February 06, 2008

Electricity and the Tuaregs

Photo of a lovely Tuareg girl in Niger, by professional photographer Jason Hall, extremeboh, on Flickr.

Electricity and the Tuaregs

What does electricity have to do with the Tuaregs?

Sometimes, not very often, we wonder where electricity comes from. It's a plug in the wall, and we flip the switch and it's there for us when we need it. But where does it come from, Beyond the Wall? Electricity is kind of mysterious. Is there a factory somewhere that makes electricity? What is it made from?

Less mysterious is the fuel we put in our cars, or at least it seems so. Most of us have heard of oil fields out there somewhere. We know it comes from the earth. There must be big stretches of land where the oil people go to get it and ship it to our gas stations.

France is a country that gets a whole lot of its electricity from a very far away place that's hard to get to -- in the Sahara desert. And Canada is a country that is hoping to get a lot of oil from the same place. Both these countries, just like the U.S., Britain, Japan, China, India, Russia and many other countries, are looking outside their own countries to get fuel, because they don't have enough.

The Sahara has a lot of fuel. There are uranium mines that supply a major portion of the world's uranium. And there are oil fields that have untold quantities of oil to be tapped.

A significant amount of the Sahara's uranium and oil are in a little-known country called Niger (not Nigeria!) that is mostly in the Sahara desert.

Most Americans think of the Sahara as a wasteland, a no-man's land, a place where there are no people because it's so hot and desolate.

So little do we know! In fact, the Sahara has been a busy place for thousands of years. It has been a major network of trade routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean, Asia and Europe.

Many, many years before America existed, and before Britain and France and Russia existed, there were people living in the Sahara who made a living by transporting goods across the desert, for hundreds and hundreds of miles through the massive dunes called ergs, the rugged mountains of volcanic origin, and the flat rocky regions called regs. These people were the Berber-speakers who lived west of the Egyptians, all across North Africa and in many parts of the Sahara. The Sahara has been a busy place, connecting many civilizations, for hundreds and thousands of years.

The Berber-speakers established their own cities in the Sahara, and named nearly every landmark in it. Some of the Berber-speakers were caravaneers; others kept gardens in the oases; and yet others herded camels, goats and sheep in the rural areas between towns and cities of the Sahara.

The descendants of these ancient people still exist. And they still live in the Sahara. Today they are called the Tuaregs. They refer to themselves as Kel Temajeq, the people who speak Temajeq, a Berber language.

In the areas where the oil fields are, the Tuaregs still operate caravans. In the areas where the uranium mines are, the Tuaregs still herd their camels, goats and sheep.

But something has changed. The uranium people and the oil people are making agreements with the rulers of Niger, and giving the rulers lots of money, in exchange for the right to go get the uranium and oil from the lands where the Tuaregs live.

The uranium people have already been at work for 40 years, taking the uranium from Niger and transforming it into electricity in France. Without the uranium from the lands where the Tuaregs live in Niger, French children could not watch their favorite TV shows after school, and office workers could not check their email and send messages back and forth all day. Things would not be very happy if it weren't for the wonderful uranium from the lands where the Tuaregs live.

But the French children and the office workers don't really think much about the fact that watching TV and checking email depends greatly on getting the uranium away from Niger. The uranium people working in Niger want to get the uranium as quickly as possible, without wasting a lot of money. So they let the radioactive waste products spill over into the water that the Tuareg people drink, and the land where they herd their livestock. They ought to take some safety measures and make sure they don't spill the radioactive waste, because it is making the Tuaregs who live there sick. The Tuareg children will not live as long because of it. Some of their parents will die early and leave their children before they have grown up. Their livestock get sick, too from the radioactivity, and the area is no longer safe to live, because of the radioactive dust all over the place.

What is really amazing is that the uranium people from France take the uranium, worth millions of dollars, and don't give anything back to the Tuareg people. They may think they do, but they don't. What happens is that the uranium people give money to Niger's rulers, who live far away, and keep it for themselves and use it for their own purposes. Why don't the uranium people give some of the money directly to the Tuaregs, so they can make their community nicer -- wouldn't that be a decent thing to do? The answer is that the Niger rulers won't allow it. The Niger rulers want all of the money for themselves and their friends. The only way the uranium people can get the uranium, is to give the money to Niger's rulers.

The uranium people need workers for the uranium mines, but they hire very few of the Tuareg people who live near the mines, so that they could make some money. Instead they hire the people that Niger's rulers want them to hire, because otherwise, Niger's rulers wouldn't let them into the country to take the uranium. It's the same with all of the other countries who want to go into Niger and take the uranium. China even built its own city near the uranium mines, so that they could just be by themselves and not be bothered by the Tuaregs.

