Fallen US Special Forces in faraway lands: some background to an unfolding story
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Associate Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Austin College
Oct 24, 2017
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Four US Special Forces were recently ambushed in Niger, a neighbor to its better-known Nigeria. Information and misinformation is rapidly emerging about what happened to the four men; but whatever emerges, we need some history on what Europeans called “The Dark Continent.” Geographer George Kimble challenged that stereotype in the early 1900s with “The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.” Nothing teaches us geography and history more than wars and other tragedies in faraway places. 

Sub-Saharan Africa has historically been defined by Mediterranean/Middle Eastern empires by the distinctive “otherness” of its people; in this case by the most obvious difference-- their blackness. Greek maps labeled vast areas south of Egypt and Libya as black in Greek, from whence comes “Ethiopia.” Then the Romans, influenced by the Greeks,  called black people “Aethiops,” but Roman maps used the Latin word “niger” for sub-Saharan Africa from whence the name for great river Niger, and the colonially established countries of Niger and Nigeria which are as dependent on the Niger river as Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are on the Nile. When the Arabs dominated after the 800s(ACE), they used their word for black: “sudan.” Some suggest that the Spanish word “marron” meaning dark resulted in naming Morocco and Mauretania. The Persian/Farsi word “zang” could also be behind names like Tanzania and Zanzibar. 

The US knows more about English-speaking Nigeria than French-speaking Niger. In the francophone world, the opposite is true. Niger in French is pronounced “knee-jer”(as in jerry) but in English,“nigh-jur”(as in jury). A man or woman citizen in Nigeria is a Nigerian; but in Niger, a woman is a Nigerienne—drop the terminal “ne” for a man. Broadcast media would lessen confusion by referring to the “troops of Niger” or “Niger’s troops.” Niger is the size of Texas, Nevada, Colorado and Nebraska; thus larger than Nigeria (size of Texas and Minnesota). But Nigeria’s population of 186 million dwarfs Niger’s 21 million. 

All these statistics are helpful, but more important is to realize that colonialism, religion, and ethnicity create a more complex picture. Indeed, ethno-religious factors dominate the colonial history that had set up borders at the Conference of Berlin in the early 1880s. Since the 1960s, most west African nations became independent, but the many ethno-religious groups in West Africa have followed horizontal ecological frontiers along the sahel (shore of the desert), even though Western colonial penetration was from the coast. 

The Hausa people dominate northern Nigeria and are significant in Niger as well in Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso, The Fulani are also mostly Muslim and play a key role along the sahel all the way to Senegal to the west and to Chad and Cameroun eastward. The first president of Cameroun was a Fulani. The older generations of Niger’s Hausa would speak Hausa to their Nigerian compatriots while the former’s children would go to school in French; and the children of the latter to school in English. Hausas recite  the Qur’an in Arabic. Niger’s Buduma people are kin to the Buduma of Chad who some suggest have ancient links to Egypt. Niger’s Songhai are kin to the Songhai of Mali. 

Some people of Mali and Niger mourned NATO’s assassination of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. He was generous in development aid to his southern neighbors and built the Grand Mosque of Niamey (Niger’s capitol) in the 1970s. The present murky political situation is related to the “regime change” in Libya and to the recent emergence in Nigeria/Chad of Boko Haram which means “western education is taboo.” As with many in the Global South, people want to modernize if they can do so without being “westernized.” 

Before 2006, the USA’s military actions in Africa were under different command centers, but under President George W. Bush, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was unified to strengthen security cooperation with African partners and promote development, democracy and economic growth. At the moment of this op-ed, investigations are under way about circumstances surrounding the ambush of four US Special Forces. The above may help in understanding the demographics of Niger, and how inter-connected the area is in its ethno-religious diversity.