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27 Jul 2007: ISS Today: Niger: Making Sense of the New Tuareg Rebellion
27 July 2007

27 July 2007: Niger: Making Sense of the New Tuareg Rebellion


Niger is in crisis again. The re-emergence of the sporadic rebellion in the northern part of the country is a test of the fragile political stability under the leadership of Mamadou Tandja, who was democratically elected in 1999. If action is not taken to address low intensity conflicts in West Africa, they have a tendency to degenerate into full-blown wars.


In February 2007 the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) reignited their rebellion in an attempt to draw government`s attention to the living conditions of the Tuareg people. In the early 1990s, the MNJ had taken up arms against the government to voice their concerns over the exploitation of their region by government-backed foreign companies.  Subsequently, in April 1995, a peace agreement was signed in Ouagadougou between the government and the MNJ. The recent resumption of violent clashes between the government forces and light-skinned northern rebels stems from the inability or the unwillingness of the government to deliver on the terms of that agreement.


MNJ grievances range from their demand for the political integration for the Tuaregs, to political accountability on the part of the ruling elite in Niamey. For many decades, the north has felt excluded from the national development agenda of the various regimes governing Niger. Added to this, the uneven distribution of the wealth generated by the exploitation of Niger`s natural resources -- uranium, gold and, more recently, oil – has exacerbated the abject poverty in which the majority of the region`s people find themselves. Niger boasts one of the largest uranium deposits in the world; for the past 40 years, the French company AREVA has controlled most of the mining of that precious material.  


The MNJ alleges that government policy on the exploitation of the natural resources lacks transparency and neglects the interests of the Tuareg minority. The movement also calls on government to regulate the activities of the companies involved in the mining of uranium in order to address the environmental hazards affecting the local people. There are indications that the rebels are willing to initiate talks with the government to dispel any suspicion that they are considering secession.


Since the return to a democratic dispensation in Niger in 1999, the process of decentralisation giving greater autonomy to local communities, improving popular participation and helping root out corruption has been incomplete. In essence, the rebellion claims that better governance is essential  to the improvement of Niger`s people`s living conditions.


While these problems are not peculiar to the Tuareg, it is the perpetual and almost perennial recourse to violence to express their grievances, and the scope of operational tactics (attacks on government`s position, kidnapping of foreign mine workers, internet-based communication) that constitute a matter of serious concern in an already volatile West Africa.


On the one hand, the government is reluctant to acknowledge the rebellion, and is opposed to any dialogue with the northern insurgents. Government officials argue that those who have taken up arms against the state are a group of bandits and drug traffickers. This dismissive attitude has contributed to the worsening of the crisis. The government`s attempts to silence media reportage on the issue and the 4,000 government troops sent to the north have failed to stop a rebel movement of some 1,000 troops. Instead, defections from government forces have reinforced the rebellion, creating a quasi-permanent state of insecurity in the north.


Even though the rebellion lacks support at the national level, political parties are of the opinion that government should open dialogue and abandon a military option that is failing to yield concrete achievements.


Last week, a high-ranking army officer and two of his colleagues from the National Security Forces deserted their posts to join the ranks of the rebels. Kindo Zada is said to have taken part in a number of rebellions in the region including those in Chad and the Central African Republic, where he played a significant role in the coup that brought Francois Bozize to power. It is also believed that the rebellion enjoys a degree of external support from former Tuareg rebels in Mali, Libya and Algeria. Although there is no firm evidence to support the thesis, it is alleged that Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi provides weapons and vehicles to the rebellion, with the assumed objective of reversing Niger`s government`s decision to undertake oil exploration in the area of Mangueni.


It is difficult to establish the accuracy of such allegations, but the nature and strength of the rebels` military forces and logistics suggest that they have significant external support. The risk that the crisis will escalate has already set in motion a process of political consultation and created pressure for the government to initiate dialogue with the insurgents. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has offered its good offices; more importantly, Burkina Faso`s President Blaise Compaore has offered to serve as a mediator in this crisis, as head of ECOWAS. Having being the initiator and the architect of the 1995 peace agreement, and riding on the back of his success in Côte d`Ivoire, Compaore might well be able to bring government and rebels to the negotiating table to seal a new peace deal.


As Tandja`s regime works towards the establishment of a democratic culture in Niger after a decade of political instability, entering into a dialogue with the MNJ will certainly demonstrate a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts, which is necessary if democracy is to be consolidated in the poorest country in the world. Failure to take the route of peaceful dialogue could easily lead to a vicious cycle, in which the government finds itself fighting a protracted war, consigning Niger to the foot of the UNDP human development index, and making political coherence unattainable. 


David Zounmenou, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)