Monday, December 15, 2008

Trouble in Niger

The New York Times has a long report on the drive for uranium in Niger, which is threatening to create a conflict between Tuareg nomads who live on but presumably do not own the land wherein the ore is to be found, and the government, which presumably would prefer to profit from mining contracts at their expense:

"A battle is unfolding on the stark mountains and scalloped dunes of northern Niger between a band of Tuareg nomads, who claim the riches beneath their homeland are being taken by a government that gives them little in return, and an army that calls the fighters drug traffickers and bandits.... Uranium could infuse Niger with enough cash to catapult it out of the kind of poverty that causes one in five Niger children to die before turning 5.

Or it could end in a calamitous war that leaves Niger more destitute than ever. Mineral wealth has fueled conflict across Africa for decades, a series of bloody, smash-and-grab rebellions that shattered nations. The misery wrought has left many Africans to conclude that mineral wealth is a curse.

In February 2007, a group of armed Tuaregs mounted an audacious attack on a military base in the Air Mountains. A new insurgency was born. They called themselves the Niger Movement for Justice and unfurled a set of demands: that corruption be curbed and the wealth generated by each region benefit its people.

To fight the rebellion, the government has effectively isolated the north, devastating its economy. International human rights investigators have also documented serious misdeeds on both sides. The rebels use antivehicle land mines that have killed soldiers and civilians, while the army has been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and looting of livestock. In all, hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands have been pushed from their land.
I have some reactions to this aticle. One: this is an important wakeup call, and I'm glad to see Lydia Polgreen reporting on this now, before the situation turns into a bloodbath. Two: observers will note the paralells between the unfolding situation and the origins of the conflict over the Darfur region of Sudan. The grievances and mobilization strategies are identical; the 2004 war and its related atrocities were also sparked by attacks on military bases that provoked a disproportionate response; and now that the Niger government has attack helicopter it is anyone guess whether they will limit their response to hitting "bandits" or go wholesale against villages. Current signs aren't promising, and surely this is a situation where there is an opportunity for some preventive action. (Empedocles? What might work?)

Third, I will note a slight mischaracterization in the article when the use of anti-tank landmines against military personnel is labeled a "misdeed" in the same paragraph as extrajudicial killings. While the latter is clearly a violation of human rights law as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would apply in this situation, the former is nothing of the sort. Only anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Ottawa Convention, and not being signatorites the Tuareg wouldn't be bound by that anyway. Anti-vehicle mines must only be used so as not to target civilians directly; it's simply collateral damage of they are caught in the crossfire. Since Polgreen's article is otherwise designed, it seems, to provoke sympathy for the rebels, I must assume that this is not intended to suggest moral relativism but rather either a misguided attempt to appear objective, or otherwise a simple error.


Empedocles said...

Like Diodotus, I'm encouraged to see the press taking 'conflict prevention' more seriously, reporting on a situation that is escalating, rather than outright crisis. Still, we are too close to outright crisis in Niger to call this article real early warning, which draws attention to conflicts that are just beginning to escalate.

Niger is already in an advanced stage of escalation: clear incompatible goals exist; no mutually beneficial solution seems possible; at least one party believes that it has the power to substantially alter the aspirations of the other; each opposing side believes that the other is driven by quest for power, and will thus increase its coercive behavior unless it is prevented from doing so. Clearly the Tuareg community feels a sense of grievance and each side is mobilized for combat.

As quarrels escalate over time, the means of waging become more removed from the substantive issues that first gave rise to conflict. The relationship between adversaries become altered through a range of social-psychological processes: groups polarize and moderates are pulled to the extremes, enemy images of the 'other' are held collectively, leading to stereotyping and dehumanization of adversaries. This loosens normative controls on human behavior, leading to more contentious behavior and fueling escalation.

So what to do? The United Nations has a rapid response mediation team set up for precisely this situation. The team ought to be deployed immediately to Niger, to coax the government and Tuareg leaders to the negotiating table. Some equitable framework for mining rights needs to be negotiated before this conflict over rights and resources turns into a protracted conflict over ethnic identity.

LFC said...

You mentioned the parallel to Darfur. One might also note a parallel, perhaps not as close, to the conflict in the oil regions of Nigeria between the govt. and the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

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