Cultural Ignorance Kills–in Niger and Beyond

The sad story of how a contingent of ISIS fighters overran and killed four out-gunned US Green Berets in Tongo Tongo, Niger is in the news again. The Pentagon report on what transpired during an ill-fated “routine” mission will soon be published.  In a front-page story in the March 20th edition of The New York Times some details about the mission have been revealed.  According to preliminary findings, ”The leader of the ill-fated mission in Niger last fall warned before the mission that his troops did not have the equipment or the intelligence necessary to carry out a kill or capture raid against a local militant.”   In the report, which is not fully complete, the focus is clearly on why this mission was authorized and who is responsible for a tragically fatal screw-up. In the same article we also learn that there have been subsequent attacks against joint American-Nigerien military patrols. Considering the historical and cultural context of Western Niger, where the initial attack took place, there is a high probability that there will be more attacks and more fatalities in the future.


A Songhay village along the Niger River in Northwestern Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Can we attribute these fatalities to equipment deficiencies or to problems in the chain of command? How will we explain away future mission failures that result in serious injury or in the deaths of civilians and/or military personnel?

What does the US military know about Niger?

Based upon what we know from the preliminary Pentagon report, our civilian and military leaders know very little about the history, cultural and ethnic politics of this part of the world. Stepping into a social arena about which “we’ are ignorant, American taxpayers are constructing in Niger a major drone base—an important tool in the battle against Muslim extremists, an increasing number of whom have found safe harbor in remote West African countries like Niger, one of the poorest places in the world.

Given the high stakes of these present and future operations, what will our ignorance cost us in terms of wasted treasure and wasted lives?

Having thought, read and written about Niger for more than 30 years, having learned one of the Nigerien languages (Songhay-Zarma) and having lived many years in villages like Tongo Tongo, allow me an anthropological intervention into this blind discourse about “intelligence” and “chains of command.”

As I stated in a previous blog post about this tragedy, Tongo Tongo is situated in the northern sector of the Zarmagunda region of Niger—the heartland (or the “belly”) of the Songhay-Zarma people. These are people long 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 and pride.  The mix of very different kinds of people in this region prompted a history of inter-ethnic conflict. The people in the area are also known for their resistance to French colonialism and to the Nigerien government, which means that the region has a long been an arena of political volatility.   There are other places in Niger, of course, that are equally volatile.

The proud Zarma people who live in and around Tongo Tongo don’t like strangers (called yo in the Songhay-Zarma language). For them, strangers 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 soldiers, or drones, compete with the ever-increasing popularity of radical Islam?

Probably not.

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

An America First ideology will not protect innocent villagers or American soldiers from attack.  It will not snuff out the spread of Islamist ideology in places like Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso.

Bombs, sophisticated drones, military meet and greets with village elders, or kill or special capture missions will not resolve inter-ethnic antipathies or diminish religious prejudice. There is no quick fix for radical Islam in places Niger, Mali or Burkina Faso.  There is a slow solution, though:  fully funded programs (education and technical training) that will make people more self-sufficient.  These programs will take many years to show results, but in the end they will result in social and economic improvement, which, in turn, makes radical Islam less appealing.

As wise Songhay elders liked to tell me: a slow path is usually the most rewarding way to reach your destination.


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