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Sunday, January 18, 2009

What Has Happened to Robert Fowler and Louis Guay?

The international community's efforts to encourage the Niger government toward negotiations with the Tuareg-led MNJ rebels have come up against new hurdles.

The United Nations appointed a peace-maker, but he and his companions were kidnapped three days after arriving; they have not been found for over a month (news synthesis, below).

  • The national army's atrocities on Tuareg civilians appear to continue unabated in the north (MNJ January 4, 2009).
  • Two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, along with their Nigerien chauffeur Soumana Mounkaila, sent by the UN to explore the possibility of peace talks, were apparently abducted in Niger on December 14th just outside of the capital of Niamey, over 700 miles from the MNJ base and conflict area in the Air Mountains.
  • Their vehicle, clearly marked with the UNDP insignia, was found empty the following day, with the engine running and turn signal light flashing; the doors left open, and expensive equipment including three mobile phones and a camera left inside the vehicle.
  • A Nigerien reporter thinks the men may have pulled over voluntarily, since the turn signal light was still on; they may have been responding to a gesture or signal from an official vehicle (Edwards, January 12, 2009).
  • The men disappeared after 6:30 PM on Dec. 14th following their visit from 10:30 AM-3:30 PM to a gold mine at Samira Hill that was owned by two Canadian companies, Etruscan Resources and Semafo, Inc.
  • The UNDP vehicle was found abandoned near a ferry crossing on the Niger River, about half way between Niamey and a Canadian-run gold mine where they had toured the mines and shared lunch with the mining employees (Clark Dec. 19, 2008).
  • Fowler, 64, was a veteran Canadian diplomat appointed by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in July 2008 as a special envoy to Niger to try to help sort out the conflict; the MNJ rebels had been hoping for a mediator.
  • On their website, the MNJ suggest that the Niger government may have kidnapped the UN officials. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, Lawrence Cannon, has not ruled out the possibility that the government of Niger may have been involved, although there is no evidence that has "publicly emerged" that would indicate the Niger government's role in the kidnapping (Edwards, Jan. 12, 2009).
  • Nigerien journalists have also said they secretly suspect their government is responsible for the men's disappearance (Edwards, January 12, 2009).
  • Reporters in Niger must remain cautious and circumspect, because the government of Niger has placed a ban on unbiased coverage of the conflict, and has jailed reporters suspected of interviewing the MNJ, so that self-censorship has become a necessary means of survival among the news agencies in Niger.
  • One Nigerien reporter said that the men's disappearance was all the more mysterious because the area where they had been travelling was under heavier than usual military surveillance, with reinforced government security forces to make the zone safe for a national festival that was about to take place at the town of Tilabery, and so it's difficult to imagine how criminals or terrorists could have carried out a kidnapping under such high security.
  • One source says that reporters in Niger have called Mr. Fowler "Mr. Africa," and say he is "Niger's friend" (Edwards, Dec. 19, 2008).

Both Canadian and Nigerien investigators have even considered the possibility of an armed Islamist group taking the men for ransom, or of some other group kidnapping the men and delivering them to an Islamist group, although there has been no indication in the past month that a demand for ransom is forthcoming.

Over the past few years, armed Muslim radicals including some associated with the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have kidnapped Europeans in the Sahara on several occasions, but their main motive seems to have been to obtain ransom money. The Canadian government, anxious to find the missing men, has enlisted the help of the Malian government, where two Austrian tourists were kidnapped for an $8 million ransom by AQIM in February 2008 (AP, December 30, 2008).

AQIM took 19 days before announcing its demand for ransom. The fact that no one has come forward to claim responsibility and no ransom has been demanded at this point indicates that the outcome is less likely to be a positive one (Fitzpatrick, January 7, 2009).


The UN convoy that was sent to explore the possibility of getting peace negotiations started simply disappeared in Niger.

But Niger's ambassador to Canada, Nana Foumakoye, said that the Niger government had accepted the UN envoys' mission and approved it. She claimed that the Niger government was very interested in Fowler's mission, and that if there had been any objection, they could have prevented the UN mission through diplomatic channels.

One anonymous Western observer points out that Niger would have known that "the international community would get to the bottom of this kidnapping," and another observer said he doubted any role of the Niger government, because the country depends on foreign support.


However, according to Canadian sources, the UN envoy was sent to Niger in near secrecy by the UN for exploratory security talks (Fitzpatrick, January 7, 2009; Edwards, January 12, 2009), so it is not clear that the Niger government was in agreement with the proposed talks.

