NIAMEY, Oct 26, 2006 (AFP) – The west African state of Niger has started expelling nomadic Mahamid Arabs, the governor of the remote Diffa region said Thursday while government officials in Niamey sought to ease concerns at the measure.
“The repatriation operations began last Friday,” Oumarou Yacouba, governor of the southeastern area roamed by the nomads of Chadian origin, told AFP in Lagos by telephone.
He was speaking a day after the sudden announcement that Niamey could expel tens of thousands of nomads into Chad led to a protest from the neighbouring country and within Niger, where parliamentary deputies of Arabic origin asked international bodies to intervene.
Yacouba said the Mahamid people, whom the government accuses of threatening the local population in clashes for precious water supplies, were being moved slowly, “taking account of the large herds of cattle they have.”
“We shouldn’t dramatise the situation,” government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar said in Niamey, after the foreign minister briefed the diplomatic corps in the city on the affair amid protests from Chad and within Niger itself.
“This is a simple matter of checks by the administrative police,” Ben Omar told AFP. “Those whose papers aren’t in order will be escorted to the border in due respect for human dignity.”
When the expulsions were announced, officials said the measure could concern as many as 100,000 nomads living in the Diffa region, about 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) from the capital.
Interior Minister Mounkaili Modi said the Mahamid “have firearms and pose a daily threat to the local population” in clashes at water sources, so the army would start escorting them to the Chad border.
Nine deputies of Arabic origin in Niger’s 113-member parliament swiftly met and put out a statement asking for intervention by the African Union and the United Nations.
Ben Omar said Thursday that the Mahamid community concerned numbered “at most 4,000 people”, but Diffa’s member of parliament Silayem Ben Hameda countered that it was “more than 30,000”.
Nobody really knows since the country is among the poorest on the continent and there has been no census.
Governor Yacouba said “people are being registered, but it will take time since this is a dispersed population. They have to be located to be gathered together.”
“They are foreigners, that’s established, who have had problems with the local people. They are heading on foot for the border, they’re used to it, escorted by our police forces.
“They can stop and camp, pasture their beasts and then take up a precise route. They are being repatriated to Chad because they say they are Chadians or Sudanese,” he added.
The French foreign ministry on Thursday said diplomats in Niamey were told by Foreign Minister Aichatou Mindaoudou late Wednesday that the aim was to expel around 4,000 people.
“President Mamadou Tandja’s stronghold is in the Diffa region and he owes a lot politically to the traditional chiefs there,” a Niamey source close to the case told AFP Thursday, asking not to be named.
The first wave of nomads arrived to escape a searing drought in their native Abeche region in eastern Chad in 1974 and have been followed by groups fleeing conflict both in Chad and Sudan, further to the east.
In Paris, foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said France, which backs Chad’s insurgency-dogged President Idriss Deby Itno, was “very vigilant on the issue in order to avoid any risk of destabilisation in the region.”
“We are maintaining contact with the Niger authorities and with the United Nations to obtain a more precise analysis of the situation, particularly its humanitarian angle,” Mattei said.
“We hope that Niger doesn’t expel them,” Chad’s Foreign Minister Ahmat Allami said Wednesday. “If there’s a problem, we hope to resolve it in an atmosphere of calm, dialogue and consultation.”