Alternative Universe Thinking in Niger with Professor Tom Kelley

  • E-mail E-mail
  • Google+
  • Reddit Reddit

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
Tom Kelley in Niger

Posted by Thomas A. Kelley III (Tom) on Wed. November 1, 2017 3:59 PM
Categories: Clinical Faculty Initiatives, Community Development Law Clinic
UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106


If you are seeing this, you are either using a non-graphical browser or Netscape 4.x (4.7, 4.8, etc.) and this page appears very plain. If you are using a 4.x version of Netscape, this site is fully functional but lacks styles and optimizations available in other browsers. For full functionality, please upgrade your browser to the latest version of Internet Explorer or Firefox.