March 18, 2008

Abe Lincoln in the Sahara

"We will bring our confrontation to the heart of the country, in the heart of this monster that absorbs all the soul of a democratic country whose sons have shed their blood, to emerge as "the power of the People by the people and for the people." -- Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), March 18, 2008

Abe Lincoln in the Sahara

The news blackout continues in Niger, and the only news about Tuaregs these days comes from news releases from Niamey to the international press, or else the Tuareg-led rebels' internet site. Both local and international journalists have been incarcerated and threatened with the death penalty for attempting to report impartially on the rebellion in the North. The Niger government refuses to open a dialogue on significant social, economic and political issues that the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) has made public through its website and through interviews with its representatives which have made international press. The Niger government has persistently labeled the rebel movement "armed gunmen" and "bandits," denying that there is any "rebellion" going on in Niger.

However, the facts speak for themselves: the multi-ethnic, Tuareg-led MNJ is a modern army with political objectives. Their actions over the past year reveal that they are a well-trained and highly successful military organization with a focused, clearly articulated political agenda. They have attacked numerous military installations, appropriated substantial government arsenals and vehicles, and taken dozens of military hostages, including government representatives. Their range of operations extends well beyond their Air Mountain stronghold, to Tanout in the south -- and this week, just 125 miles north of Niamey at Banibangou in the far west. They have initiated one successful attack after another, and have demonstrated that they are a substantial force to be reckoned with. Niger's army has been defeated repeatedly.

A daring pair of French reporters made a clandestine visit to the MNJ headquarters in northern Niger a few weeks ago. On French TV they aired candid views of MNJ President Aghaly ag Alambo seated amid some of their prisoners, including the Prefet of Tanout (see TCN news summary in the left-hand sidebar; view photo story here). The video footage reveals what appears to be a well-organized military operation, MNJ soldiers in uniforms, substantial sophisticated weaponry, rigorous training programs, and a calm, focused leader.

The actual number of MNJ forces is unknown, but according to their website, as of seven months ago they had over 2,000 fighters. They have received more fighters since then, including many soldiers who have defected from the Niger army and the FARS (the Tubu-led Forces armées révolutionnaires du Sahara), headed by Commandant Kindo Zada. They are a multi-ethnic force that includes Hausa army officers.

MNJ has an elite commando unit, the TIR (Troupes d'Intervention Rapides) that has staged many highly-successful commando-style surprise attacks, for example, the Agadez airport last summer and the major military installation at Tanout in January to mention a few. Many MNJ members were trained by U.S. marines as part of the Pan Sahel and Trans-Sahara anti-terrorism initiatives in 2003-2006. One source suggests that all 130 members of the U.S.-trained Niger Rapid Intervention Company defected from the army to join the MNJ. The MNJ, then, appears to be far more than "armed gunmen" or a "tribal army," but a modern military organization with seasoned soldiers trained in the best of traditions, by the American military. What makes the Tuareg-led MNJ formidable vis-à-vis the national army is their heritage of native navigation capabilities and combat experience in the Sahara, in addition to their sophisticated military training with U.S. marines and their ability to mobilize their units quickly, efficiently and effectively. In short, the MNJ is well-equipped and well-prepared to handle security issues in the Sahara. It has been suggested that Niger would do well to create a special force of these skilled trackers and fighters, and use them to protect the country's borders, instead of waging war on them (Thomas-Hensen and Fick 2007).

MNJ says that it is pro-democracy, and the reason they are fighting is because there is no democracy in Niger: the national government is a sham, a cruel and corrupt dictatorship run by a few political elites who have created a climate of repression and fear in the general population through threats, intimidation, arrests, rape, torture and extrajudicial executions (all of which have been documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Dec. 19, 2007).

According to MNJ (March 18, 2008), there is no legitimate government in Niger. The current regime came into power through the criminal assassination on April 9, 1999 of the people's democratically-elected president, Mainassara Baré, and then the same criminals put themselves in power and wrote a new constitution absolving themselves of the crime. Amnesty International (2000 report) called for an investigation, but there never was one. MNJ says that those in power in Niamey are the very criminals who assassinated the legitimate president, and therefore, MNJ does not recognize them as a legitimate government.

From the perspective of MNJ, there are no democratic channels they can go through to pursue their claims peacefully, because there is no democratic government in Niger. They claim that Niger is a government of unpunished crooks and assassins operating outside the Constitution, who create ethnic hatred, promote inequality, oppress the people and embezzle public funds instead of putting the funds toward the country's development and alleviation of the dire poverty in Niger. They claim that the current regime persistently abuses human rights and suppresses freedom of speech so that citizens are afraid to speak out, identify and discuss the issues.

