You must be careful when you talk of the rebels,” whispers an out-of-work tour operator in Agadez, until recently Niger’s premier tourist destination, gateway to the Sahara desert and the dark jagged peaks of the Aïr Mountains.
“If you talk too much the army thinks you are one of them, then you are in trouble.” He did not want to be named, nor overheard discussing the rebellion and the government reaction, both of which threaten the livelihoods of the residents of Agadez in Niger’s north.
Soldiers man checkpoints while military pick-ups armed with large- calibre machine guns trawl the dusty streets; desert nomads swaddled in bright white or deep indigo turbans have slung hand-crafted swords over their tunics; and the little airport, once a weekly destination for charter flights from Paris and Marseilles, is deserted save for the occasional military plane.
Outsiders are no longer welcome in this ancient city on the southern edge of the Sahara, where desert sand sticks in the throat and the burning sun scorches from sunrise until dusk. Most hotels and restaurants are shut, tour companies are closed down and expatriates have driven the 1000-kilometre journey west to the capital, Niamey, or returned to their own countries. Aid workers have pulled out, visitors are scarce, foreign journalists banned; and residents of Agadez look around warily before whispering of “l’insecurité” – the insecurity – that has brought this all about.
In February, a rebel group calling itself the Niger Movement for Justice (known by its French acronym MNJ) announced its arrival with an attack on the oasis town of Iferouâne, in the volcanic Aïr Mountains, in which three soldiers were killed.
Since then the MNJ has stepped up its attacks, documenting them on a weblog. It claims to have killed more than 50 Niger soldiers and taken dozens more hostage. It has attacked a uranium mine run by a French company north of Agadez and kidnapped an executive from a Chinese firm prospecting in the region. Now it is Ramadan, and it has announced a cessation of attacks for the month.
The Tuareg leaders of the MNJ say they want increased political representation and a greater share of the paltry national wealth in Niger, which is consistently ranked as the world’s poorest country by the United Nations. What little wealth there is comes from uranium mined in the desert, and potentially from oil lying beneath the sands in areas the light-skinned nomadic Tuaregs call home.
President Mamadou Tandja, a former soldier, has earmarked $60 million to fight the rebels. Last month he declared the desert north to be under a “state of alert”, effectively placing two-thirds of West Africa’s largest country under military rule, with restrictions on movement, regular ID checks and curfews in some towns. All this in response to a rebellion the government denies is even happening: it has so far refused to recognise or negotiate with the rebels, blaming the attacks on bandits, criminals and drug traffickers.
The Sahel – meaning desert shore or edge – is a restive part of the world, awash with guns and criss-crossed with the tracks of lorries carrying hopeful African immigrants towards Europe. It includes parts of Mali, Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Ethiopia, all of which suffer varying degrees of lawlessness and insecurity made worse by poor state control and the life-and-death battle for scarce resources causing clashes between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers.
Niger’s rebels are the descendants of a 1990s rebellion fought for much the same reasons, but are resolutely modern in their techniques: they update their website regularly, respond quickly to emails and use satellite telephones to break the government’s attempt to impose a news blackout.
Local observers say this time the rebels are also better trained and better educated, counting disaffected soldiers and university graduates among their number. However, the rebel group is still seen as an ethnic militia fighting for a single interest group.
The impact of the rebellion is being felt more widely, however, with international interests being drawn into the conflict.
Niger is one of the world’s top uranium producers (accounting for 8% of total output) at a time when prices have risen dramatically as nuclear power has once again become flavour of the month, especially in the booming economies of India and China. The Niger government has issued another 60 uranium exploration permits to a range of international companies, and there is also interest in proven reserves of 324 million barrels of oil close to the border with Chad in the east.
Mining firms Areva and Sino-U, French and Chinese respectively, have suffered attacks and the rebels have warned foreign miners to leave the area. Meanwhile, accusations fly back and forth, with the MNJ accusing China of supporting Niger’s military effort in return for mining contracts and the government accusing Areva of supporting the rebels in order to maintain its de facto monopoly on uranium mining.
The government has also accused Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi of supporting the MNJ, citing a long-standing border dispute between the countries.
For now, the impact is being felt on the ground in Agadez, at the heart of the insecurity. The tour operator says: “The government and the rebels need to talk, not to fight. Normally you have a war and then you have the talks, but in this case the talks are not coming.”
In the meantime, he and others in Agadez, caught between the fighting parties, are seeing their already tenuous livelihoods collapse.
On the outskirts of town, business is still brisk in goats and sheep but few are buying higher-value animals, such as camels and cows. Prices have fallen because people are less willing to travel the long distances to market for fear of the army, the rebels and the landmines which both sides have been laying.
In such a tightly-knit economy the knock-on effects are felt everywhere. Many buy food during the year on credit, knowing that when the tourist season begins they will be able to pay back the loans. Tour operators buy food and fuel from local traders, and employ cooks and drivers.
“Every year it is quiet in June and July but we know that the tourists will come in December. But this year we know there is nothing,” says one despondent tour operator.