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Nigerien Conflict Draws Attention to Desert Wealth, Poverty


In West Africa, Niger's ethnic Tuareg fighters have periodically led attacks for almost two decades against the government, demanding more autonomy and a greater share of uranium mining revenues in the desert north. The Niger government has responded by cracking down on the rebels by giving the army more power to conduct security operations. Reporter Phuong Tran brings VOA this report from the rebels' mountain base in northern Niger in the first part of a five-part series.

Over the past year, Nigerien rebels have launched attacks in Niger's Air Mountains. They have taken government soldiers hostage, targeted electricity plants that supply energy to uranium mines, and seized trucks and weapons.

The violence began almost two decades ago when rebels protested mining in the mineral-rich north, home for many of the country's ethnic nomad Tuaregs.

Mining, the Tuareg say, has damaged valuable pastoral lands; while revenues have failed to benefit local communities.

Treaties signed in Mali and Niger during the mid-1990s ended a period of open Tuareg revolt and brought a decade of relative calm to the region.

But attacks broke out again a year ago. Tuareg in Niger, apparently frustrated by continuing inequalities, took up arms and formed the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice, or MNJ.

Top rebel Aghaly Ag Alambo told VOA 30 years of mining has not improved life for the nomads.

He says, ironically, mineral wealth has further impoverished locals. Alambo says mining is destroying the land needed for crops, animals and water. He says even if nomads accept they can no longer live off the land, the mining industry does not hire them. He says this forces ill-prepared nomads to look for work in cities.

Niger's government says it has made progress developing northern mining communities. But rebels say the changes are not enough.

Schools lack teachers and supplies, clinics have little medicine and mayors in the north say they get almost no support from the state.

Niger passed a law two years ago requiring the national government to invest 15 percent of mining profits in the northern Agadez region.

But, the Agadez community has yet to see that money.

Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar says the money has not yet been distributed because the government is waiting to re-negotiate the price of uranium with long-time investor, French mining company Areva. He says now that a new contract has been signed, the government will share profits directly with the mining community. Though, he does not specify when.

Areva agreed last month to pay the government 50 percent more per kilo of uranium. One of the world's largest producers of nuclear energy, the company mines about 40 percent of its uranium in Niger.

In the past decade, the price of uranium has multiplied six times, driven by growing international interest in nuclear energy. Some mineral experts are calling it the new gold and say prices are only expected to increase.

For more than 30 years, France has been the only mineral investor in Niger, but late last year, the government awarded dozens of contracts to mining companies from China, India and the United States, among other countries.

But even as countries are rushing to make a profit off of Niger's natural resources, U.N. officials say another type of business may be stoking the violence in the region: international drug cartels.

Antonio Mazzitelli, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes for West Africa, says rebels may be fighting to keep government authorities out of the desert, far from lucrative smuggling revenue.

"The fact that the territory where the rebellions are operating is also coincidentally the territory where a number of important drug seizures have occurred, where notably a lot of contraband and smuggling take place make us think that certainly there are big economic interests related to the control of those areas," he said.

This week, the Niger government extended a six-month state of alert in the northern conflict zone, which gives the army more power to conduct security operations, patrols, search homes and carry out identity checks.

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