Following their successful attack Monday, March 17, 2008 on the administrative post at Banibangou just 125 miles north of Niger's capital at Niamey, MNJ says it is dedicated to the establishment of true democracy in Niger, and they will continue their fight: "We will bring our confrontation to the heart of the country, in the heart of this monster that absorbs all the soul of a democratic country whose sons have shed their blood, to emerge as "the power of the People by the people and for the people," referencing a famous statement by American President Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, which is reproduced below:

"Four score and seven years ago [1776, the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war [1861-1865, the American Civil War], testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war [Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle was fought July 1-3, 1863; it was the battle with the most casualties, often considered the turning point of the American Civil War]. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people [democracy], shall not perish from the earth." (Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address dedicating a national cemetery to those slain in the battle there.)


Amnesty International
Niger: The Right To Justice. [Call for investigation of Pres. Mainassara Baré's April 9, 1999 assassination.]
2000 report

Amnesty International
Niger: Extrajudicial executions and population displacement in the north of the country.
December 19, 2007

Human Rights Watch
Niger: Warring Sides Must End Abuses of Civilians.
December 19, 2007

Mouvement Nigerien pour la Justice (MNJ)
The Constitutional Lies of an Illegitimate Regime.
March 18, 2008

Thomas-Hensen, Colin and Maggie Fick
Foreign Assistance Follies in Niger. CSIS Africa Policy Forum. (Center for Strategic and International Studies).
Sept. 4, 2007

Pourquoi les rebelles touareg se battent. Photo story.

Second Tuareg Rebellion. [Note: None of the sources referenced in this article by the statement that all 130 members of the Niger Rapid Intervention Company defected from the army to join the MNJ actually contain that information; therefore, while it could very well be true, the information remains merely an opinion or suggestion until the source is properly verified.]

March 06, 2008

Tuareg Concerns About Uranium Mining In Niger

Photo: Map showing areas of Niger affected by uranium mining and aquifer depletion.
Photo credit: Targuinca

All of the areas on this map have been the traditional homeland of the Tuaregs for hundreds of years.
The blue area denotes the Agadez Aquifer (Grès d'Agadez) water table (groundwater).
The Azawagh Valley, an immense drainage basin where Tuaregs pasture their herds in the summer, and where many Tuaregs currently live, extends over most of this map except for the Air Mountains (in orange) and the areas south of Agadez. Much of the Agadez Aquifer is also part of the Azawagh Valley.
The dark purple lines denote areas where the government of Niger has awarded uranium permits.
The light purple lines denote areas where more permits might be awarded because they may have uranium.
The orange-brown area is the Air Mountain range.
The yellow areas are sandy areas and dune beds outside the aquifer zone, where many nomads also currently live. Wells (small circles) are distributed throughout.
The dark purple square near Arlit shows the location of Areva uranium mines for the past 40 years.
Paved roads are denoted by darker black lines; the other lines are dirt roads and tracks.

Why are Tuaregs in Niger concerned about uranium mining in their areas?

Tuaregs in Niger are concerned about the uranium mining in the areas where they live because it affects them in several significant ways.

The uranium companies exclude the impoverished local Tuareg people from employment opportunities in the mining industry, but even more importantly:

(1) uranium mining produces cancer-causing radioactive waste, including radon-infused gas and dust that pervades the groundwater ("aquifer") that Tuaregs drink, as well as the seasonal pasture lands where Tuaregs herd their livestock; and

(2) uranium mining makes extensive use of groundwater to process the uranium, depleting the aquifers, resulting in a low water table, dry wells, and a severe shortage of drinking water for both people and livestock.

(3) uranium mining poses an acute threat to the Tuareg way of life; within the next two decades they will no longer be able to survive in their homeland due to radioactive pollution and aquifer depletion.

Water scarcity is a critical factor for the survival of livestock-herding nomads in the desert environment, and in just the past few decades, the uranium industry has dramatically hastened the critical point at which the Tuaregs will no longer be able to survive in their homeland because of radioactive pollution and the depletion of water aquifers caused by the uranium industry.

Where do the Tuaregs live, and how do they nomadize?

