Hostility between the Niger Movement for Justice
(MNJ) and the country’s government—brewing since government officials announced a sharp increase in mining project commitments in the northern region of Niger in early 2007—escalated this month. Violence reached Niger’s capital city of Niamey for the first time on January 8, 2008, when a landmine exploded under a car, killing a local radio director
. The MNJ, which decries what it perceives as the unequal distribution of profits from uranium mining and oil drilling in Tuareg territory, has killed nearly 50 soldiers
since early last year, earning the wrath of the Nigerien government. Although the group vehemently denies any involvement with the January 8 attack, many in Niger are skeptical of this claim
Ethnic Tuaregs, who live mostly in northern Niger and account for eight percent of the country’s population, make up the majority of the MNJ. Politically marginalized following independence and devastated by the desertification of the Sahel and the droughts of 1968-74 and 1984-85, the Tuareg also suffered from the government’s refusal to assist the drought-stricken territories and government expropriation of international humanitarian aid. Following the droughts, many Tuaregs moved to urban areas, where they found themselves culturally isolated. Others were forced to move into refugee camps, while still others migrated to Algeria and Libya. In Niger, this social divide, coupled with economic hardship, manifested itself in violent rebellion between 1990 and 1995, when a peace deal was brokered in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The peace, however, was neither complete nor lasting.
Recently, lack of access to the economic benefits of oil drilling and uranium mining in Tuareg territory has led to increasingly volatile relations between the Tuareg and Niger’s government. Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar’s announcement last May that Niger would seek to triple its uranium production in the near future only increased the tension. In addition, several instances of violence during 2007 have further strained relations between the MNJ and Niger’s government. On April 20, Tuareg rebels attacked uranium prospectors from the French-controlled Areva mining company in northern Niger, calling for increased benefits for the local Tuareg population and better implementation of the 1995 peace accord, which required companies to give preference to the Tuareg in their hiring processes. On July 6, rebels captured and held a Chinese mine employee for four days before releasing him.
The violence seems set to continue: On January 10, 2008, Nigerien Energy and Mines Minister Mamadou Abdulahi announced that Niger would award 100 new mining exploration permits over the next two years and seven new oil exploration licenses in 2008, and on January 13, Areva announced plans to undertake the largest industrial mining project ever in Niger. Areva will invest more than €1 billion in the project, which will produce nearly 5,000 tons of uranium a year.
The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) has long explored the connections between natural resources and security. ECSP’s January 9, 2008, meeting, “Innovative Partnerships for Peace: The Role of Extractive Industries in Resource-Based Conflict Prevention and Mitigation,” was the first in a series that will explore the links between conflict, natural resources, and human health.