The Controversies Around Robert Fowler

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:

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.

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.

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.

18 thoughts on “The Controversies Around Robert Fowler

  1. Couple of links on this. The Tuareg were blamed because the FFR originally took credit for it. The original communique by the FFR is (I’m surprised to say) still on their website, but moved off the main index

    The later denial communique is also still there:

    One could kill an afternoon doing a textual analysis of the differences.

    Somewhat related, Pambazuka’s 2008 series Canada in Africa: The mining superpower.

    • Thanks for these, Tommy. That last link helps clarify some of Canada’s interests in the region.

      Do you have an opinion as to the question of the FFR’s involvement?

  2. FFR’s involvement? Who’s to say.

    Both the Fowler and the later tourist kidnappings along the Anderamboukane/Banibangou road were attributed to Tuareg men. But the description of the Tourist kidnapping I read seemed exceedingly violent. Every description I’ve heard of MNJ kidnappings were the exact opposite (and they always released non-military people quickly). So I think its doubtful either were carried out by active members of any Tuareg insurgent group. But we have the fact that armed Tuareg men captured these people, and that the Fowler kidnap made it on to the FFR site immediately (i.e., the person posting didn’t read it in the papers). Now Fowler says he was “shopped” by either the UN office or the Niger government. And we also know, from the example of the former FARS rebel Bocar Mohamed Sougouma, who joined the MNJ and then joined the government, that the rebels were riven with turncoats (or just people in it for the potential money).

    Could a known FFR group working for Niamey have done it? Could they have just been tipped off by the government, done what they thought was kosher and the backtracked? Then why would they sell the captives on to AQIM?

    No, it sounds to me like someone tipped off some bandits/smugglers who had contacts/family both with the government and the FFR, and being used by someone in government either knowingly or unknowingly. Either way, I’m thinking money was the motivation.

    It points up. I think, the lack of cadre the FFR ever had (note it was not the MNJ, who had a real structure, who were used as cover for this, even though they were the real threat to the government) and the grey lines between government, rebels, organized crime, and the AQIM, most likely linked by family and clan connections.

    • This is very interesting, thanks. So you think Fowler’s accusations toward the government of Niger have merit? If so, what do you think was the motivation on their part?

  3. I read twice the article from the Globe & Mail, and I think it is also government (s) linked. This Ould Sheikh is not a businessman, but a crooked go-between used by the government of Mali to communicate with abductors when there is a ransom to be paid. They knew about him since 2003 and use him always to get to AQMI when there is a ransom to be paid and shared down or up the ladder when there is money to be paid. We know who always pays the ransom as in the case of the 32 tourists in 2003, the Austrian hostages and probably the same paid for the release of Fowler. I think we should re-read carefully the stories from The Globe & Mail and it is evident from those stories (including the interview of Fowler) that the movements of the abductors were certaily followed-up by security people.

    What puzzled me and no one is talking about is:

    – Two canadians ambassadors being on the same mission for the UN (two from the same country and this is not current with UN practice) to deal with a governance issue in a country. Fowler should have a second from another country. Did Canada pushed for both and no one realized that something was wrong? Why 2 canadains, instead of a Canadian and let’s say a Swedish or a Zimbabwean?, and

    – Why Fowler went immediately to the site of a Canadiam mining firm, instead of meeting first the Nigeriens? Is his mission on relation to what Ban Ki-Moon nominated him for or he was on a special mission for a Canadian mining company? When a UNSG Representaive comes to a country, he is received with a red carpet and has to be received and get managed by his official hosts. What he was doing visiting the mine without being accompanied by some diplomat from the Canadian Embassy, the UNDP and government of Niger diplomat from their Forein Affairs ministry? A special representative of Ban Ki-moon visiting a country is an important person, not an occasional tourist.

    I think Fowler has not told the other side of the story.

