“… the smoke of tyres and that of the tear gas are the sign that what is being burned is the hope of the poor.”
– Fr Mauro Armanino SMA, Niger
“It is not a mystery that Americans have been present in Niger for a long time not only with drones, but also with soldiers, as well as the presence of the French and perhaps soon even the Italians”, Italian-born SMA Fr Mauro Armanino told a Vatican News Agency – Agenzia Fides – on 9 October last.
Fr Armanino was commenting on the ambush in which four elite US soldiers were ambused and killed, along with five soldiers from Niger, four days earlier. The soldiers were part of a multi-national patrol, heading to meet some village leaders in the southwest of Niger, bordering Mali. They were confronted by 50 heavily armed men on pick-ups and motorcycles. Al Qaeda is present in the area.
“There is a strategy of containment… both with European and American troops and with… the so-called G5…” he says.
The G5, heavily sponsored by France, provides for the creation of a pan-sahelian security force composed of soldiers from Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger.
“Apparently,” the SMA missionary told Agenzia Fides, “the United States is reluctant to finance the G5, and every time there are discussions about this project, there are attacks, such as in Niger and before in Mali, in Gao and in Bamako, which can help convince on the importance of setting up this Pan-African military force”.
Fr. Armanino acknowledges that there are unstable areas in Niger due to the presence of armed groups.
“There have been several attacks in an area, about 120 miles from Niamey. For some time, that area, bordering Mali, is rather unstable. The other area of strong instability is located near Chad Lake, where Boko Haram raids continue”, he says.
However, Fr Armanino cautions that the military response is likely to create new sources of instability.
“At the border with Libya, the Tubou are trying to arm themselves to try and contain human trafficking”, he says. “This increases the risks of destabilization of the area where Tuaregs also live without having a good relationship with the Tubou, especially when there are vested interests such as controlling illegal or illicit traffic. Other policies are needed”, he concludes.
The accuracy of the veteran SMA missionary’s analysis was given credence less than three weeks later.
“On Sunday, October 29, the neighborhoods in the center of Niamey resembled urban guerrilla warfare of other ages. Tyres, stones, sticks, tear gas, marked an unofficial demonstration which turned into a violent march”.
At least 23 policemen were injured in clashes, according to authorities, accusing ex-Premier in exile, Hama Amadou, of fomenting protests through the use of social media managed by his supporters in the United States and some European countries.
According to Fr. Mauro the reasons of the protest are real: “National school education is in an advanced stage of being dismantled, public finances are disastrous, and political life is full of endless scandals and corruption. All this is happening in the context of an extended state of emergency in various parts of the Country because of terrorist attacks”.
“Fears that the publication of the 2018 financial budget could put citizens on their knees has contributed to awakening civil society from the fatal sleep it seemed to have fallen into”.
Fr. Mauro, points out that Niger has become the strategic hub of the military operations of France and the United States in the Sahel, as demonstrated by the October 5th incident in which four American soldiers and at least five soldiers from Niger were killed (see Fides 9/10/2017).
“The living conditions of the people, the poor people in the city, farmers who have always been excluded do not matter. That is why the smoke of tyres and that of the tear gas are the sign that what is being burned is the hope of the poor”.
Members of the Society of African Missions from France were the founding members of the Church in Niger. The Redemptorist Congregation also work in the country. Today there are 9 SMA missionaries serving in Niger, from Spain, Italy and India, all working in Niamey Archdiocese.
Niger has an approximate population of 19 million people, of which 25,000 are Catholics. Of that number only 20% are Nigeriens. The remaining 20,000 come from neighbouring countries. The presence of the Catholic Church is the “natte”, i.e. a sober, humble presence. Another way of celebrating the Gospel.