The Winds of War Blow By
In the months leading up to the war, many of us had feared that there could be serious repercussions in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, where people get their news primarily from French and Arabic sources that are very hostile to US policy on Iraq. However, since Peace Corps had weathered previous Middle East conflicts without serious incidents in Niger, and in view of the Government’s prompt and forthcoming responses to our requests for added security measures for the Volunteers, I decided the risks were small enough to leave the Volunteers in place. When the war began, we put them on heightened alert and took some measures to lower our profile and avoid gathering in large groups that might become targets; but otherwise Peace Corps work continued pretty much as normal.
Throughout the war, there were no anti-American incidents anywhere in Niger. There were three anti-war demonstrations in Niamey, which were anti-American in tone, but they were peaceful and small (the largest involving about 2000 demonstrators). The Government remained publicly neutral, while making clear its determination not to countenance any anti-American violence.
Niger’s only direct connection to the war was the claim that Iraq had tried to buy Nigerien uranium. (Uranium is Niger’s principal – almost only – export commodity.) The Government heatedly denied this claim, which soon proved to be groundless and based on forged documents.
Had the war been prolonged, it is likely that the protests here would have become larger and more hostile. With its early end, however, public attention quickly re-focused on topics of more direct concern to most Nigeriens, such as the daily challenges of survival in this second poorest country in the world. Among the educated minority, there was even grudging recognition that Iraq and the world are better off without Saddam’s evil regime, though suspicions of US motives remain high.
All in all, the reaction to the war was much less negative in Niger than in Europe and most of the rest of the world, including lots of US university campuses. All of our Peace Corps operations have returned to normal, and we are preparing to welcome 45 new trainees in July.Searching for Oil
After producing considerable income for the country in the 1970s, the uranium market largely collapsed in the 1980s, as nuclear power fell out of favor following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. At current uranium prices, sales revenue from Niger’s uranium barely covers the cost of production.
In view of Niger’s geographic position, surrounded by major oil-producing countries (Algeria, Libya, Chad and Nigeria), it has long been hoped that oil might be found to replace uranium as an important export earner. Esso did considerable exploration in the 1990s, and in fact found deposits reportedly estimated at 300 million barrels in the far eastern part of the country near Lake Chad. However, even this quantity is not sufficient to justify construction of the pipeline that would be necessary to transport it to export markets. Moreover, Niger’s political instability and ongoing rebellion of desert nomads during the 1990s made investment especially risky. Consequently, Esso ceased operations and left the country.
Now, however, Esso has built a pipeline from Chad through Cameroon to the sea, in order to exploit the very large deposits found in Chad. This brings Niger’s oil closer to economically feasible production, since it would be much cheaper to connect with the Chad-Cameroon pipeline than to build one all the way from eastern Niger to the sea. Moreover, Niger’s return to peace and political stability since 1999 has made foreign investment more attractive.
Consequently, Esso has entered a partnership with Petronas, the Malaysian oil company, to do further exploration in its eastern Niger concession. Petronas is the operating partner (probably because its employees, as Asian Muslims, were thought to have a lower profile than American oil workers and hence pose less political risk).
Petronas offices have now been opened in Niamey, and equipment is being sent to the east. Drilling is set to begin in July.
Oil has been a mixed blessing for many countries, particularly African countries such as Nigeria and Angola, where it has produced more conflict and corruption than prosperity. However, Niger desperately needs some source of income, and hopes are high that the exploration will be successful and the revenue will be used effectively.
American Holidays in a Nigerien Village
One of our Volunteers, Carol Grimes, wrote an excellent essay on this subject for our quarterly newsletter, reflecting on spending Thanksgiving and her 25th birthday in her village. Here are some excerpts.
Now here I am, 25 years old and living in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Niger, West Africa.Here I am, speaking Hausa and wearing wildly printed pagnes (the sarong-like dress of African women) and drinking warm milk straight from a wandering cow.
Here I am, carrying water from a well on my head and taking bucket baths under the stars and listening to African children singing African songs in perfect harmony. …
Of course, the reality of life here isn’t so romantic. And actually living it day by day isn’t so wonderful. It’s not like the stuff that dreams are made of.
In fact, for the past eight months that I have been living in my village, I have had more bad days than good.
It is only recently that the good days have begun to outnumber the bad. And who knows how long that will last.
All I know is that finally, after so many months, the language is starting to get a little easier, the culture is beginning to make some sense, my villagers are used to my habits and I am used to theirs.
It isn’t as hard as it used to be. Sometimes, it is almost easy.
At some point in my service, I don’t know exactly when, I realized that there were things about this country and this culture that were completely out of my power to change, or even to understand.
At some point in my service, I realized that just being here was more important than changing the world.
So, yes, today is Thanksgiving and it would be nice, more than nice, to be with my family right now. But I am not with my family. I am here, far, far away.
And so I sit in solitude down in the depths of my canyon and I tell myself:
In discussing the early days of Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, the book says:
It struck me that these words, with little change, could apply equally well to Peace Corps Volunteers and what they do. Both the Green Berets and Peace Corps were begun in the early 1960s under the leadership of President Kennedy, and the parallels seem too close to be mere coincidence. The same inspiration, the same worldview, must have informed the creation and early development of both organizations.
Much of that inspiration and way of thinking could be applied to today’s challenges, to the war on terrorism. At least to some extent, this appears to be happening. Special operations forces played a larger role in Afghanistan and Iraq than in any previous war; and in last year’s State of the Union message, President Bush called for doubling the size of Peace Corps by 2007.
We can justifiably celebrate the great military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, I’m confident that people like Carl Stiner and other thoughtful military leaders would be quick to acknowledge that military victory does not necessarily bring long-term success. The peace must also be won, and winning it requires a wide variety of “peaceful warriors” such as Peace Corps Volunteers and others who serve their country under difficult and often dangerous circumstances as civilians.
I’m pleased that the current generation, no less than the generation of the 1960s, is producing an ample supply of great young Americans who are willing to meet today’s military and non-military challenges.
Choosing to Serve
In the speech, Bill first recounted the story of Pat Tillman, a standout defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, who last year turned down a $3.6 million three-year contract in order to join the US Army. Following basic training, he volunteered for airborne and Ranger training, and then volunteered for service in Afghanistan, where he is currently stationed.
After citing some famous athletes and other Americans from past generations who also left lucrative careers to volunteer for military service (Ted Williams, Roger Staubach, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, etc.), Bill continued:
Bill went on to talk about the need to confront the threats of poverty and of political and economic frustration, as well as military threats, especially in the Islamic world, in order to achieve lasting victory over armed terrorism. He concluded that:
I quoted Bill’s remarks in a message to each of our Volunteers, to let them know that their work is valued and applauded by Americans as well as by the people of Niger. Several of them have told me how much they appreciated hearing this.
Bullington’s other articles in American Diplomacy include: