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 announces indefinite Sahel deployment

France’s defense minister has just announced plans to create a semi-permanent force of 4,000 troops across the entire Sahel and Sahara in former French West Africa, as it redeploys most of its troops in Mali.

“There will be 1,000 soldiers that remain in Mali, and 3,000 in the Sahel-Sahara zone, the danger zone, the zone of all types of smuggling,” Mr Le Drian said, in a television interview.

“We will stay as long as necessary. There is no fixed date,” he added.

French forces will be based in four regional centres – Mali, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso – Reuters news agency reports.

Smaller bases from which to launch strikes are being set up, with Ivory Coast as the mission’s logistical hub, it adds.

 
I find this development fairly troubling. France should too. Open-ended commitments are rarely a good idea.

However, it’s also not surprising, given the increasing re-involvement of France in the security affairs of its former African colonies in the past decade. A small, permanent force in several locations in or near the Sahel/Sahara is probably the only way (from a feasibility standpoint) that France can both avoid permanent and ineffective occupations (at much higher cost in lives and money) and respond quickly to rising threats, kidnappings, etc., which it feels it must do for its own security.

All the same, this open-ended, rapid-reaction wack-a-mole approach to counterterrorism — where they keep thousands of troops all over West Africa (and Central African Republic nearby) before periodically bursting into neighboring countries for a minute, guns blazing, like Operation Neptune Spear — makes France seem more than a bit neo-colonial.

French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)It also seems like an easy step down the path toward becoming completely mired in an unwinnable, transnational counterinsurgency operation in the Sahel — something others have warned against previously often.

As ever, the Sahel needs more of a Marshall Plan development aid strategy than troop deployments.

US setting up Niger drones base

President Obama is sending 100 US military personnel to Niger, to set up an aerial surveillance drones base at a Nigerien military airfield for the purposes of assisting French operations in northern Mali (as previously announced). The troops will be armed for their own security, but they will not be in a combat zone. Niger, which borders Mali, has faced some of the same issues with its separatist Tuareg population in the Sahel zones of the country. The nation is quite poor and not especially resource-rich, like Mali, with the major exception that it has extensive (if recently dwindling) uranium mines in the north. France recently deployed special forces to protect the Nigerien uranium mines during the intervention in Mali following a retaliatory hostage crisis in Algeria at an oil refinery. 80% of French electricity in nuclear-generated and much of the requisite uranium comes from Niger. Both Niger and Mali are former French colonies.

AFD Ep 37 – Immigration and Cyberwars

“AFD Ep 37 – Immigration and Cyberwar”
Posted: Tues, 05 Feb 2013
Play Now
Description: Bill and Sasha discuss recent unusual developments in Congressional races and then examine the push for immigration reform. Then Bill looks at the NY Times report on the new classified cyber warfare policy review from the Obama Administration, before updating us on the situation in Mali (and neighboring Niger).

Nigerien junta preserves Chinese alliance

It’s about time to do a follow-up post on my informal series of posts on the February military coup in Niger, and along comes a NY Times article on the matter. The Chinese had been underwriting the (previous) Tandja government, according to detractors, and the article says the Chinese made a “smooth” switch to the new regime, which is led by military officers who insist they are cleaning up government in Niger and have pledged elections in the (unspecified) near future. With basically the only significant export being uranium – Niger has some of the world’s largest deposits – the coup government recognized quickly that they needed to maintain the Chinese alliance to prevent collapse and chaos. Add to that the Western pre-coup sanctions that remain in effect until the elections, there was no other option.

China, reportedly, had been supplying the increasingly dictatorial regime with hydroelectricity installations and resource extraction sites that could eventually improve the country’s economy but in the short-term served to bolster the President Tandja. Shortly after the coup, Chinese projects and operations in Niger returned to normal. Tandja remains under arrest.

No word yet on whether China will put up the $132.9 million adequate food to head off an impending hunger crisis, as reported by the United Nations’ news service. Seems unlikely.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Niger junta taking steps to restore democracy

As previously pledged, the military regime that suddenly seized power in Niger from the democratically-elected president just over a week ago in a violent coup d’état has begun taking steps to restore democratic rule:

As its promised transition to democratic rule begins, the military junta that overthrew Nigerien president Mamadou Tandja on February 18 has named a former information minister, Mahamadou Danda, as the new prime minister while retaining legislative and executive powers for itself.

Danda, 59, is seen as unaffiliated to any political party, was appointed on Feb. 23 by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (known by its French acronym, CSRD).

In a declaration broadcast nationally the previous day, CSRD head Djibo Salou was announced as head of state and the government; the junta will, for the moment, have the final word in governing the country.

