Niger: Tuareg rebel leader speaks

Tuareg rebel leader Moktar Roman of the Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ) spoke to the UN news agency IRIN May 17 about the reasons behind the resurgence of armed attacks in the north of Niger this year. “The movement was created because nothing has been done by the government,” Roman said. “There is no work, no schools, not even drinking water in all Niger. It’s terrible, it’s a genocide, and the government is corrupt, taking money from people and leaving them to live in poverty.” He insisted the group is fighting for all citizens of Niger, which the UN considers the poorest and least developed country in the world. “It is not just a Tuareg movement,” he said.

However, the government of Niger insists the Tuareg rebels are bandits and drug traffickers. Government officials cite a seizure of drugs and weapons Niger’s army made in the north in April. They also cite data from the UN Development Programme indicating that five times more cannabis was seized in Niger in 2006 than in 2004.

Roman denies that his group is involved in criminal activities. “There are traffickers and they work with the government and the presidency,” he said. “The Sahara is being turned into a transit route by them, we don’t have the means to do it.”

Also denying links to Islamist terrorists, the MNJ only claims responsibility for attacks on Niger’s armed forces. The government signed a peace deal in 1998 with Tuareg rebels in northern Niger, but attacks have re-emerged this year. In February, the MNJ claimed responsibility for an attack on an army base in the northern oasis town of Iferouane. In March, the MNJ attacked a bus, sparking an all-night gun battle with the army that left five of its fighters dead. The army accused the group of planting mines that killed two soldiers. In April the group claimed responsibility for an attack on a uranium exploration team operating near the Algerian border.

The MNJ’s leaders include a former officer called Mohamed al-Cherif, who participated in previous uprisings and were subsequently integrated into the Niger’s army. Al-Cherif again defected, accusing the government of not meeting the terms of 1998 peace deal, which included promises of regional autonomy and economic development for the northern region.

History of Tuareg uprisings

In the mid-1970s severe droughts in Mali and Niger forced thousands of young Tuaregs to emigrate to neighboring Libya and Algeria, where many reportedly received military training. In the 1980s many returned, with the governments of Mali and Niger promising them resettlement assistance. But in Niger the assistance never materialised.

On 19 October 1991, the Front de Liberation de l’Air de Asaouad was formed, demanding a federal system of government with greater self-determination for Tuaregs.

Supported by France, Niger’s government fought the various Tuareg rebel factions until the 1998 peace accord. The MNJ is now demanding the deal be re-negotiated. Niger’s Prime Minister Hama Amadou has repeatedly ruled that out.

“Rebellion?… We cannot speak of political demands. For us the attacks signify ‘leave us to prosper from our illicit trafficking of drugs and arms,'” Mohamed Ben Omar, minister of communication said last month on state television.

Niger’s government this week authorized $60 million for new army operations in the north. This is $18 million more than what the government and donors spent on food security for Niger in 2006.

Other theories

The MNJ wants wealth from Niger’s burgeoning uranium mining industry to benefit the national economy, and specifically the northern region in which the mining is taking place, said Roman.

One Niger analyst, the independent French researcher Nadia Belamat, said the government will face growing resistance from the MNJ and other groups if it ignores these demands. “Since around 2003 there has been a growing realisation that not only is uranium mining in northern Niger not helping the region economically, it is also causing serious ecological and health problems,” she said.

Roger Boulanger, Niger Editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said the MNJ shouldn’t be dismissed as bandits. “There is definitely a political element,” he said. “There are a lot of disgruntled and unemployed former fighters around. There’s a widespread feeling that they’re being ripped off.”

However, Baz Lecocq, a fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient research institute in Berlin, said the new attacks could be a result of inter-tribal politics. “Often tribes attack government posts and state facilities, economic sites, not to hurt the government but to show force internally to other factions and tribes. Or they could have serious claims against the government while also playing local politics.”

MNJ spokesperson Roman denied such claims, and warned cryptically of dire consequences for Niger’s government if it refused to talk. “Don’t underestimate us,” he warned. “Now is the time for negotiation.”

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