  • The mission was not acknowledged publicly by the UN until after the men went disappearing (Edwards, Dec. 17, 2008).
  • It is not uncommon for the UN to keep a low profile on such appointments, to maintain discretion in very delicate diplomatic situations (Edwards, Dec. 16, 2008).

For the past two years, the Niger government has refused negotiations with the rebels, and has never officially asked the UN to mediate (AFP Dec. 21, 2008). The leadership of Niger has, on the contrary, repeatedly asserted that it will not negotiate.

Thus the UN Security Council itself did not know about the secret envoy, although the Canadian and Nigerien governments did. UN officials have not commented except to say that Fowler was on a "official trip" for meetings with officials, while the government of Niger says that the envoy's visit was "private," on "private business," and that he had "left Niamey without informing the authorities" to visit the gold mine (BBC Dec. 24, 2008; AFP, Dec. 28, 2008).

Nigerien reporter Boubacar Diallo, who is president of the Niger Association of Independent Press Editors and works on human rights issues, says that foreign officials must provide an account of where they are going, and take a "protocol official" with them (Edwards, Dec. 17, 2008).

  • Travel within Niger, as with many other African countries, even between one town and the next, requires formal permission from the government, and apparently the envoy did not have it.
  • One source points out that Guay had been involved with the mining industry for a number of years, and questions what Fowler and Guay were doing when they were kidnapped, since they were not in a Tuareg region, did not have UN security with them or a Nigerien protocol officer (Lee, Dec. 18, 2008).
  • However, Canadian authorities point out that "it's not unusual for Canadian dignitaries to visit the Samira Hill mine … It's one of the biggest Canadian operations in Niger, and embassy officials like to showcase a success" (Bagnall, Dec. 18, 2008). This resonates with statements made by Mr. Guay himself several months before his trip, according to the CEO of Semafo, Inc., who recalled Mr. Guay as saying he was interested in seeing a "Canadian success story" (Edwards, Dec. 18, 2008).

It may be that a few sources have read too much into the connection between the members of the UN envoy and the gold mines; after all, mining is one of the central issues of the Tuareg-led MNJ's claims, and one could see how someone familiar with mining concerns in general could be useful in negotiating better work conditions, environmental safety, jobs, revenues, relationships with the community, and so forth for the people who are lobbying for them.

Also, the gold mines are said to be a popular excursion for visiting Canadian officials. It's not uncommon for visiting officials to want to see some sights while they are in a country, and this was on a Sunday, presumably a day off from work.

On the other hand, the Inner City Press at the UN alleges that there was a conflict of interest in the UN's initiative to explore peace talks with the Tuareg-led rebels who want reforms to the mining industry and a share of the revenues, saying that the UN has employed people who have "conflict-sensitive business practices" who are themselves involved in the mining industry in collaboration with the government of Niger.

The source claims that the UNDP helped build the Canadian-owned gold mines at Samira, and that the UN's "Global Impact" board includes a CEO of the French-owned uranium mine Areva, which is a major focus of the Tuareg-led rebellion (Lee, December 18).

However, corporate representatives affiliated with Global Compact, "the world's largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative," have called on governments to meet their human rights obligations and care for the environment, both of which are goals MNJ is seeking for Niger.

According to the Inner City Press at the UN, one of the two Canadian-owned gold mining companies at Samira, Semafo, is involved in uranium extraction in the north, where Tuareg pasture land is being appropriated for the uranium industry.

One of Fowler's specializations is the illegal weapons trade, and Inner City claims that Niger buys weapons from Canada (Lee, December 16 & 17, 2008).

They suggest that such connections might have made the rebels distrust the UN envoy.

However, China, according to the MNJ, has been a major supplier of weapons to Niger, including the landmines and tanks used against MNJ forces; yet, when the MNJ took a Chinese mining executive hostage in 2007, the MNJ acknowledged it publicly and quickly released him unharmed after talking with him.

The Nigerien head of Niamey's UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Modibo Traore, said "Mr. Fowler came here as part of an official UN visit, but we were not aware of his trip out of town to the Samira gold mine."

He also said that Mr. Fowler was the UN's special representative for Niger, "and in that capacity he is responsible for humanitarian problems and for finding a solution to the [Tuareg] rebellion." Mr. Fowler arrived in Niger on Dec. 11, and on Dec. 12 he met with Niger's Minister of the Interior, Albade Abouba, and Justice Minister, Dagra Mamadou.

