I had not intended to write on the controversies surrounding Robert Fowler, but the story keeps making headlines, so I will try and piece the events together as best I can.
In July 2008, Ban Ki-Moon appointed Fowler, a former Canadian ambassador, as UN Special Envoy to Niger. Fowler was tasked with helping to find a solution to the Tuareg conflict in the Agadez region in the north of the country.
Fowler was kidnapped near Niamey in mid-December 2008 by militants who turned out, the BBC later reported, to be affiliated with AQIM. A group of four European tourists were kidnapped in January 2009 and held with Fowler and his aide Louis Guay. Fowler, Guay, and two of the tourists were released in April; of the remaining captives one, British citizen Edwin Dyer, was executed by AQIM in June, while the final hostage was released in July.
So far as I understand it, those are the facts. Now the controversies begin:
- In early September, Fowler stated his belief that his itinerary was leaked to his kidnappers by either the government of Niger or the UN. He pointed a finger at Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja in particular:
Fowler said the government of Niger and in particularly President Mamadou Tandja “hated my mission”.
“It was clear from the first time I met him in August that he [Mr Tandja] was offended, annoyed and embarrassed by the fact that the secretary general of the UN [Ban Ki-moon] had seen fit to appoint a special envoy for his country.”
Analysts say Mr Tandja has had a fractious relationship with the UN during his 10 years in power.
During a food crisis in 2005 when 3.5 million people were left hungry, he accused UN agencies of exaggerating the country’s problems in order to get donor funds.
- Both the Nigerien ambassador in Canada and the UN strongly denied Fowler’s allegations.
- Now, Mali’s government says that four AQIM members were freed to secure Fowler’s release. Malian officials also confirm that a ransom was paid.
Speaking in detail for the first time about the circumstances that led to the diplomats’ release, Mali officials said they felt under heavy pressure to find ways to resolve the hostage situation, to the point they were worried that Canada might withdraw aid if the hostages were not freed.
Canada’s aid to Mali has increased sharply in recent years, from about $20-million in 2002 to more than $100-million last year. Mali is now one of the five biggest recipients of Canadian aid, and it is one of the few African countries to remain on Ottawa’s trimmed-down priority list for foreign aid this year.
Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, director of the Northern Mali Development Agency in the Mali government, said the four prisoners were released because Canada is a “big partner” of the country and needed to be kept happy. The prisoners who were involved in bomb-making were “very dangerous” but “not very well-known,” he said in an interview.
- Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (previous link) “has denied that his government made any concessions, [but] he would not discuss whether other governments might have offered considerations to the kidnappers on behalf of Canada.”
- Additionally, a Malian businessman who helped broker Fowler’s release says he has not been paid for his efforts. The Globe and Mail reports there is some controversy around this man, Baba Ould Sheik, as well.
- Finally, there is some dispute over the role Tuareg rebels may have played in the kidnapping. Some sources told the BBC that a Tuareg group originally seized Fowler, implying the Tuaregs later handed him and others off to AQIM.
So there you have it. I am not in a position to evaluate all these different claims, but at the very least it’s clear that few of these actors – whether the individuals or the governments involved – trust each other. That lack of trust makes untangling the different accounts complicated, if not impossible, for the outside observer. And that lack of trust also suggests that these actors had a difficult time coordinating their efforts, and may again if a similar situation arises.
Any insights welcome – drop them in the comments.