For the second time in nearly 20 years, rebels in northern Niger are fighting the government for a greater share of political power and the region’s uranium wealth. The rebels say the government has failed to keep its promises regarding power and resource sharing made in a 1997 peace agreement mediated by Algeria.
Reporter Phuong Tran, who recently traveled with the rebels, says the concept of sharing is important to the rebels. “They share all…when they smoke, they toss back and forth a cigarette. They eat over communal bowls of rice. If they bite into a date, they toss the other half to someone else. When it comes to distributing rations, smokers all receive 2 cigarettes each whether you are chief of staff or president or a new recruit.” They told her that if the government had consulted with them, they would have been happy to share the mineral wealth, and would not have taken up arms.
Tran says that while many of the grievances are the same as during the last rebellion, there are also some differences. “In the 1990’s, the Niger army was not as well funded. Now, they have better weapons. They have support from the Chinese who are prospecting for oil. And, [you have a much more sophisticated battlefield]. The [rebels] have a lot of weapons coming from the Niger army [by theft or capture, for example]. Secondly, [the former president] agreed to negotiate in less than one year, but [current] President Tandja has categorically refused to negotiate. He refused to meet with members of his own party and regional leaders. This is leading to a more protracted rebellion.”
Tran says that it’s not clear whether outside mediation by France and Algeria would work. So far, attempts by regional leaders have failed. According to Tran, “I know Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, who is also the head of ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States], tried to send an envoy to Niger, who was turned back last year. President Tandja refused to receive the Burkinabe foreign minister.
“The rebels,” she says, “have not been discreet about the fact that they do not trust President Tandja and until there is a stable leader in place they will not negotiate. If you read between the lines, this is essentially advocating regime change and said they would want to be [included] in a transitional government.”
The government refuses to negotiate, saying the rebels are bandits and drug traffickers. In February, the government extended by three months a state of alert, giving the security forces increased powers to crack down on the rebels.
Some observers say the roots of the conflict in northern Niger lie in the legacy of colonialism, which restricted the movement of the desert nomads, parceled up their homeland, and eliminated local political power. Tran says the situation is exacerbated by what speculators call “the new gold” – uranium. Its price has multiplied, she notes, six times over the past decade.