However, Niger's Communications Minister, Mohamed Ben Omar, said that the UN envoy was "not on official business," but had entered the country on the basis of a desire to attend Niger's 50th anniversary celebrations in Tilabery on Dec. 18th (AFP Dec. 21, 2008). Apparently some have suspected that "Fowler was, at least on this trip, using the UN, its Laissez Passer and other benefits, for some other purpose," because he visited the gold mine (Lee Dec. 19, 2008). Ben Omar also added that there was a second car that had followed behind the UNDP vehicle when it left Niamey, and it had Togolese license plates, but the second car had not been located.

  • A Nigerien who operates a restaurant close to the ferry landing where the UNDP vehicle was allegedly discovered says "There's no way the car can have been found on the ferry car park. There were far too many people for something like that to happen under our noses. We stay open until midnight and after that private security guards take over to look after our things until morning."

He claimed he had seen the car as it left the ferry at about 6:30 PM after it had crossed the river from visiting the gold mine, and the car continued on, heading towards Niamey. When the UN envoy did not return to Niamey by 7 PM, a UN staffperson in Niamey called a resident at the ferry town to alert the police; however, the police apparently did not discover the vehicle until the following morning (Edwards, Dec. 17, 2008).

It wasn't until one month (Jan.13th) after the men's disappearance on Dec. 14th that the president of Niger, Tandja Mamadou, made a public statement about it at a New Year's celebration in Niamey, saying he believes that "ethnic Tuareg rebel groups" abducted the two Canadians. He says that the rebels have been trying to overthrow the government because the revenues from the uranium mining are not benefiting the Nigerien people. He asserts that the rebels are "terrorist" groups involved with drug trafficking, and smuggling of weapons and people across borders.
The rebel group, MNJ, has kidnapped several French and Chinese uranium mining executives briefly over the past two years, and then handed them over to the Red Cross after a few days. They claim they did so in order to speak with them personally and tell them their grievances about the marginalization of their people, and they did not harm them. The MNJ seems to want to show that they are being transparent about their actions and motives by reporting the details on their website, and making their demands known quickly. They have never kidnapped for ransom.


The MNJ has enthusiastically denied any part in the disappearance of the UN envoy, and they suggest that it was the Niger government's security agencies that kidnapped the UN officials in order to discredit the rebel group. The MNJ has been calling for international intervention to get help with negotiations from their website for the past two years, and they say they openly welcome foreign reporters, relief agencies and diplomats. Issouf ag Maha, an MNJ representative, visited the UN in 2007, seeking international help to get negotiations started.

The UN's Special Advisor on conflict, Jan Egeland, made a tour through Mali and Niger in May 2008 and concluded that "the UN could and should do more to help with reconciliation at the local level, local development and empowerment for farmers and agricultural communities in the north and pastoralists." Egeland added, "There are people here who are advocating for a military solution to the rebellions, armed attacks and smugglers . . . but legitimate social, political and cultural grievances . . . require investment, development and dialogue" (IRIN, June 2, 2008; Egeland, June 4, 2008).

In July 2008, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed Fowler, who has considerable experience with negotiations in African conflicts, "in an effort to calm escalating tensions among Tuareg rebels, the Niger government and mining companies." Ag Maha, who met Fowler in September 2008, said, "Fowler was working to bring peace to Niger" (Lebel Dec. 20, 2008). Thus, there doesn't seem to be any clear motive for rebels kidnapping Mr. Fowler, since they viewed him as trying to be of help in getting negotiations going. The MNJ has vowed to help in the investigation by calling on its networks in Niamey and elsewhere around Niger to obtain more information (Edwards, Dec. 18, 2008, MNJ Dec. 18, 2008).

According to news sources (The Star, Jan. 14, 2009), a splinter rebel group, the Front des Forces de Redressement (FFR), allegedly claimed responsibility on their website within a few days after the men's disappearance, but within hours they posted their denial of any responsibility.

Conclusions

  • The FFR says their website was sabotaged via a secure communications protocol (Spencer, Dec. 19, 2008; BBC Dec. 24, 2008).
  • "Our group does not practice hostage-taking, and we will not be the puppets in a game initiated by a group whose purpose isn't known," said the FFR on its website (Spencer, December 19, 2008).
  • No rebel groups claim to have kidnapped the UN envoy. There is no evidence of any involvement of the government of Niger, just speculation.
  • Both the rebels and the government of Niger have tried to be of help in finding them.
  • Is there some other group, as yet undiscovered, that was responsible for the envoy's disappearance? So far, the Canadian government has not been able to discover anything of their whereabouts.
  • The U.S. State Department has offered their full support to locate the missing men (Spencer Dec. 19, 2008).

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