France still stiffing nuclear test victims

Johnny Magdaleno reported extensively on France’s failure to compensate involuntary civilian test subjects in a piece for Al Jazeera America headlined “Algerians suffering from French atomic legacy, 55 years after nuke tests”

If you thought U.S. nuclear tests were bad (and they were), the French nuclear tests make them look like a paragon of ethics by comparison. The U.S. did battlefield nuclear tests on soldiers near fake towns/farms in the desert and tests near island populations in the Pacific. The French just rounded up Algerians and tested nukes near existing villages. Many people weren’t even warned that there would be testing happening nearby and some went blind from the flash(es). 27,000-60,000 Algerians were affected by atmospheric and underground nuclear weapons tests, directly and over time from subsequent effects.

Then, after French military activities ended (shortly after Algeria’s independence from mainland France), the military lightly buried all the contaminated equipment (leaving it to unsuspecting local salvagers) and relocated tests to French Polynesia, much like U.S. tests in/near the Marshall Islands, with similarly devastating effects to islanders.

The United States has at least been making extensive compensation payouts to troops and civilians for decades, while France — as the article details — has barely paid out anything for anyone, to date, despite admitting to responsibility for injuring/harming tens of thousands of people.

Additionally, according to Wikipedia, the 1961 French testing in Algeria may have been responsible for the USSR — and in turn the United States — ending an informal moratorium on atmospheric testing, thus causing scores more nuclear weapons to be unleashed on the planet and escalating tensions ahead of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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.

Odd moments in decolonization: São João Baptista de Ajudá

Fort São João Baptista de Ajudá was an early 18th century Portuguese fortress embedded within the city of Ouidah in Dahomey. The latter was an African kingdom that had itself just conquered the coastal city when Portugal was granted the territory for a fort, and then it became a French colony until 1960, and it was ultimately renamed Benin in 1975 during the country’s Marxist revolution.

While the fort zone and city were influential, initially, in the history of Portuguese slaving in West Africa and in the kingdom’s interface with the European powers, the fort was soon handed to a Brazilian company and later abandoned — whereupon it fell into disrepair until Portugal reclaimed it in the 1860s. But after this brief restoration to power, it rapidly lost influence and territory as France came to power in the kingdom around it. Even a late 19th century effort to establish a Portuguese protectorate over the city ended with complete French control of everything outside the physical walls of the fort. Quietly, Portugal began disengaging and pulling out but continued to assert authority over the “territory” into the second half of the 20th century.

When French Dahomey was decolonized in 1960, the fort at “Ajudá” was still a Portuguese-ruled enclave in Ouidah, and the Portuguese dictatorship was very determined to retain all its overseas possessions (most of which were then in or approaching open revolt, or had already been annexed to other liberated countries). However, despite its military and strategic origins, São João Baptista de Ajudá proved neither very valuable nor defensible a year later when Dahomey’s new republican government demanded control of the enclave. Mainly because it was infinitesimal in size and had almost no people. That being said, those still there seemed pretty darn determined to not go down without a fight … a really, comically pathetic fight.

From the Wikipedia summary of the final event:

Until its annexation by Dahomey in 1961, São João Baptista de Ajudá was probably the smallest recognized separate modern political unit, initially around 1 km2 and being reduced until only 2ha (5 acres) by that time: according to the census of 1921 it had 5 inhabitants and, at the moment of the ultimatum by the Dahomey Government, it had only 2 inhabitants representing Portuguese sovereignty, who tried to burn it rather than surrendering it. When the fort was captured, they were hastily escorted to the Nigerian border and expelled from the country.

So…not exactly the Alamo or 300 Spartans against the Persian Empire.

I assume that the lesson “pick your battles” was not taken to heart by those two residents and their five-acre colony.

In the end, the fort was not burned and was eventually restored as a historic site with funds from the post-colonial Portuguese government some time after the 1975 transition to democracy.

