As part of a peace deal with militant ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali, the country's government has pledged $2 million towards development. Analysts say long-awaited diplomacy and development aid is crucial in both Mali and Niger, where the Tuareg have waged a relentless campaign against army forces in recent months. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West Africa bureau in Dakar.
In an address to the nation, Mali's president Amadou Toumani Toure calls for a regional conference to address security in the Sahel region, which borders the Sahara desert across northern Africa.
In recent weeks, a series of raids by militant fighters against military targets in Mali's remote north has re-instigated a long-standing conflict between the ethnic Tuareg and the state.
Mali's conflict has been mirrored in neighboring Niger, where the militant group Niger Movement for Justice has waged a bloody campaign against the Nigerien army since February. The Niger government says the group has killed more than 40 soldiers and abducted dozens more.
In response, the Nigerien government has declared a three-month state of alert that, according to Amnesty International, has resulted in the arbitrary arrest and torture of civilians.
Seydou Kaocen Maiga, a spokesman for the Niger Movement for Justice, says Niger's government is refusing to negotiate a peace deal with the militant group. "They are taking our resources and we have not [the] right to talk with the government because the government is an anti-democratic one," he said.
Niger's government, like Mali's, says the fighters are bandits who use violence to dominate drug smuggling routes in the region.
Maiga says these accusations are unfounded. "We are not the traffickers of drugs or a bandit army. We are a movement of Nigeriens who struggle for justice," he said.
Following violent Tuareg rebellions in Mali and Niger during the 1990s, peace accords were signed in both countries. The Tuareg, who said they had been neglected and marginalized by the darker-skinned peoples of the southern Sahel, were promised political inclusion and further development for their regions.
Analyst David Zounmenou from the Pretoria-based South African Institute for Security Studies says consecutive Nigerien governments have failed to fulfill the promises made in the 1995 peace deal. He says Niger's president Mamadou Tandja is refusing to engage diplomatically with the Tuareg.
"[We are] looking at a government that is first refusing to recognize that there is a problem, a rebellion in the country and two, refusing to engage in negotiations with those rebels who are considered bandits," he said.
He says Niger's Tuareg are still fighting the same social, political, and especially economic battles they fought a decade ago.
Tuareg say local communities in the north have seen none of the profits made through large foreign mining endeavors in the region. Niger holds one of the world's largest supplies of uranium, but unemployment is rife, food is often scarce, and according to the Human Development Index the country is one of the least developed in the world.
Niger's government says it does not have the resources to meet the demands made by the Tuareg.
Zounmenou says Tuareg in Mali have many of the same economic and social concerns as their Nigerien counterparts. But he says Mali 's government has addressed some of the demands made by the Tuaregs during the 1990s. "You see the Malian government trying to incorporate dignitaries from northern Mali into the government - they have representatives in the parliament, they have a say in the political decisions of the country," he said.
He says the choice not to negotiate may mean Niger's conflict will escalate. "The situation in Niger is more critical then the one that we are seeing in Mali because the rebels have already decided to end hostilities and to enter discussion with the government. While in Niger we still do not know what is going to happen," he said.
Jeremy Keenan, a British anthropologist who has worked in the Saharan region for the past 40 years, says added to the social and political grievances of the Tuareg, the over-arching problem in both Niger and Mali is what he calls American propaganda in the region. "Right across this part of the Sahara is the sense of injustice, the sense of anger largely at the intervention of America in the region, in this so-called war on terror," he said.
The U.S. provides Mali's government with military and financial support through the multi-million-dollar U.S. Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative. The American government says the Sahara, isolated and awash with arms and unemployed youth, is a breeding ground for religious extremism.
U.S. military officials says the Algerian-based group now calling itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active in Mali and has held training camps in Niger.
But Keenan says there are no Islamists in the Tuareg rebellion. "[In] both of these rebellions you have not got a single Islamist within 500 miles. So what these rebellions have done is really to show up the propaganda that has been underpinning or underlining this so-called war on terror in the region," he said
He says the recent unrest broke out in Mali because the Tuareg are resentful of U.S. military training, which he says helps the government repress the Tuareg opposition.
Tuareg are nomadic Berbers who have lived as traders in the Sahara and Sahel for hundreds of years.
Tuareg men are recognizable by indigo turbans that cover most of their face and shield them from an extreme climate, with violent sandstorms and temperatures that vary from up to 48 degrees to below freezing in the cool season.
About two million Tuareg live in West Africa, straddled between Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Libya.