You may have read recently
about four American soldiers ambushed and killed in the West African Republic
of Niger. I know Niger well, having spent several years of my adult life
working and living there.
What could the ambush in
Niger possibly have to do with clinical legal education? The answer is: the
need for alternative universe thinking.
In clinical teaching, we
often challenge our students to consider things from the point of view of the
client. In many cases, that client may exist in a “universe” very different
from that of the student. To take a simple example, if a client skips an
important meeting with the student, it might not be because the client does not
care; it might be because the client works at a minimum wage job that provides
her with little scheduling flexibility and no extra income to cover the costs
of childcare and transportation.
American policymakers and
soldiers operating in Niger could benefit by engaging in alternative universe
thinking. The countryside where the ambush took place is mind-numbingly poor.
There is little work to be had – other than subsistence farming – and everyone
is hungry almost all of the time. At the same time, the people of that region –
the Zarmas – descend from the Songhay Empire (which ruled much of West Africa
until the late 1500s) and have a proud warrior tradition. Young men in these
rural areas can be attracted to Islamic extremists because the pay is good, the
food is plentiful, and they can recapture their glorious, warlike past. At the
same time, however, alternative universe thinking would reveal that the Islam
practiced in most of contemporary Niger is from the Sufi tradition, which is flexible
and peace-loving, and that Zarma people in Niger have a history of fending off
incursions by fundamentalist Islam, including Usman dan Fodio’s Fulani Jihad in
the early 1800s.
What Americans might conclude
from this alternative universe thinking regarding Niger is that a policy
focused on blasting away with automatic weapons might not be efficacious and in
fact might drive the disaffected young men, mentioned above, into the arms of
the Islamist extremists. But a policy of economic engagement and assistance –
one combined with a respect for the country’s tolerant, supple religious
traditions – might bear fruit.
The problem is, that sort of
positive engagement should have begun years ago, not now when soldiers (both
American and Nigerien) are being killed.
Tom Kelley in Niger
Posted by Thomas A. Kelley III (Tom) on Wed. November 1, 2017 3:59 PM
Clinical Faculty Initiatives, Community Development Law Clinic