Foreign uranium interests fuel Tuareg revolt

The government of Niger reports three soldiers were wounded and four are missing after Tuareg rebels attacked a civilian convoy escorted by the military Nov. 9. The rebel Movement of the People of Niger for Justice (MNJ) claimed it had killed 15 soldiers and captured four. They also said they had destroyed three military vehicles and seized another, but denied having attacked civilians. The ambush took place on the road between Agadez, the regional capital of the desert region of that name, and Arlit to the north.

The MNJ last month claimed to have killed some 30 soldiers and destroyed two army vehicles in a dawn raid on Touara Oct. 25—assertions never confirmed by the government, which calls the rebels “armed bandits” and accuses them of smuggling drugs and other contraband. The rebels continue to hold some 30 soldiers out of the 72 they captured in a June raid. (AFP, Reuters, Nov. 10)

Niger President Mamadou Tandja refuses to negotiate with the rebels, but the attack came as Tuareg leaders were meeting in Algeirs in a bid to revive a peace dialogue with neighboring Mali. Invited were former rebel leader Iyad Ag Ghaly and Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who has recently returned to arms. A peace deal was signed with Mali in 2006 but Bahanga broke the pact, taking some 40 hostage in August—mostly government soldiers. Although he announced a truce for Ramadan and released some of them, about 20 are still in captivity.

Mali’s President Amadou Toumani says the 2006 Algiers deal is not up for renegotiation. Mali’s government also accuses Ibrahim Ag Bahanga’s group of laying land mines which have killed 10 people. The broader Tuareg rebel group in Mali, the Democratic Alliance for Change, has disavowed his insurgency. Mali also accuses the Tuareg rebels of running a trans-Saharan smuggling racket. (BBC, VOA, Nov. 5)

Planned mineral exploitation projects in the region are fueling the unrest. Niger’s government has granted a new uranium exploration permit to a Chinese company in the Agadez region. The new exploration bloc, at Azelik, in the Agadez region, was assigned to the Azelik Mines Company (Somina), set up in June by Niger and its Chinese partners.

The China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Corporation (CNEC) is already exploring for uranium in Teguidan Tessoumt, also in Niger’s north. The CNEC briefly halted operations Niger in July, after the MNJ abducted a Chinese national. The MNJ called the attack a warning to Chinese companies operating in collaboration with the Niger army, and demanded an immediate end to mining in the north of the country.

Niger’s government has recently given 29 uranium exploration permits to Chinese, British, South African, US, Australian, Canadian and Russian companies. The rebels accuse China of providing Niger with military aid in return for uranium leases. (Thomson Financial, Nov. 9)

The French uranium company Areva has also been threatened with “grave consequences” by the rebels for operations which “contribute to the war effort.” “We inform Areva that from now on all its operations are regarded as illegal,” the MNJ said in a statement, adding that Areva “is exposing its staff as well as its installations to grave consequences.”

Ironically, in July Niger’s government barred the head of Areva’s local operations from the country, accusing the company of backing the guerillas in a bid to keep the Chinese from entering the traditionally French-dominated uranium industry in Niger. French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened to mediate, and shortly afterwards Areva made an advance payment of more than $30 million to the Niger government. In an apparent quid pro quo, Sarkozy pledged military aid to help fight the Tuareg insurgency. (Reuters, Oct. 29; Reuters, Oct. 26)

Military sources in Niger say many of the Tuareg guerillas are deserters from an elite military unit trained by the US in counter-terrorism between 2003 and 2006. The leader of the loosely allied Tuareg guerillas in Mali, Ibrahim Bahanga, is a former army officer and is also said to draw fighters from army deserters. (ISN Security Watch, Nov. 7)

The usual demands for local reinvestment of proceeds from exploitation of local resources lies behind the conflict. “If we are going to continue with all this mining, some part has to be for the improvement of the living conditions of the people,” says Aoutchiki Kriska, mayor of the Niger town of Gougaram. “If you tell me that with one gram of refined uranium you can provide energy for seven households for three weeks, how come we can’t use one gram here so that people have water to drink?”

But Niger’s government insists the Tuaregs must abandon their nomadic way of life before they can benefit from any investment. (AlJazeera, Nov. 9)

See our last posts on the Tuareg and the politics of the Sahel.

  1. Niger launches slavery probe
    From AFP, NOV. 9:

    NIAMEY — The government of Niger has launched a probe into the extent of slavery in the impoverished west African country, an official said Friday.

    Unofficial estimates put the number of slaves at some 800,000.

    “The government wants to really know if there are people living in these conditions (of slavery) or whether these are just baseless allegations,” said Garba Lompo, head of the National Commission of Basic Rights.

    The three-month probe was launched Thursday. About 100 people — mostly university students — are involved in the exercise.

    Timidria, which means fraternity in the Tuareg language, is the country’s only non-governmental organisation fighting slavery. It estimates there are 870,364 slaves spread across six of Niger’s eight regions.

    The organisation, founded 15 years ago, says slavery stil exists in the northern and western regions of Niger inhabited by Tuaregs.

    In 2004, Timidria was awarded a prize by the London-based Anti-Slavery International (ASI) for ensuring the introduction of laws banning and punishing slavery and for engineering the release of around 200 people.