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Insecurity Rocks Increasingly Valuable Saharan Desert


The West African Saharan state of Niger is entering its second year of renewed desert violence. Rebels are making the same demands they have for almost two decades. They want more money from lucrative mining projects and more influence. Since the last major rebellion in the early 1990s, the amount of money flowing through the Sahara desert has multiplied. But rebels say none of it benefits them, and that the desert will become more dangerous unless nomads are part of the solution. Phuong Tran brings VOA this fourth report in a weeklong series from the Air Mountains of northern Niger.

The Sahara has become a much more attractive place to invest, as countries struggle to meet their energy needs. The price of uranium, used to produce nuclear energy and mined in northern Niger, has multiplied six times within the past decade. Planning has begun for a more than $10 billion Trans-Saharan natural gas pipeline, expected to pump Nigerian gas to energy-hungry neighbors by the year 2015.

As the desert's value increases, so has its crime level.

Investigators estimate tens of millions of dollars in illegal drugs is smuggled through the desert. Recent suspected terrorist attacks in Algeria and Mauritania have killed dozens.

Nomads say they are tired of people overlooking them when rushing to claim desert resources, or to investigate crimes.

They say that what others call a transit route, pipeline or terrorist cell, they call home.

Acharif ag Mohamed El Moktar is an ethnic nomad Tuareg from the northern Niger desert town of Agadez. A former army officer, he has led a rebellion from Niger's Air Mountains against the government since last year.

Moktar says governments and their foreign donors cannot prevent terrorist attacks or drug smuggling if they do not know the land well.

He says maps generated from satellite images and global positioning systems cannot compare with local knowledge about water sources, the changing color of sand, and other clues nomads use to survive in the desert.

"The desert is where we are born, our parents are born, we are used to living in it," he said. "We know every piece of this place, we know exactly if there is someone strange coming into it. We have information of everything as it happens in the desert."

Moktar says not even a mouse could get into the desert without their knowledge, but he says desert natives will not easily share this information with outsiders.

Speaking in French, he says it does not matter how much money someone has, they cannot force a nomad to share what may be valuable information. But he says if authorities involve nomad leaders, they will gain the trust of their followers and families, and information on any suspicious desert activities.

Since 2003, the U.S. multi-million-dollar-funded Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership has provided training to police, intelligence and security officers throughout the desert. The program lists its mission as trying to help government officials identify terrorist risks and fight back.

Rebel leader Moktar had not heard of the program.

He says as long as the partnership is only between the U.S. and Sahel-Saharan governments, desert crime rates will continue or get worse. He says government leaders and troops do not live in the desert and cannot easily prevent or react to risks.

Security analyst David Zounmenou with the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies says governments are only one side of the security issue in some desert countries.

Rebels have been fighting their governments in four out of the nine Saharan countries that receive U.S. counterterrorism funds: Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.

Zounmenou says it is ineffective when donors work with just one side to fight a threat shared by both.

He adds desert security solutions have focused on military training rather than economic help. He says the desert's fragile ecological system can lead to insecurity if pastoral nomads are pushed further into illicit activities for survival.

"What we see is a military response toward serious development challenges," he noted. "This logic is pushing the governments to close their eyes on some of the socioeconomic problems that may affect and [worsen] insecurity in that region. And only [spending] $100 million to train and to form battalions will not be really responsible or effective in addressing the security challenges."

The U.S. counterterrorism partnership is funded up to $100 million per year until the year 2010.

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