Niger Nightmare: The Cost of Cultural Ignorance

Whenever Niger is in the headlines, the news is never good—drought, floods, epidemics, starving children and now the emergence of ISIS inspired terrorism. Indeed, in Tongo Tongo, an isolated windswept village in Western Niger, a contingent of ISIS affiliated militants ambushed a patrol of Nigerien and American soldiers, resulting in the tragic deaths of five Nigerien soldiers and four American Green Berets.

What are American soldiers doing there?

What little we know about the bungled military operation suggests a mission mired in historical, social and cultural ignorance. Back in the USA, though, much more is slipping out about the enfant terrible president’s tone-deaf handling of one of the Green Beret condolence calls and his incapacity to say he was inarticulate, or, worse yet, apologize. Given the kerfuffle about remote and little known Niger, commentators and journalists are struggling to understand what it is like to live in this turbulent and increasingly strategic part of the world.

Life is hard in Niger, perhaps the poorest nation in the world. It is a place where most people earn only about $300.00 per year, which means, of course, that the average Nigerien lives on less than one dollar a day. The majority of Nigeriens have limited access to education and health care. In rural areas, potable water is scarce. In the countryside, most homes do not have running water or indoor plumbing. Many children die before they reach the age of two. What’s more, the climate is harsh—hot and dry with a short unreliable rainy season, which means that there are routine food shortages.

A Rural Village in Western Niger
A Rural Village in Western Niger

At first glance these conditions appear hellish. They are difficult, but despite these economic and climatic hardships, most people in Niger are resilient. I have spent many years living in Nigerien villages similar to Tongo Tongo. For many decades, I have thought and written about social change, family relations, and religion in Niger. In that varied body of work, what stands out the most is the extraordinary dignity that Nigerien people exhibit—especially in situations of unimaginable difficulty. Nigeriens are poor. Even so, they have a well-deserved reputation for generosity.

Tongo Tongo is situated in the northern sector of the Zarmagunda region of Niger—the heartland (or the “belly”) of the Songhay-Zarma people, who have a glorious past—people known for their bravery, their independence, and their perseverance. In and around Tongo Tongo you also find Tuareg and Fulani—peoples also known for their bravery, pride and history of inter-ethnic conflict. They are also known for their resistance to French colonialism and to the Nigerien government, which means that the region has a long history of social and political volatility. Put another way, the Tongo Tongo region of Niger may well be remote, but it has never been “quiet.”

The proud Zarma people who live in and around Tongo Tongo don’t like strangers (called yo in the Songhay-Zarma language). For them, the stranger can never understand what’s important to the child of the village (kwar’izo). This deep-seated belief means that strangers, which include Niger government officials as well as Nigerien, French, and American soldiers, can never be trusted. Strangers come, stay for a brief period of time, and then leave. As the Songhay proverb states: “Strangers are like the mist. If they haven’t left in the morning they’re sure to be gone in the afternoon.”

Given the social and cultural complexities of life in Niger, can the presence of American, French or Nigerien soldiers kill an ever-growing set of beliefs that have formed a dangerously radical ideology?

Probably not.

As in much of the world, the central political issue in contemporary Niger is deeply entrenched poverty—not military tactics or counter-terrorism strategies. The cost of ignoring this fundamental truth is monumental.

The tragic death of four Green Berets in Niger is a wake-up call. It demonstrates the pitfalls of doing foreign policy in a cultural vacuum. Cultural ignorance can be lethal. As the Songhay-Zarma like to say: If you walk forward as you are look back, you’ll eventually hit a wall—or fall off a cliff.

Sadly, there is a long history of cultural ignorance in American foreign policy.

What did US Bush administration officials know about the complex cultural dynamics of Iraq?

What do Trump Administration officials know about the culture, history and politics of the peoples who live in Niger, Chad, Mali or Burkina Faso?

What do they know about the cultural dynamics of North Korea?

Not much.

Maybe they don’t care about these politically “inconvenient” social and cultural issues.

And yet, the tragic deaths of four Green Berets in Niger underscore a fundamental fact in the contemporary world: ignorance kills.

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