The Attack on Tazalit, Niger and an Insight into Nigerien Perspectives on Northern Mali

On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:

The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.

This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.

The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.

Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”

Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):

This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.

The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).

It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.

Chad and Exxon

Yesterday, Chad’s Tribunal de Grand Instance (Major Pleas Court) rendered a judgment against a petroleum consortium directed by Exxon. Seeking to end a legal dispute (French) that began in 2014, the court ordered the consortium to pay around $74 billion (44 trillion CFA) in allegedly unpaid royalties and associated penalties. That figure has shocked the financial press, and Exxon plans to contest the ruling.

One court document has been uploaded by Jeune Afrique (French). One central issue in the dispute is the rate of royalties that the consortium must pay: Chadian authorities say it is 2%, but the consortium has reportedly been paying 0.2% for years.

The consortium has two other members: Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, and Chadian firm SHT* (Société des Hydrocarbures du Tchad, or the Chad Hydrocarbons Firm). There has been some ambiguity in the press about whether Chevron is a member of the consortium; I believe that it is not, given Chevron’s sale of its Chadian interest to the government of Chad in June 2014.

Most international reports have contextualized the ruling with reference to Chad’s current economic difficulties; in recent posts I have been noting the impact of budgetary austerity (due to low oil prices) on different constituencies in Chad, especially students and civil servants. The implication, then, is that Chad’s government is merely trying to extract more from international oil companies during a trying time. Bloomberg, in fact, hints that the government may be throwing out a large figure in order to scare the companies into paying a smaller fine:

The president of the court, Brahim Abbo Abakar, confirmed the ruling by phone on Thursday. “It’s correct, however, the provisional enforcement is lower than the amount demanded by the tribunal,” he said, referring to the sum of $669 million also cited in the document. He didn’t elaborate.

Apparently the first round of this dispute, in 2014, ended with direct negotiations (French) between the oil companies and the administration. Perhaps that will happen again now.

I also think there is a broader context to mention. That is the pattern of Chad’s government acting as a tough negotiator vis-a-vis the oil companies and the international community as a whole. As I mentioned in a previous post on Chad, much of that story is told in Celeste Hicks’ Africa’s New Oil.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I found it interesting that one of the featured news items on the official site of the Chadian presidency was about President Idriss Deby’s recent meeting (French) with the Vice President of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). The readout of the meeting mentioned the “rich and fruitful discussions” the two parties had, but also noted that Chadian authorities expect that it would be a “difficult year” due to low global oil prices. For further context, CNPC has also paid large fees to Chad in the recent past ($400 million in 2014, negotiated down from $1.2 billion), and agreed to a higher royalty rate in 2015. The lesson seems to be that some companies, at least, are willing to pay fees in order to maintain access to Chad’s oil.

*Some reports listed the firm as SNT, but I believe that’s a mistake in transcription from court documents.

More on Austerity in Chad

Last week I wrote about student protests against austerity in Chad. The austerity measures, implemented since President Idriss Deby was inaugurated for his fifth term in August, are also affecting civil servants (French):

The government announced Tuesday, September 27 that it was cutting civil servants’ bonuses for a period of 18 months, provoking the anger of unions. It is one of the 16 emergency measures announced by the state to cope with the economic crisis the country is going through.

The measures include an 80% reduction in allowances and bonuses for civil servants.

As Twitter user Tinea commented, the austerity measures are “hard to swallow given the oil money wastefully spent.” From the perspective of many Chadians (I imagine), Chad’s oil revenues have provided only limited tangible benefits – some new infrastructure, but sometimes a higher cost of living as well. Add to that the budgetary impact of lower global oil prices (which were prompting austerity measures in Chad by late last year), and some Chadians may feel that high oil prices enrich the few, but low oil prices hurt the many.

For more on oil in Chad, the place to start is Celeste Hicks’ book Africa’s New Oil, in which Chad is the central case study.

Niger Telecom Merger

Last week, Niger’s government announced that it would merge two state-owned telecommunications companies – “Sonitel, which operates landlines, and Sahelcom, a mobile operator” – to form one company, Niger Telecom. Sahelcom currently competes with Bharti Airtel (an Indian company), Orange (a French company), and Moov (a subsidiary of Atlantique, which is itself a subsidiary of Emirati-owned Etisalat).* The merger of Sonitel and Sahelcom has been in the works for at least a year, and is part of a longer story involving the failed privatization of Sonitel (including a failed sale to a Libyan company in 2011).

A few more details about the merger can be found in the official readout (French) of last week’s cabinet meeting in Niger. Perhaps most importantly, the Ministry of Communication envisions that the merger will “assure optimal and rational management of the resources of the two companies” and “make the national public operator more attractive.”

Needless to say, there have been waves upon waves of privatization of state-run companies in Africa in the past thirty-five years and more. It will be interesting to see whether Niger can meet its goal of making state-owned telecoms more efficient and competitive. That will be an uphill climb, though: Jeune Afrique (French) says that both Sonitel and Sahelcom are deeply in the red, and that Sahelcom lags far behind its competitors in terms of subscribers. Out of 7 million mobile subscribers in Niger, Jeune Afrique gives the following breakdown of market share:

  • Sahelcom: 347,000 subscribers
  • Bharti Airtel: 3.5 million subscribes or 58.62% market share
  • Orange: 1.67 million subscribers or 27.5% market share
  • Maroc Telecom/Moov: 604,499 subscribers or 9.96% or market share.

