The Curious Case of Fowler and Guay

Questions, questions everywhere...

Sunday 15 February 2009, by Alain Deneault

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Four pieces of information are
certain: before being kidnapped in
Niger, the two Canadians went to
the local offices of Canadian mining
company Semafo, based in Samira
Hill, in the west of the country. They
were in Niger under the banner of the
UN as intermediaries in the conflict
between the Tuareg minority and the
central government. The UN could
not guarantee the safe passage
of the Canadians because it was
unaware of their going to the Samira
Hill gold mine. A third person, their
driver, is also missing.

Questions abound as to the reasons
for their presence at Semafo as much
as to the identities of the culprits. The
UN denies the Nigerien government’s
claim that Mssrs. Fowler and Guay
were in the area on a protocol visit.
Mr. Fowler, the UN’s special envoy
for Niger, was “responsible for
humanitarian problems and for finding
a solution to the (Tuareg) rebellion,”
according to Modibo Traore, head of
the local office of the UN Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs. “We were not aware of his trip
out of town to the Samira gold mine,”
he added.

The association with Semafo is
particularly unhelpful because
regardless of how it is interpreted
it makes the two Canadians difficult
to defend politically. Were Mssrs.
Fowler and Guay fulfilling their
duties with the UN mission, and so
were in covert discussions with the
mining company regarding the ongoing
conflict between the Tuareg
and the region’s mining companies?

This would imply that the Canadian
company is itself a covert player
in the region rather than a simple
commercial enterprise. Or were
Mssrs. Fowler and Guay not wearing
their UN hats at the time? This
would imply that they were using
their mandate as a smokescreen for
private or national interests. Either
way, something is rotten in the state
of Niger.

Having advised Prime Ministers
Trudeau, Turner, Mulroney, Chrétien,
Martin and Harper on diplomatic
issues, Robert Fowler is considered
to be “Mister Africa” in Canadian
foreign relations. He chose Louis Guay
to help him during his UN mission—
a not insignificant choice. When
the former Canadian ambassador
to Gabon was not working with the
Department of Foreign Affairs and
International Trade, he spent time in
the private sector with stints at two
mining companies: the Montrealbased
Sofati in Cameroon and the
Vancouver-based Placer Dome in
the Dominican Republic. His job
with Placer Dome, from 1996 to
1999, consisted of convincing the
Dominican government to privatise
their gold mines at Pueblo Viejo.

The subsequent 2001
deal between the
two sides has been
roundly criticised by
environmental and
labour groups.
Why was Robert Fowler
at the Samira Hill gold
mine, which is jointly
run by the Canadian
companies Semafo and
Etruscan, without the
UN’s knowledge? Why
was he with someone
whom the President and
CEO of Semafo, Benoît
LaSalle, familiarly calls
“Louis”? According to
Mr. LaSalle, it was to
observe this “Canadian
success story” in Niger.

The favourable light
cast upon the Canadian
companies’ presence is
not unanimous—Semafo and Etruscan
have come under harsh criticism
within Niger. They have been accused
of plundering the country’s resources
to such an extent that the Nigerien
government had to set up a commission
to investigate the matter. They
concluded that there is a discrepancy
between the quantity of gold that has
been mined and the amount of royalties
that have been received. Worse still is
the environmental degradation and
the disruption caused to the local
population.

Semafo’s main motivation in the
region is its own self-interest. It is
building a dam in Guinea-Conakry
in order to cope with the energy
requirements of the region’s mining
operations and has also announced
plans to begin mining for uranium,
which duly raised their share price.

The fragile and financially crippled
central government has had little
choice but to cede its natural
resources to private enterprise in
exchange for much needed capital.

It is a familiar story on the continent
and it comes with a slippery
slope. Bribery, brazen exploitation of resources, corruption, local
warlords, secessionist rebels and
ethnic liberation movements are all
too often the epilogue.

It is always the civilians— mostly
women and children— who bear the
brunt of structural exploitation. As
Canadian companies are involved
one way or another, they have to
take their share of responsibility
concerning the continent’s conflicts
and how they can best help to
resolve them. Canadian citizens, as
well as the companies’ shareholders,
are also accomplices for their tacit
support of the status quo.

This is the backdrop of the Tuareg
rebellion, a battle over the rights to—
and profits from— Niger’s considerable
uranium and gold deposits. Although
they do not operate in the area
in question and have denied any
involvement in the kidnapping, the
Tuareg rebels, who are entangled in
a sometimes-violent dispute with the
central government over the control of
resources, are the prime suspects in
the disappearance.

To solve the mystery of this kidnapping,
all the usual suspects have been
rounded up: the Tuareg rebels, the
Nigerien government itself, competing
French and Canadian mining
companies, even the ever-present and
always convenient Al-Qaeda.

Although every one of these suspects
raises different but equally difficult
questions, many an underlying
question still begs to be asked. Chief
amongst these involves the West’s
pillaging of Africa and the grave
repercussions this continues to have
on the continent.

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