When the Canadian oil people go to Niger, it will be the same thing. They will have to give money to Niger's rulers, and hire the people that Niger's rulers want them to hire, in order to get the oil.

Most people who use electricity and oil don't really understand this situation. Electricity and oil are basic essentials in modern countries. Many people heat their homes with electricity and oil. In Niger, many homes do not have electricity, and few people own cars to drive. Isn't it ironic that Niger has so much uranium, but so little electricity?

The Tuareg people who herd camels, goats and sheep have to sit up all night in front of a campfire to keep themselves warm. They don't have TV sets and computers. They live in tents, and small mud houses without electricity. They don't have jobs, except to produce the milk they drink, by herding livestock. Many Tuareg families do not have enough to eat, because there have been droughts lately, and because the grain they eat costs so much. In order to buy anything, they would have to sell some of their camels, goats and sheep. And if they kept doing that, they would no longer have any livestock left. Many Tuaregs are impoverished to the point that they cannot even buy the food they need, and they are malnourished and starving.

The Tuaregs live on the only land in Niger that has energy resouces of value on it -- uranium and oil. The Tuaregs have tried to get something back from the uranium that is being taken from their lands. Normal democratic processes are not available to them, and so they have rebelled. The Niger rulers have sent out their army to kill the Tuareg rebels. The army was defeated. They couldn’t make the Tuareg rebels quiet down, so they tried to scare them into silence by torturing and killing innocent Tuareg people who were easy to get to -- the unprotected families. Still, the Tuareg rebels are speaking out, the only way they can, on the Internet. This has angered the Niger government, and they say they won't talk with the rebels about their grievances. In order to provide development to the North, the government would have to use some of the revenues from the uranium mines.

The rebels feel they have a just cause for rebelling, because they made an agreement 13 years ago with the Niger rulers, but Niger's government didn't abide by it, and refuses to talk about it, because they want to keep the uranium money for themselves. Part of the agreement was to allocate some of the money from the uranium for the Tuaregs to build their communities, and to create jobs for Tuaregs. The Peace Accords of 1995 is a legally-binding document. Here is what the agreement said:

Agreement establishing a permanent peace between the Government of the Republic of Niger and the Organization of Armed Resistance (ORA)

April 24, 1995

ARTICLE 22: … the Government is committed to take all necessary steps in order to continue and accelerate the efforts of investment in pastoral zone by the implementation of new development strategies aimed at:

B. In the area of mines and industries: The mines remain a national asset whose benefits should enable the development of all regions. This requires:

Supporting the development of the regional economy by implementing incentives to create new jobs for local people [Tuaregs] who will receive a priority in the recruitment.

Transferring a portion of national resources generated by the mining to local governments [the communities where Tuaregs live].

People who use electricity that's made from the uranium don't really know what is involved in getting the uranium. They don't realize that the companies who get the uranium are taking it from people who are poor, and not giving anything back to them.

The uranium people spend millions of dollars to get the uranium out of Niger. They give thousands of dollars to Niger's rulers who allow them to take the uranium. But they don't give anything back to the Tuareg people, except radioactive waste that's making them sick.

Ethnic hatred is a problem in Niger. But a major contributing factor is the greed of the uranium and oil companies -- and ultimately the people abroad who use these products.

The Tuareg people understand the situation, because it affects them severely. Their rebel leaders have spoken out about it, because they want the government to live up to the agreement that was established 13 years ago. The agreement was very clear: the government was supposed to provide jobs and development for the Tuareg people, by using the uranium money. The agreement was hard won: the Tuaregs fought for several years to get it. Many of their people died, or fled as refugees, trying to get that agreement. The government fooled them: they got the Tuaregs to put down their arms, and then they continued to treat them badly. Now they are refusing to talk about it, and trying to think of ways to kill more Tuareg people by creating an atmosphere of hatred in the country and pitting people against one another.

This week, the uranium company, called Areva, laid off 15 of their local Tuareg employees. Each Tuareg who worked there was supporting dozens of impoverished relatives. It is the middle of winter, and there are no other jobs for them where they live.

Niger's ruling elites are making new demands in its campaign against the Tuareg people, and the uranium company is going along with them.

What about the responsibility of the people who are benefiting from the electricity and oil?

What about the responsibility of the companies who are taking these resources?

What about the responsibility of the government to abide by its agreement?

What about the responsibility of the world powers who helped set up a democracy in Niger? How can they expect democracy to survive in Africa if they do not help keep fledgling democracies functioning as democracies, instead of dictatorships?

Peace Petition "Peace In Niger"