15 JANUARY 2009


Bob Fowler is no Brad Pitt. The gems he was looking for were not within himself. He may have thought they were across the river. In the land of the Twaregs, there are no sign posts. The desert wind can't read. You may be a most distinguished former member of the U.N. Security Council, a son of a highly-regarded family in Ottawa, a discreet charmer of the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie. Where gold and uranium mix, you enter at your own risk. Where veiled men blue powder their face, Ban Ki-moon is not a password.

One could mean different things to different people. A young expatriate teacher in Rwanda would become a Permanent Representative of Canada in New York. A soft-spoken ever-smiling gentleman's gentleman could be a tough investigator on contraband in Africa's mineral resources. A crusader against illicit diamond trade could be an ally of its monopoly. Big business versus small business, or vice-versa -- mainly vice. Railing against Antwerp may be perceived as aiding de Beers. In the business of earthly gems everyone is suspect. In the land of one-eyed mini-scopes the safest are blind.

Canada is a blessed homeland of human and natural resources. It has uranium, gold, and oil, among other minerals. A vibrant democracy, it is governed by checks and balances, principles of accountability and rule of law while competing in profit and loss with several others that have none of the above. A Canadian patriot, a sharp-minded intellectual, an influential diplomat has to do what he has to do.

At least for a decade, Ambassador Fowler has been seized with the quest for resources. The legal versus the illicit. Above board versus under the table. The international consensus versus the contraband. The "righteous" versus the "crooked." Canada versus Antwerp.

As a member of the Security Council, he led a team that reported on the use of diamonds in the Angola conflict. (See www.unforum.com headline "Diamonds for Blood" .) For the first time, official accusations were directed not only at one of the factions, UNITA, but at governments, most notably Zaire (under Mobutu, but most likely continues), Togo and Burkina Faso. It weighed against "the eagerness of international arms brokers and air transport carriers to act as intermediaries." Heads of state were named. Ayedema of Togo, Lissouba of Cote d'Ivoire, Blaise Compare of Burkine Faso (neighbouring Niger). All integral parts of Francophone ruling setup in Africa. Angola's UNITA, which no longer operated formal embassies, continued to have operatives "conducting business." In a number of countries, it continued to have "unofficial" representative presence "with the knowledge but without direct support of the host governments." Those mentioned included the United States, France, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and South Africa. Operatives usually retained rough diamonds in packages "for the purchase of high value weapon items, arms brokers accepted payments in diamonds after the value had been agreed between the experts on each side."

Angola war is over. Those controlling her oil won over those peddling the diamonds. Revolutionaries and mercenaries come and go. Arms dealers and diamond smugglers remain; under different names, varied shapes. They are ruthless people moving in rough neighbourhoods. Small time dictators, even former ones, still have their secret bank accounts and private agents. They still know who runs the "Dexieume Bureaux." Since the Congo war in the Sixties, big mining conglomerates still compete by proxy in a cut-throat business.

Niger, a former French colony, is one of the world's poorest countries. It is rich in key minerals. Uranium for one. Remember that planted story just before the invasion of Iraq? Gold is another. It was near one of those mines explored by a Canadian venture that Robert Fowler had visited the day before he disappeared.

What was he doing there?

When first asked in mid-December, Secretary General Ban honestly and correctly said he didn't know. A hurried attempt later to say he was on an unannounced U.N. mission did not help much. It raised suspicions of power pressure, eroding U.N. credibility further and placing the victim in greater risk. More poignantly, it added unduly to a growing impression that U.N. mediators these days themselves need mediation at their designated host country. Robert Fowler may have fared better with swifter, coherent, more straightforward help when and where it mattered.

As was repeatedly reported, Fowler and another Canadian Foreign Affairs Officer, Louis Guay, together with their driver, were missing when their car was "discovered," with three cell phones, camera and jacket inside, its engines still running, headlights on. Its location, about 40 kilometres close to Niger's capital Naimey; that is, it was too far away from the Northern area of "ethnocide" conflict. A government minister said the three disappeared after visiting the Samira gold mine site, of which Canada's Etruscan Resources Company is co-owner. Getting to Samira from Naimey entails crossing the Niger river. However, the car was found facing the direction of the capital, indicating its passengers were on their way back. The area was monitored with exceptional security because it was the location where the government was about to celebrate the country's 50th anniversary of independence.

The Minister, Mohammed Ben Omar, volunteered the information that Mr. Fowler's official vehicle had been followed by a car with Togolese number plates, which later disappeared. How did he know, while the government declared it "was not aware" of his trip out of town? Was he hinting at a role by Togo, which may have a past score to settle? A kidnapping claim by a rebel group was swiftly and strongly denied. Such fake claims are a usual tactic by ruthless security services in small authoritarian countries, not necessarily because they did it, but to cover up for the real culprit. A Canadian anthropologist speculated in The Globe and Mail that the kidnapping may be linked to splitting the cake of natural resources. He said that until recently, French companies had a monopoly on the mining and exportation of uranium from the deserts of northern Niger. In the past two years, however, the Niger government has considered allowing other companies to invest, including Canadian firms that are also involved in the development of gold mines. Through their periodic rebellions, the Tuareg are trying to tell both the government and foreign investors that they want a piece of the pie. And since it has been their historical custom to take what they want, they most likely kidnapped the two Canadians -- Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, both of whom were representing the United Nations -- in the hope that the Canadian government could help them put pressure on the Niger government and thus gain the pair's release.

Another speculation identifies fierce competition for Nigerian uranium between France's Areva and Canadian global Uranium Corp. A far-fetched analysis goes back to internal Canadian politics that pushed an accomplished achiever like Robert Fowler to undertake a lone ranger mission as frustration mounted with the Harper government in Sussex Drive, practically sidelining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Chateau Laurier. That's too far-fetched indeed. Even Mr. Harper could not drive a cool operator like Bob Fowler all the way to Naimey. We also heard from former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy that Bob "knows when to talk and when to shut up." While Axworthy is not generally known for credible information, could he be hinting that Fowler was being held to obtain valuable information -- and was cautioning him not to tell all. Such a pronouncement is certainly not helpful. However, it is as far-fetched as the statement a week after the disappearance that there was "no certainty of a kidnapping; it may perhaps be a prolonged conversation"! Too prolonged for anyone's safety.

Nothing is certain. Most likely Robert Fowler's arrival in Niger signaled an alert to someone ruthless who sent their kind of message. By now, his case may have nothing to do with a U.N. mission. But it has everything to do with the need to save a human life.

O God, deliver us from evil of greed. Help Bob and Mary join together to celebrate, however belatedly, a peaceful family New Year.