Sahelcom/Niger Telecom will have a lot of catching up to do.

*If I have my facts straight, it seems that Moov Niger was set up (French) by Maroc Telecom (Morocco), in which Etisalat acquired a majority stake in May 2014.


University Strikes and Protests in Niger and Chad

This month, universities have seen strikes and protests in two Sahelian countries, Niger and Chad. The core issue is financial: instructors in Niger have not received their salaries and research premiums, and students in Chad have not received their academic stipends. Particularly in Chad, the protests suggest broader popular anger at new austerity measures (French) – not enough anger to threaten the regime, but enough to show that many Chadians are already unhappy with austerity.

In Niger (French), instructors at public universities have declared several strikes during September, disrupting the start of the new school year. The instructors say they are owed several months of back pay and research stipends. The strikes are led by the National Syndicate of Instructors and Researchers. For their part, Nigerien university students are protesting what they say are poor study conditions and unpaid stipends. Niger’s Ministry of Higher Education has said (French) that the instructors and researchers have been paid, but their continued strike suggests otherwise. The instructors renewed their strike (French) on September 26.

In Chad (French), “anger is rumbling among students,” who have been protesting this week in the capital, N’Djamena, over unpaid stipends. On September 27, the Ministry of the Interior forbid further protests, and several dozen students have been arrested and questioned. Another student rally on September 28 was dispersed by the security forces.

Assuming that the strikers and protesters are correct about unpaid salaries and stipends, I sympathize with their demands. Striking and protesting may be the only way to get the money they were promised, and so in that sense they are right to strike. One negative outcome, of course, is that strikes and protests can severely disrupt the academic calendar and can have a powerful cumulative effect on students’ overall university experiences, especially in terms of time to degree (that has been a big problem in Nigeria as well). When governments meet such strikes with either denial or repression, they are tacitly agreeing to prolong the cycle of strikes and in so doing to prolong time to degree for many students.

Recent Reports and Articles on the Sahel and the Horn

A few new reports have come out lately about the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, all of which may interest readers:

In the comments, please feel free to alert of us about any other new reports.

Thoughts on Secretary Kerry’s Trip to Nigeria

On August 23-24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria. He visited the capital, Abuja, as well as Sokoto (map), a major city in far northwestern Nigeria. Sokoto has special significance as the seat of one of the largest Muslim polities in pre-colonial Africa, an empire whose territories extended throughout much of present-day northern Nigeria and into parts of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon. Sokoto has continuing relevance in post-colonial Nigeria, where the Sultan of Sokoto (a direct descendant of the pre-colonial ruling family) is the country’s highest-ranking Muslim hereditary ruler.

Trying to shape Nigerian efforts to counter “extremism” – read, Boko Haram – was clearly the thrust of Kerry’s agenda in Nigeria. But I think the trip was executed in a way that muddled its message, in three domains:

  1. Security Trumps Human Rights: U.S. policymakers have long stressed, in public remarks, that Nigerian politicians and military leaders should work harder to ensure that the anti-Boko Haram fight is not marred by systemic human rights violations. But Washington’s actions toward the Nigerian government have only sometimes indicated that human rights are the U.S. government’s major concern. The same was true on this trip – in Sokoto, Kerry said, “To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria has a long legacy of supporting – values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights.” But that line was buried in the middle of his speech. Meanwhile, one of the big “deliverables” of his trip to Nigeria was a near-promise to increase U.S. military aid to Nigeria. Given that actions speak louder than words, I think Nigerian elites will hear the message that the military’s well-documented abuses against prisoners, militants, and civilians will not, in the long run, be a barrier to receiving more aid from the U.S. If Kerry had intended to send a serious message about human rights, he should not have promised new aid, or he should have made it explicitly conditional upon human rights reforms.
  2. A Top-Down, Risk-Averse View of Religious Engagement: In a sense, it is fitting for the top-ranking U.S. diplomat to meet with Nigeria’s top-ranking hereditary Muslim ruler. But in another sense, Kerry’s trip to Sokoto represented the most clichéd form of religious engagement that the U.S. might attempt in northern Nigeria. Since 1903, when British forces killed Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru I at the Battle of Burmi, Sultans of Sokoto have been largely deferential to Nigeria’s political authorities. The Sultan wields little influence, in my view, over the type of people who join or sympathize with Boko Haram; such people already have real doubts about the integrity of hereditary Muslim rulers. Who, then, was the intended audience for Kerry’s trip to Sokoto? If it is Muslim youth, or fence-sitters thinking about joining Boko Haram, are they meant to be impressed by Kerry praising the Sultan as a model of inter-faith tolerance? In my view, it was fine for Kerry to go to Sokoto, but he should have also met with a spectrum of Muslim leaders in Abuja, including mainstream Salafis.
  3. A Misreading of Boko Haram: Should the U.S. government decide who is a Muslim and who is not? In Sokoto, Kerry argued that Boko Haram has nothing to do with Islam – “Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance.” The idea that Boko Haram is nihilistic is empirically false, unless you are willing to dismiss virtually every statement that Boko Haram has ever made. I’m not saying that Boko Haram is “Islamic,” but I am saying that they consider themselves to be such. And if you discount that, then I don’t think you can really counter their ideology. I believe Kerry should either have avoid trying to imply that he has the authority to give a normative definition of Islam (this is the better option, I think), or he should have acknowledged and addressed some of Boko Haram’s core ideas.