Marou Amadou, president of a coalition of groups opposed to the ousted president known as the United Front To Safeguard Democratic Gains (FUSAD, after its French acronym) believes this first decree provides further guarantees of the junta’s intention to return power to civilians.

“The length of this transition will be decided after the consultations with all political and social stakeholders in the country announced by the junta,” Amadou told IPS. He hopes the transition will be neither too slow, nor overly hasty.

 
Because of the falling popularity of the democratic administration — due to it’s consolidation of power and the famine conditions nationwide — the coup has been met with generally positive reactions within Niger, though some expressed concern of a repeat of the breakdown of bureaucratic function seen in the months after the more violent 1999 coup.

Outside Niger, there were mixed reactions as most major power diplomatic corps struggled to decide whether to condemn the coup, encourage the rapid reintroduction of democratic norms, or help the average Nigerien get critical food supplies. Since sanctions placed on the democratic regime were already aggravating a food crisis, further sanctions would have been damaging and entirely unproductive. The United Nations pledged food aid, while the United States cautiously urged the junta to continue steps toward democracy and lightly condemned the illegal seizure of power (which involved heavy exchanges of fire right near the US embassy in Niamey). An interview about the coup with the Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Fitzgerald, can be read here.

As I previously examined, Niger is a major uranium-producing country, so there is a good reason for the world to be paying attention to its politics.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

A day later, Niger is calm

Following yesterday’s sudden, violent military coup in the West African nation of Niger, reports suggest all has returned to calm today:

The military junta that overthrew the president of Niger began asserting its authority on Friday, amid signs of public support within the country and condemnation from abroad.

Tanks continued to be posted at strategic locations in the capital, Niamey, a day after an assault on the presidential palace ended in the removal of President Mamadou Tandja, whose turn toward autocracy in the last year had made him widely unpopular in the nation’s cities.

Local journalists said that Mr. Tandja was imprisoned in a military barracks, as supporters of his ouster marched in the capital. “The situation is calm,” said Moussa Kaka, who runs radio station Saraounia and had been jailed by the Tandja government. Mr. Kaka said he and hundreds of others went into the streets of Niamey on Friday in a show of support for the coup. Another demonstration is planned for Saturday.

 
There is some confusion outside the country as to who is in charge of the military regime. Reports I read earlier today say a “squadron leader” was heading the new junta, but the NY Times currently says a major in the army is head of the “Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy,” the junta’s official title. Many past coups in Africa have been led by junior officers (e.g. Army Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso), while most coups in Asia and Latin America have been led by generals, but a squadron leader seemed a bit too junior, so this makes more sense. Earlier today, the military announced that it would be keeping civilian ministers and bureaucrats in office, to keep the government running as smoothly as possible under the circumstances. Several briefly jailed ministers have been released.

UPDATE @ 9:31 PM: I’ve been looking up some stuff about Niger in the CIA World Factbook because I wanted to know more about the uranium deposits. Most of the country is a desert (it’s in the Sahara) and the remaining savanna zone is rapidly being swallowed into the desert by a combination of water depletion by overuse and global warming. Uranium mining is the biggest industry in the country, which is one of the poorest in the world. Uranium is the biggest export, since the salt trade has lots its preeminence over the past several centuries, and Niger probably has the biggest uranium supply worldwide. This unfortunately makes Niger a major chess piece in the modern geopolitical “game.” President Obama just announced yesterday major support for investment in nuclear energy, which due to US laws against repeated enrichment probably means the US needs even more uranium soon, assuming the projects go forward. And I think China is also expanding its nuclear energy program. Basically, this coup will change very little, and the people of Niger will continue to get screwed over by great powers and moneyed interests, as well as by geography.

UPDATE II @ 9:43: I’m also curious about how this coup played out yesterday. I wonder if it was intended to be a bloodless coup or not (it was not). That’s been the more modern trend in military coups. This was pretty violent, by all accounts, with the nearby American embassy staff reporting heavy gunfire and even shelling for several hours, apparently between the presidential guards and the attacking troops. However, the coup leaders notably did not assassinate the president, according to what we know right now, but they merely arrested him and are holding him captive somewhere. This suggests the violence may not have been part of the plan, but it’s also conceivable they would plan on attacking the presidential palace first before making arrests as a scare tactic or a way of eliminating armed opposition quickly… either way, now that they have him in custody, they can spin this to the people and the world as a political intervention to protect democracy, rather than a naked power-grab. It’s also a useful insurance policy if anything goes wrong, much like the Russians during their revolution held the family of the Tsar captive for a while and was rumored to have kept one member alive significantly longer (this has since been disproven). The world these days tends to be much more tolerant of coups that leave the civilian leaders alive than coups that involve bloody, cold-blooded purges of senior officials. They’re not happy with this coup right now, but they’ll be more likely to get over it if the president remains alive.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.