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


July 18, 2008

Who are the Tuareg people?

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

Who are the Tuareg people?

The Tuareg people are Berber-speakers who trace their ancestry to the indigenous peoples of North Africa in ancient times. They share the same language family as the Berber-speakers of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Tuaregs live primarily in Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya, with diasporas in many surrounding countries.

Like most of the people in the northern third of the African continent, the Tuareg people adopted Islam over the past few centuries. Because they are Muslim and herd camels, many Americans and Europeans have confused them with Arabs. But the Tuaregs are not Arabs, and they do not descend from Arabs. Although they adopted some Arab customs in connection with herding practices, Tuareg social traditions are very different from those of Arabs, and they do not claim any affinity with Arabs. They identify themselves as Berber-speakers - Amazighan (pronounced slightly different in each region).

Tuaregs, like other Saharien peoples, including the indigenous African peoples who formed the basis of ancient Egyptian society, describe themselves as "the red people," in contrast to other Africans who are "white" or "black." The ancient ancestors of the Tuaregs lived west of the Nile Delta; they traded with the Egyptians, and several of their leaders ruled pharaonic Egypt for over 200 years.

The Tuareg homeland today is in the Central Sahara, where they have lived for several thousand years since their ancestors began migrating from the northern Sahara following colonization of coastal North Africa by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs.

About 100 years ago, the Tuareg people were divided up into separate countries, under separate administrative governments and artificial national boundaries established by French colonizers. Massacres of Tuareg people began over 100 years ago when they repeatedly resisted French colonial rule. Ever since the independence of these former French colonies, Tuaregs have been minority groups within modern nations ruled predominately by members of sub-Saharan ethnic groups, and Tuareg marginalization and exclusion has continued to the present.

Many Tuaregs were routinely denied food aid and medical care during the major droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of Tuaregs and their livestock died from deliberate neglect, and their territories have been excluded from economic development.

They are among the world's most impoverished and disrespected people, and yet they are widely admired for their historic position as sovereigns of the trans-Saharan trade routes in pre-colonial times, and for their bravery in warfare. They are known as the "Blue Men," for their indigo-dyed garments which leave dark blue pigment on their skins, and as the "Knights of the Sahara" for their generosity, desert hospitality and respect for women.

"Endangered Minds of Niger's Future Generation" Al Jazeera

"Human Cost of War in Niger" - Al Jazeera

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.