the MNJ base at Tezirzait, according to their website. Niger's president continues to deny there is any rebellion, a year and a half since the start of the fighting, and doggedly refuses to open a dialogue.

Shortly before the MNJ attack on Agadez yesterday, and some 700 miles away, 30,000 Nigeriens marched in the streets of Niamey, protesting ongoing electricity blackouts and significant increases in the price of basic foods, in the same country that made international headlines in 2005 when 3 ½ million of its citizens were starving. Back in 2005, Niger's president denied there was any famine. The people want to know: Why is Niger the world's third largest supplier of uranium, which provides cheap electricity for their former French colonizers, but Niger continues to be one of the world's poorest countries, and lacks reasonably priced food and reliable electricity? (Reuters July 10, 2008).

Many Nigeriens have important reasons for being discontented and angry at the government. In the north, many Tuareg families today are hungry, frightened, and fleeing their homeland following months of violent conflict, where the government has targeted the ethnic group living in the midst of the uranium regions, and sent its army to commit human rights abuses, arbitrarily arrest them, burn their homes, slaughter their livestock, poison their wells, rape, torture and kill them, all documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (Amnesty International Dec. 19, 2007; Human Rights Watch Dec. 19, 2007; PANA June 16, 2008).

The strategy of Niger's leadership seems to be aimed at emptying Tuareg communities where Chinese and other countries' uranium and oil interests have lined his pockets. He is using the public coffers to buy war toys to fight with the Tuareg-led movement for justice, while neglecting the hungry, angry, confused people across Niger. In his determination to deny famine, deny political grievances, and deny the rebellion, he has let Niger go to pot.

In the past year the president of Niger has handed out contract after contract to numerous companies in China, France, Japan, India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the U.S., to exploit Niger's material wealth -- uranium and oil, buried in the ancient territories of government-oppressed Tuareg people. For each contract he has accepted funds, guaranteeing the exploitation of natural resources that have yet to be mined and drilled, and that can't be mined and drilled, because the Tuareg-led MNJ is fighting for justice for the people of Niger -- for a distribution of the uranium funds that will ensure development of the country.

The Tuaregs don't agree that they should be living in abject poverty and starving, when they are living on land that is rich with uranium. They want food, jobs, schools, education, and development. Others in Niger feel the same way. Why is Niger continually suffering from food insecurity and severe poverty, when it has all these resources? Where is the money going?

With the uranium and oil proceeds, the president of Niger has purchased millions of dollars of weapons, including expensive helicopters and hired mercenaries (the MNJ website says one of the helicopter pilots was Moldavian), for the sole purpose of attacking Tuareg insurgents and terrifying the Tuareg nomad families and gardeners who live around the Azawagh Valley and the Air Mountains, to "finish off" the rebellion, rout the Tuaregs out of the mining areas, and make way for foreign investors to exploit the uranium and oil.

The Niger power elites have continually framed the MNJ fighters as "bandits" and even "terrorists," in a bid to gain military support from the same world powers who have bought into the uranium and oil contracts.

But the MNJ fighters have a clear goal: they want justice, and they are willing to fight for it, since the Niger power elites are deaf to their grievances; blind to the reality of malnutrition, starvation, and high food costs; and have failed in their responsibility as governors to provide basic food security, energy, and development for the people.

The United Nations has also begun to look more critically at the activities of government leaders in West Africa: According to Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the drug trafficking problem detected in West Africa in 2004, and 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)

In early June, the UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on conflict, Jan Egeland, traveled through conflicted Mali and Niger to visit the "ground zero of vulnerable communities struggling to adapt to climate change," and he noted that the rural people are apparently "feeling very marginalized from the development process," which is an important source of the conflict. He said that "the UN could and should do more to help with reconciliation at the local level, local development and empowerment for farmers and agricultural communities in the north and pastoralists." Egeland also said, "There are people here who are advocating for a military solution to the rebellions, armed attacks and smugglers," but he points out that "The army is a solution against smuggling and drug trafficking certainly, but legitimate social, political and cultural grievances cannot be met that way. They require investment, development and dialogue." (IRIN, June 2 & June 4, 2008)


Agadez-Niger Forum (discussion blog)
Riposte du MNJ: Agadez à feu et à sang. July 11, 2008.

Agadez-Niger Forum (discussion blog)
Attaque d'Agadez: Bilan 37 Morts. July 12, 2008.

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

Egeland, Jan. IRIN. June 4, 2008.
United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks
West Africa: Sahel Climate Change Diary - Day 2

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

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

IRIN. June 2, 2008.
United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks

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

MNJ Blog. July 12, 2008.
Attack on the military company and the governorate of Agadez.

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

Reuters. July 12, 2008.
Niger Rebels Attack Northern Town With Mortars.