Why did Niger explode in violent protests on Charlie Hebdo?

More than 40 churches were burned in two-day riots in Niger this past weekend ostensibly over the publication of the post-attack edition of Charlie Hebdo with yet another cartoon of Muhammad on the cover.

niger-map-ciaAs the BBC notes in the quotes below, a reaction of some kind in Niger wouldn’t be out of the ordinary — there were, after all, also protests (some violent) in Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, and other countries on the same day the riots in Niger began — but the intensity was startling.

(Moreover, Niger doesn’t have a serious Christian-Muslim sectarian split the way Central African Republic’s now war-torn population does, which would normally be a prerequisite factor for explosive and seemingly sectarian violence like this.)

Niger’s population is 99% Muslim, so it wasn’t a surprise that there was a reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s caricature. But what was surprising was the scale of the subsequent protests and violence. Similar demonstrations in the past have been conducted peacefully, and even the authorities could not come up with an answer as to why the latest riots turned ugly.

So what are some of the suggested reasons for the widespread reaction? From the same BBC analysis:

One school of thought is that protesters were angry about their president attending the solidarity march of world leaders in Paris after the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office.

A second theory is that the violence was fuelled as much by politics as religious grievance – an idea given credence by the fact that protests started in the opposition stronghold of Zinder.

The last and the most complex theory relates to Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group from neighbouring Nigeria. Officials are reportedly investigating whether the group were involved in stoking the protests – they say a Boko Haram flag was seen – though whether the government is merely exploiting the group to gain outside sympathy remains to be seen.

I would also venture a possible fourth hypothesis, bridging the first and second as well as the specific and unusual targeting of Catholic Churches.

Niger, in the post-colonial period, has been subjected to an exceptionally high level of French meddling and military presence relative even to the other former French colonies. In large part, this is because of France’s large domestic nuclear power capacity, which in turn depends heavily on access to uranium deposits in Niger. Niger is extremely poor, extremely underdeveloped, and extremely unstable (very coup-prone). People are persistently pretty miserable, and France has been fairly heavy-handed about interfering in politics and security affairs to ensure continued stability of access to uranium but hasn’t offered much else.

In a country that is 99% Muslim and continues to face seemingly neo-colonialist, extractive involvement by France, Catholic Churches are probably the most visible and plentifully distributed symbols of continued French influence in Niger. If I were angry at my largely failed government (or wave after wave of governments whose only consistent feature was loyalty to the former occupier), I might start looking pretty disapprovingly at those easily reachable (and thus targetable) symbols of colonialism and failed pro-French governance. Combine that with another visible show of support by the local government for the concerns of the French citizenry (and an offensive magazine that often seemed to traffic in offensive colonial-era tropes) over the Nigerien population, and it’s a particularly volatile mix.

I don’t know if this is what the rioters were actually thinking when they attacked the churches, but it would probably make the most sense as an explanation in a situation where there had not been a recent history of sectarian religious war. In that light, the riots would not be religiously grounded but rather a reaction to the French system and continued abuses of the people, locally and from abroad.

Unfortunately, this kind of instability will probably only make France reinforce its permanent military presence in the country because it will convince them they were right not to trust the locals to maintain the stability and security of the country’s uranium deposits, upon which France relies so heavily.

France and Nigeria terrorism: Dramatically different coverage

In April 2014, almost 300 girls attending a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria were kidnapped from their school in the middle of the night. They were abducted by an Islamic extremist group dubbed Boko Haram, who have been launching attacks against schools and villages in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

Sadly, they targeted the girls in part because of their belief that the “inauthentic” colonialism-descended education system is a sin. The girls’ schooling was detrimental to their mission to overthrow the Nigerian government in order to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state. Making things worse was the lack of media coverage of the kidnapping. It seemed that the information about the kidnapping only reached international headline news after a heavy Twitter campaign, under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

The little coverage that it did receive was short lived, and in some ways disrespectful. The French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, even depicted the kidnapped girls as pregnant, Black and Muslim Welfare Queens. The cartoon ignores the fact that the kidnapped girls were kidnapped from a Christian school and are most likely Christian themselves. It also belittles the fact that the girls are being forced into marriages and are victims of sexual assault. Instead, the cartoon relies on racist tropes for the sake of “satire” (satire being in quotes because comedy at the expense of the oppressed isn’t satirical and rarely funny).

Last week, 8 months after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, a shooting occurred at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, and 12 people were killed. The media was quicker to pick up on this story and the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie rapidly became a trending topic all over the world, almost drowning out the news that Boko Haram massacred as many as 2000 people and razed 16 villages in a 5-day span the same week as the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Human Rights Watch satellite analysis of Doro Gowon. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

Above: Human Rights Watch satellite analysis of Doro Gowon, Borno state, Nigeria, one of the towns attacked by Boko Haram this month. 57% of the town is estimated to have been burned down based on this image. Click for full image and article in a new window. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

The instant support of Charlie Hebdo and the struggle for support for the Chibok girls says a lot about the narrative that the US and European media wants to compose when it comes to which victims are worthy of sympathy. Despite the offensive cartoon drawn about the Chibok girls by the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad – which is the reason why Charlie Hebdo was specifically targeted by the extremists – it seems as if the magazine has been pushed into almost martyr status.

Marches and rallies are happening all over Europe in solidarity with the magazine, while attacks on Mosques in France are being ignored. Cartoonists have even gone so far as to create the hashtag #CartoonistLivesMatter as an attempt to express the importance of their freedom of speech.

There are hundreds of schoolgirls missing, for most of the past year. Thousands have been displaced in just the past two weeks, with possibly thousands more killed. There are entire generations of families murdered in Northern Nigeria.
Read more

January 14, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 113


Topics: Boko Haram massacre in northeastern Nigeria, the French historical and political contexts of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: January 12th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Why is Western media doing such a bad job of covering the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria?
– Charlie Hebdo attacks: What is the big picture historical and political context of France’s relations with immigrants and Muslims?

Episode 113 (55 min)
AFD 113

Related links
Segment 1

AFD: 2000 “feared dead” in raids by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria
France24: Child used as suicide bomber in Kano market
The Atlantic: Charlie Hebdo: Why Nigeria’s Boko Haram Violence Gets Less Attention
BBC: Boko Haram crisis: Why it is hard to know the truth in Nigeria

Segment 2

Hooded Utilitarian: In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism
The Globe and Mail: In the Mideast, as in France, satire is a weapon against extremists
The Atlantic: Who Was Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim Police Officer Killed by the Charlie Hebdo Massacre?
Buzzfeed: This Muslim Man Saved Several Hostages During The Paris Kosher Market Siege


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.