Niger: Personnel Changes Pt. I

Aghali Alambo in 2008

Strange changes in Niger’s rebel movement leave more questions than answers.

Reshuffling is the name of the game in Niamey these days. As President Tandja makes the transition from elected republic to dictatorship, personal loyalty has begun to trump even connections, let alone ability. In the Air Mountains — or Tripoli — Tuareg rebels too have made a high profile change, and show a willingness to please the new order.

Early this week, from somewhere in the rocky volcanic wastes and Acacia dotted valleys of the high Air Massif came a new and puzzling communique from the founding rebel group of Niger’s Tuareg based rebellion. The 31 August statement by the military chief of the “Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice” — their first in some time — announced that their titular president and one of two of their founders Aghali Alambo has finally gotten the boot.

Despite press reports, the only thing surprising about this is that there is an MNJ left to make such a pronouncement. In early March 2009 Alambo absconded from the rebel encampment with all their POWs, and appeared in Libya. We only know this because most of the named MNJ leadership, who’d been carrying on a sporadic fighting in the mountains and deserts of northern Niger since March 2007, took the opportunity to quit the group en masse and announce their willingness to begin negotiations with the Nigerien government under the name Front Patriotic Nigerien (FPN). The FPN, headed by younger activists and a number of MNJ fighters who had previously fallen off the radar, talked both of the unwillingness of Aghali Alambo to prosecute the war and his unwillingness to offer negotiations. The FPN claimed that the actual fighting force from the MNJ’s remote encampments was the basis of their new group, and the MNJ was now an empty shell.

Thereafter the MNJ largely went silent. Aghali Alambo negotiated the release of all their captives in Libya — transported home triumphantly by Qadhafi — and took part in the four party talks under Tripoli’s aegis using the MNJ name. The self styled “president” of the rebels remained in the spotlight only by his intransigence: quiting talks and then quickly rejoining them, releasing a huge list of political demands as a basis of negotiation and then moving on ignoring them.

Nothing since March, though, had been heard from actual MNJ fighters in Niger. Monday’s press release from the “Military Chief of Staff” and founding member of the MNJ Amoumoune Kalakouwa came as a bit of a surprise. The statement, saying the President of the MNJ was removed and would be “arrested” should he return to Niger, accused Alambo of “treason” and a variety of high crimes against “the movement”. Like the FPN’s founding statement, it raises more questions than it answers. While condemning Alambo for betraying the cause for the benefit of the Niamey authorities, it also derides him as a loose cannon and obstacle to peace talks. Perhaps more tellingly, Alambo is condemned for spurning the help of Libya’s “Guide”, whose full role in both the genesis and end of the 2007 rebellion has yet to be told.

But by far the strangest part of the statement is a paragraph accusing Alambo of attempting to replace the MNJ vehicles with civilian ones.

le dernier geste en date posé par Mr. Aghali ALAMBO a été de tenter de subtiliser les véhicules militaires du Mouvement pour les amener et les échanger contre des véhicules civils sur lesquels il aurait certainement fait main basse ! Mais, c’est sans compter sur la vigilance des combattants qui l’avaient à l”il depuis le jour où il est apparu très porté sur l’avènement d’un régime anticonstitutionnel dans notre pays.
En effet, comme on l’a vu, des personnes parmi ses proches immédiats et à travers qui il entretient des liens très étroits avec les plus hautes autorités de Niamey, se sont, de retour de Tripoli où elles l’ont rencontré, investies pleinement dans la propagande contre l’État de Droit au Niger.
A partir de là, ne doit-on pas légitimement se poser la question de savoir pour qui travaille Mr. Aghali ALAMBO ? Le Peuple ou les autorités de Niamey ?

The writer blames this action on Alambo’s “links with powerful figures in the Niamey government”, which explains his “propaganda against the legal state of Niger” while in Libya, a clear accusation that Alambo supported Tandja’s seizure of power.

Stranger still, two days later the MNJ released a “clarification” saying that this paragraph had bothered some people, and that “In this release, particularly, there is no intention to address the current political situation in Niger and even less to bring any light on what has happened there and is ongoing.

Ce paragraphe ne contient donc aucun jugement de valeur sur la situation politique nigérienne actuelle mais, cite uniquement un exemple, parmi tant d’autres, pour souligner et mettre en exergue l’unilatéralisme de Mr. Aghali ALAMBO, nuisible au Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice .

“This paragraph therefore contains no value judgments about the current political situation in Niger, but cites only one example among many, to emphasize and highlight the unilateralism of Mr Aghali Alambo, harmful to the Niger Movement for Justice.” Que?

The only thing “clear” is that the rump MNJ is riven by factionalism, and at least part of it is bending over backwards to please Libya. In that, at least, the MNJ is of one mind with the other rebel factions of the FPN and the mainly political split of the 1990s rebel chief and later government minister Rhissa Ag Boula, the FFR. All these groups seem to have taken up permanent residence in Libya — a tradition which predates the 1990s rebellion — and are quick to praise the wisdom of “the Guide” and affirm their desire for peace, without doing much else.

The thing that’s interesting about Aghali Alambo, Amoumoune Kalakouwa, and Rhissa Ag Boula, is the degree of continuity. All these men either fought or have close family who were founding members of the 1990s rebellion, coming from disaffected Tuareg who had fled to refugee camps in Libya during the famines of the 1970s and 80s. These men were recruited into the Libyan military and served that state in Chad and elsewhere. Alambo’s father and Kalakouwa’s uncles were with Ag Boula in these camps, and joined their sons, nephews and brothers in the confused factionalised insurgency across northern Niger.

