It is now six weeks since Canadian UN diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, and their driver Soumana Mounkaila were abducted in Niger and no information has emerged as to who is behind their disappearance. Last week a further four European tourists were kidnapped on the Mali-Niger border. Whilst not directly linked, these incidents point to the heightened state of tension between the governments of these two West African states and the nomadic Tuaregs who have been struggling for greater autonomy in their ancestral homelands for decades. Despite several peace agreements, the situation in both countries remains far from peaceful and is complicated by the fact that the lands over which the Tuaregs have wandered for centuries are home to some of the world’s largest uranium deposits and substantial reserves of oil. International energy companies jostle for concessions to mining and oil concerns amid accusations of government corruption whilst rumours of activity by groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda have ensured that these countries have become a frontline in the so-called “war on terror”. As energy-hungry world powers vie for resources, the plight of the Tuareg is seldom considered and their traditional way of life is increasingly under threat.
Niger and Mali are classified as among the poorest countries in the world and the Tuareg are among the most impoverished communities within in each nation. Descended from the Berbers, they have roamed the deserts since the seventh century. They are known as the “Blue People” due to their indigo-dyed garments which leave dark blue pigment on their skins and are a fiercely proud people. Once the ‘Lords of the Desert’, the Turareg have been a neglected and under-represented minority within Mali and Niger since independence in the 1960’s and have led series of uprisings and rebellions, the most recent of which began in 2007. Fighting in Mali has left over 50 dead in the past month and in Niger a harsh military crackdown has been waged for years. Indeed, a 2008 Amnesty International report found evidence of serious human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces in Niger including widespread extrajudicial executions of Tuareg civilians. International NGO’s have been expelled from northern Niger and there is a blanket ban on reporting in the region.
Despite the Sahara’s erratic and unpredictable rainfall patterns, the Tuareg have managed to survive in the hostile desert environment for centuries. Over recent years however, depletion of water by the uranium exploitation process combined with the effects of climate change is threatening their ability to subsist. Uranium mining has diminished and degraded Tuareg grazing lands. Not only does the mining industry produce radioactive waste that can contaminate crucial sources of ground water resulting in cancer, stillbirths, and genetic defects but it also uses up huge quantities of water in a region where water is already scarce. This is exacerbated by the increased rate of desertification thought to be the result of global warming.
Whilst the main concern of the governments of Niger and Mali is to secure revenue from resource exploitation, so the main desire among the energy-hungry nations in the West is to see the unhindered flow of oil and yellowcake uranium. Neither party is concerned about the welfare of the Tuareg beyond ensuring that they do not disrupt this lucrative and strategically important exchange. Rather than acknowledge the Tuareg’s legitimate frustrations it has proved easier for the Tuareg to be dismissed both internally and internationally as extremists. Labelling the Tuareg fighters as terrorists or Islamic jihadists provides a smoke screen for repression and an excuse to ignore their claims.
Accusations of links between the Tuaregs and Islamic extremists also feed into a wider US-led strategy to tackle terrorism in the region. In 2003, the U.S. launched a new front in its “war on terror” triggered by a fear that the Sahel region of Africa might become a safe haven for al Qaeda operatives. The militaries of Mali and Niger have been receiving U.S. aid and training to combat terrorism for many years in spite of the fact that there is little evidence of Islamic extremism in either country. Indeed, critics have suggested that the strategy has been counter-productive and that heightened militarization of desert areas has led to resentment and encouraged the very extremism it was intended to prevent.
Over the past few years armed Muslim radicals have abducted Europeans in the Sahara on several occasions but their main motive has always been to obtain ransom money. The link between jihadist groups and Tuareg fighters is also unclear and although the Turaeg are Sunni, they practice the Maliki form of Islam and have no history of Islamic extremism. In their decades of struggle Tuareg fighters have rarely targeted Westerners. The MNJ rebel group in Niger has kidnapped several French and Chinese uranium mining employees but has always handed them over to the Red Cross after a few days claiming they only abducted them in order to convey their grievances to them in person. The Tuaregs have never kidnapped for ransom and have always been quick to claim responsibility for kidnaps. These methods are very different to the recent abductions of the UN officials in Niger and the Europeans in Mali and there is speculation that the two Canadians, sent by the UN for exploratory peace talks, might have been taken by government forces who regarded their presence as unwelcome external interference.
The Tuareg have always been a people apart, regarded with antipathy by many sedentary farming communities with whom they have historically conflicted. In times gone by a unique form of exchange evolved dubbed the Silent Trade whereby the Tuaregs would place desert salt in piles along the river bank and then retreat for half a day. Gold traders would then come and leave what they felt was an appropriate amount of gold beside each pile before also leaving. The Tuareg would then return and, if satisfied with the amount of gold beside each pile, would take it leaving the salt. If they felt it was not enough they would retreat again and the gold traders would have to increase the amount of gold. This process could take many weeks but it ensured that these groups could trade without needing to come face-to-face. It can only be hoped that a similar form of silent trade is currently taking place behind the scenes between governments and hostage takers and that the release of those being held will be negotiated soon.
STEFAN SIMANOWITZ is a writer, broadcaster and journalist.