Dramatic engraving of Pirate captain Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts following the capture of 11 ships outside the Portuguese Fort at Ouidah. Engraved by Benjamin Cole.

Dramatic engraving of Pirate captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, following his capture of 11 ships outside the Portuguese Fort at Ouidah in the other dramatic episode it is famous for. Engraved by Benjamin Cole.

Burkina Faso’s Printemps Noir: A Black Spring or a fizzle?

When protesters in Burkina Faso’s capital last Thursday burned the parliament to the ground and forced President Compaoré’s resignation the following day, some there and in other sub-Saharan African nations immediately dubbed the uprising the “Black Spring,” in comparison to the ethnically-labeled Arab Spring of North Africa and the Middle East. They were hoping that Black Africans would have their own moment to try to throw out dictators in a big wave.

Francophone (French-speaking) Twitter was flooded with the phrase “printemps noir” — literally “Black Springtime” — used alongside and in comparison to “printemps arabe,” the French term for the Arab Spring uprising that kicked off in Tunisia in December 2010. Tunisia, like Burkina Faso, was formerly part of the French colonial system, and Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali rose to power in November 1987 just weeks after Blaise Compaoré seized power in Burkina Faso, so the comparisons are natural.

Moreover, there are a number of other sub-Saharan African leaders (see map at bottom) who have been in office either nearly as long or significantly longer, who might be vulnerable to a domino effect like that seen in North Africa, while others with authoritarian leanings from the post-Cold War period who might be looking to extend their rule unconstitutionally or excessively. In the latter category, Rwanda, DR Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, etc. In the former, Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been president since 1982 (and remains entrenched despite recent mounting spillover chaos from the Nigeria insurrection); in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s two “1979 Presidents” (now the world’s longest-serving non-monarch leaders) has passed the 35 year mark and shows no sign of stopping; Uganda; Zimbabwe; etc.

In sum, Reuters reports:

[…] several “Big Men” rulers are approaching the end of their mandates amid concerns that they may try to cling to power by changing their countries’ laws.

Particularly in West Africa, some opposition supporters believe they can thwart such ambitions in the same way that Arabs in North Africa forced out the rulers of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

But how likely is that really? For one thing, it’s still not clear yet that Burkina Faso will successfully move from a military-led “transition” government currently in power toward democratic, civilian rule.

For another, it’s distinctly possible that this is an outlier that won’t be replicated domino-style, as in North Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, Burkina Faso isn’t all that similar to other countries that might appear to be primed for mass uprisings:

The poor, cotton-producing state south of the Sahara desert already had a tradition of street protest and military-supported social uprisings. Marxist military captain Thomas Sankara led a popular revolution in 1983 inspired by Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba in the late 1950s.
However, they face more firmly entrenched rulers and elites than did the protesters in Burkina Faso. Crucial to the success of Compaore’s overthrow was army sympathy with the disgruntled masses, following a 2011 military revolt over unpaid bonuses.
By contrast, presidents of wealthy oil-producing states, such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos or Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema [both 35 years in power], can use state resources to grease the wheels of political patronage and invest in the loyalty of their military hierarchies.

Plus, they have the added advantage of seeing this coming from farther off, in part by having watched the missteps and failed suppression of the Arab Spring uprisings in some countries — as well as the far more “successful” suppression or avoidance tactics employed by some of the rulers of potential Arab Spring countries, such as the Kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan.

On the other hand, sometimes these things have a habit of getting away from you and beating expectations:

But veteran leaders cannot underestimate their increasingly vocal young urban populations. Millions of youngsters are coming onto the labour market and if their hunger for jobs, equality and a greater political say is not met, this could be a demographic time bomb for those who are reluctant to go.

After all, most observers (me included, to be sure) didn’t expect the Tunisian revolution’s example to explode so quickly and strongly into Libya, Egypt, or Yemen — and result in the collapse of their strongmen.

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré's 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré’s 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)