When the 1990s rebellion ended, men like Ag Boula and Alambo were integrated into the Nigerien political system and became players in a complicated web of clan, family, and party politics. The leaders of the revolt had real political and personal agendas, which may have been wildly at variance with the ideological and personal motivations of those who did the fighting and dying.

Alambo became Prefect of the Uranium mining town of Arlit, arguably the most important civil post in the most important city in Northern Niger. He also became head of a lucrative tourist agency arranging desert adventures for European visitors, a booming business until the rebellion began. Kalakouwa was assimilated into the the military, a long tradition for influential young Tuareg, who made up the ultra-loyal “Presidential Guard” of 1960s President Hamnai Diori. Kalakouwa was in the Republican Guard, an elite paramilitary unit reporting to the Army. That unit was disbanded to become the paramilitary police FNIS in 2002-3, and its command was transfered to the interior ministry, headed by President Tandja’s loyal supporter Abouba Albade. It has become, in the recent crisis, the major arm of punishment of the regime’s political opponents.

The undoubted military commander of the MNJ, Asharif Mohamed-Almoctar, was also in the Republican Guard and the FNIS. An Arabic speaker (not a Tuareg, and not a veteran of the refugee camps), Mohamed-Almoctar deserted with a number of his troops at the beginning of 2007, and was responsible for most of the military victories of the MNJ. His death at the end of 2008 coincided with the end large scale combat by rebels.

This may go some way to explain why the Tuareg revolt of 2007-2009 collapsed so precipitously. By many accounts the Nigerien military repeated its horrific behavior of the 1990s across Tuareg communities in the north, destroying civilian settlements, slaughtering or maiming en masse precious livestock, and killing an untold number of civilians. Videos and photos were circulated showing burned villages, ransacked homes, bound corpses, and Tuareg herdsmen comforting camels whose achilies tendons had been systematically cut. It seems more than strange that two years of denouncing the Niamey government for engaging in “genocide” and comparing their leaders to Hitler, the Tuareg rebels would be so eager for negotiation that they would claim “neutrality” on issues of the government’s seizure of power.

The Tuareg population of the Air have real grievances, even if they had fewer at the beginning of 2007. But those in charge of the rebel movement seem to have had very different and very personal motivations for launching the revolt, likely involving the governments of Niger, Libya, and France, and politically connected interests in Niamey. The French uranium mining consortia AREVA which has dominated the Nigerien export economy since independence, and whose contracts were expiring in 2007, was pressured by the fighting, but so were its potential competitors, notably Chinese state companies. The chaos benefited president Tandja, and those of his family and friends who acted as fixers for the wave of new mining and oil contracts that came with the end of the French monopoly. It also — in the end — benefited France, whose new mining contracts ensure their huge network of nuclear plants have fuel, and that the lights stay on in Paris.

One other aspect of the conflict that remains shady is the massive campaign of land mines laid throughout Niger, some far from the actual fighting. The government trumpeted the civilian deaths by mine as proof of rebel barbarity. The MNJ said repeatedly that it never mined civilian roads, and that these mines were Chinese provided anti-personnel mines laid by the government. A brief mine campaign in late 2007 saw attacks far outside the conflict zone. Among the strange victims were the influential founder of an opposition radio station who had been repeatedly jailed by Tandja’s government, and an Army intelligence officer with ties to the former Massinarra regime, both killed on back streets of Niamey. Rumors at the time claimed the rebels were offering large cash sums for anyone who laid one of their mines. How they transported cash and mines so far from the conflict zone was never addressed.

As for the Libyans? We know at least the Qadhafi has played his role as peace bringer in both Niger and Mali to the hilt, ignoring the fact that both rebel movements had previously used Libya as a safe haven. It seems unlikely that the Libyans, who seemingly can bring two years of fighting completely to an end with a month of intervention, haven’t benefited somehow.

We wait for answers.

Next time: little noted personnel changes in the Niger military and police shore up the government. But are they right to be concerned about a coup? See Niger: Personnel Changes Pt. II

UPDATE: In a communique published on a European Tuareg blog, posted September 4th and signed by Alambo and Kalakouwa, the MNJ leadership has reputedly disowned the statement that Alambo has been removed.  The statement, allegedly transmitted from the Tamgak massif base of the MNJ — even though Alambo was last seen in Sirte, Libya — claims that this was the work of “the Web Master” of the blog, presumably MNJ’s longtime European coordinator Ahmed Akoli.

The statement says:

Much to the amazement of our fighters and sympathizers, members of the movement on holiday in Libya, with the complicity of the web master of the blog, have circulated on it a statement announcing the dismissal of Mr Aghali ag Alambo, President of Movement Nigerians for Justice.
…the Executive of the MNJ would like to reassure supporters that the organizational structures will remain unchanged until the meeting of its governing bodies. Finally, the MNJ informs national and international opinion of the closure of MNJ blog until further notice.Therefore any information that is published on 1 September 2009 does not bind the movement.

So who knows who’s still in the MNJ, but the European arm seems to have splintered.  Regardless, the MNJ is clearly a spent force, falling over itself to make peace, after so precipitously launching a war which cost the lives of so many of its own community at the hands of the government.  The motives of its leadership still remain unclear.

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