    • Great questions. Drawing out the implications of what you’re saying here, are you suggesting the Canadian government or Canadian corporations had an agenda of their own beyond Fowler’s stated mission? And if so, what do you think that was? And if it is the case that another agenda was in play, do you think that played a part in the kidnapping, ie do you think the kidnappers were demonstrating their unhappiness with Canadian involvement in Niger and Mali?

  4. I think so Alex and I guess this kidnaping is in relation with mining and competition. This is still an hypothesis, though.

    Such a high-level representative of the UNSG who visits first a mine from his country before anything else, even in a weekend, is rather bizarre. Why I am saying this? I refer to an article from Jeremy Keenan in the Review of African Political Economy of September or October 2008 and he was predicting something on competition in the mining sector in Niger. You may wish to read to try to draw some inferences on this Fowler case. In reading the interview of Fowler in The Globe and Mail, his abductors are not the regular traficking people trying to make a buck nor the supposed jihadi trying to establish a khalifat somewhere. They are paid, on a specific mission to get Fowler and Guay, are well equiped and they know no one will be bothering them, until they get this Sheikh to make the deal or someone else. This go-between Sheikh gentleman is know since 2003 by all secret services in the area and using him to communicate with what everyone try to make us believe of some real AQMI. These bandits are using satellite phones and they are found only when there is a ransom to share. Why these AQMI are not localized once with all these drones, spies, and millions of $ spent to train and prepare local armies. Even the US is well established in Mali (and France more). Something is wrong with the official stories on this. You recall a chechen leader who was killed by the russian in Chechnia (sorry I can write the name correctly) the second he took a phone call? So, saying that no one can be localized is just boloney. Something is not right and we are tired of being killed just for the sake of geopolitics. This is my understanding of all this game. I think I agree with Keenan, Gèze and Mellah that governements are behinfd this and there is no real AQMI. There are rather franchises owned by some countries around or elsewhere.

    • I take note of this and it is hair raising. AQMI seems to be well supported in some government circles. I may say even outside these circles. , including the kind of equipment they have. With the Italians paying off the Talibans in Afghanistan “protection money”, someone has no other option but wonder if this war against terror is really serious there and here in the sahara-sahel.

      This is a proof that there has been ome game going on for so long:

      The Islamists seem to have mysterious connections to high-ranking informants in Mali’s government. “They must have good sources,” says Mousa, the army sergeant. “Every time we go on a mission, they seem to know who is in our ranks, how many we are and where we are going.”

    • This is a gloomy article indeed. It’s hard to sort through all the different accounts and facts and assertions here, especially with some of the sources being anonymous, but it’s definitely clear that AQIM has some serious equipment, which as you say may point to outside funding. It could indicate support from elites, but that’s such a serious charge that I would want to see a lot more evidence before I believed it. Not saying you’re wrong, just that I personally can’t reach a conclusion yet.

      As for the mining issue, I’ll check out the Keenan piece. I’ve just started becoming aware of his work, so this will add to my reading list 🙂

      Thanks for all these links and for the insights.

      • The involvement of elites here and there is very evident from the series of articles from The Globe and Mail. Please take your time to read the series of articles from Jeremy Keenan in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) and Gèze and Mellah very evident in Algeria-Watch. I got my hypothesis from my reading of the above and the ” official” press organes. I have the tendency to believe the Keenan, Gèze and Al.. Concerning proof, the other side cannot provide proof that the “conspiracy theorists” are wrong.

    • I am convinced AQIM is something on the lines of Keenan theory. I have some personal experience which convinces me on this front, but I can’t put it down here. if you want to know more email me.

  5. All the money from AFRICOM has not been able to curtail hostage taking by AQMI in the Sahara-Sahel, killing soldiers and innocent hostages?

    If they succeeded in Yemen with a man hunt of an Al Qaida leader, what is the problem with those in the Sahara-Sahel? They use telephones, particularly Thurayas, easy to track between hostages taking.

    My conclusion: Al Qaida in the middle East is real and AQMI in the Sahara-Sahel is probably fabricated. There is no other explanation and I wish to thank Jeremy Keenan, Gèze, Mellah and other good people to have led some of us to think out of the box.

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