– In the arid moonscape of northern Niger, the light-skinned Tuareg nomads have launched a fresh rebellion.
For centuries, the Tuareg have used camel caravans to trade salt throughout the region. But there is another, more modern wealth beneath the sands. Last year, Niger mined 3,500 tons of uranium, making it one of the world's top producers of the nuclear fuel, and, with global demand and prices rising, the Tuareg find the proceeds worth fighting for.
"The government of Niger is a government of criminals," says Seydou Kaocen Maiga, spokesman for the rebel Nigerien Movement for Justice (known by its French acronym MNJ), on the phone from France. "The government extracts all the uranium without asking permission of the nomadic people and without giving anything to them."
These grievances are not new. There were Tuareg rebellions in Niger and neighboring Mali during the early 1990s as they sought greater political representation and a bigger share of national resources. But the MNJ says Niger's government has failed to live up to a 1995 deal, so they launched a new rebellion months ago, killing more than 45 soldiers and kidnapping dozens more. In response President Mamadou Tandja deployed 4,000 troops to the north, which now lives under de facto martial law.
The rebels announced a truce to coincide with Ramadan in this predominantly Muslim country. But with the holy month drawing to a close on Friday, recent weeks of peace are likely to end, says Mr. Maiga. "We will respect the truce until the end of Ramadan, but after that we will continue to fight."
The government dismisses the Tuareg rebels as bandits and drug-traffickers, and some observers call its response heavy-handed. Amnesty International recently accused the government of "the arbitrary arrest of dozens of civilians" and alleged that some prisoners had been tortured.
Demand for uranium sparks fighting
Meanwhile, interest in uranium is growing. World prices hit $135 per pound in June (after increasing 900 percent over the past five years), and Niger's government plans to double production with the opening of two new mines. It has also issued close to 100 exploration licenses in the last year, breaking an effective monopoly held by the French mining company Areva.
China is paying attention, but its interest in Niger's mineral wealth has made it a target for the rebels who briefly kidnapped a Chinese mining executive in July. Maiga alleges that China is providing military support for Niger's Army and claims that MNJ fighters have captured "thousands of arms which had been given to the Army by China." Niger has denied this charge.
Other international powers are also embroiled. The MNJ has attacked an Areva facility. "For 40 years, Areva has extracted uranium while giving nothing to the people of the north," says Maiga. And the Nigerien government has accused Libya of supporting the rebels, upping the antagonism between the regional neighbors who have a longstanding border dispute.
While threatening further attacks, Maiga also offers an olive branch. "If today the government wants to talk, we will stop fighting and talk," he says. "What we want is for the government to recognize that there is a problem in northern Niger."
But talks seem unlikely, at least for now. Earlier this month government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar again called the rebels a " loose group of armed criminals" with whom the government would not negotiate.
A 'belt of insecurity' in the Sahel
The conflict is helping create a "belt of insecurity" that stretches across the Sahel, a remote, poorly governed swath of Africa awash in arms, says Olly Owen, a risk analyst at Economic Associates in Lagos, Nigeria. "There has been a kind of domino effect, with insecurity erupting in one country after another. And in Niger there are a lot of strategic interests involved and they are increasing that insecurity."mam
In Agadez, at the heart of the rebellion, the shadow cast by the single tall minaret of the mud-walled Grand Mosque stretches across town in the evening sun as it has done since the 16th century. A local tour operator who has not seen a tourist in months and does not want to be named for fear of Army reprisals says, "The government and the rebels need to talk, not to fight. Normally, you have a war and then you have the talks, but in this case, the talks are not coming."