Map, showing where the Tuaregs live in the central Sahara, with the Azawagh Valley marked: (Air-Voyages-Niger)

Map, showing network of river-beds in the Azawagh Valley: (Indy Media)

Peoples living in the northern and central Sahara have been engaged in livestock herding for thousands of years. Nine thousand years ago, the Sahara was not a desert; it was green and relatively lush, with forests and grasslands spreading across the top third of Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. The Sahara is as large as the United States, and is shared by eleven African countries.

Farming and pastoralism developed in the Sahara by around 8,000 years ago -- not long after it emerged in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dates reveal that inhabitants of the central Sahara were already expert at managing wild Barbary sheep as early as 8000-8900 years ago (Hull 1998:84), and in the Adrar Bous and Arlit (Azawagh Valley) areas (Niger) by 5000-6000 years ago (Hull 1998:88). Sheep and goats seem to have been the main herds in early times. Starting about 7000 years ago, cattle were raised in some parts of the central Sahara. Many early (difficult to date) rock carvings and paintings display strong symbolic connections with livestock. Some sites suggest that local transhumance patterns (movement from a dry-season home area to a summer-season pasture area) were well-established thousands of years ago.

As a result of global warming, the Sahara began the slow process of transformation from well-watered woodland savannah to sparsely-watered desert at the beginning of the Holocene around 10,000 years ago, accelerated around 8,000 years ago with the introduction of farming, and wound into high-gear around 5,000 years ago, making it increasingly difficult over the next few thousand years to raise cattle in the Sahara.

By about 2,000 years ago, the ancestors of Tuaregs in the northern Sahara had adopted the camel as a means of transport and major milk producer in lieu of cattle, and with the drying of the Sahara, gradually migrated further and further south, into the Ifoghas (Mali), Ahaggar (Algeria), and Air (Niger) mountain regions where there is greater pasture and water availability, enhanced by the Azawagh Valley drainage system which produces abundant rainy-season pasture.

Tuaregs today raise camels and goats; they also keep sheep, and some Tuaregs keep cows, as well. Cows and sheep are grazers (depend on ground-vegetation, grass), whereas goats and camels are browsers (they can reach up and eat higher vegetation such as leaves on trees and bushes). Cows and sheep are the first to go in a drought, since they depend on grass; camels and goats can survive a drought better, because they can eat leaves on trees and bushes.

In Niger, Tuaregs live in the "northern" part of the country, most of which is north of the 100 mm isohyet -- an artificial line that delimits the areas of very low annual rainfall, less than 100 millimeters throughout the year, that defines the Sahara (some scientists include areas as far south as the 150 mm isohyet in the Sahara, or even as far south as the 200 mm isohyet). By contrast, the area south of the Sahara called the Sahel has rainfall up to 800 mm per year. The Sahel is a transition area between the Sahara in the northern third of Africa, and the African savannahs to the south of the Sahara.

A major geographic feature of "the North" in Niger is the vast Azawagh Valley (Eghazer, "basin"). It is an immense drainage system extending from the Air Mountains, west of Agadez, north of In Gall, encompassing Arlit, all the way north to the Algeria-Niger border, and west, toward the Mali-Niger border. All of the uranium mines are in the center of this enormous region.

The Azawagh Valley produces seasonal grasses and plants and standing ponds of water with a high mineral ("salt") content that is nourishing for livestock. For hundreds of years it has been the practice of many Tuareg groups in Niger to move their herds to the Azawagh Valley from July to September during the summer transhumance, in order to take advantage of the abundance of vegetation there to feed their flocks during the rainy summer months.

During the rainy season, the main source of drinking water for people and animals are the temporary ponds that collect rainwater. After the seasonal vegetation there is exhausted in September, Tuareg families move back to their "home well area" at a distance from the Azawagh Valley, and slowly circulate with their herds during the nine-month dry season around a well to which their extended family has rights.

During the dry season, the main source of water for people and animals are the home wells, and water availability depends on the level of the underground water table and associated "aquifers" (underground water). Toward the end of the dry season, in April, May and June, the dry pasture around home wells begins to run out, the water table becomes low, and Tuaregs anxiously await the return of the rainy season so that they can move their herds to the Azawagh Valley and nourish them.

Tuareg dairy herders normally manage their herds so that camels give birth during the rainy season, when there will be plenty of pasture for lactating camels to sustain their offspring. The success of Tuareg dairy pastoralism in Niger depends on this complex cycle of transhumance, making use of the seasonal water and pasture supplies in the Azawagh Valley.

In the Sahara, rainfall is erratic and unpredictable, but Tuaregs have developed extensive patterns of pasture-sharing and well-calculated nomadic movements to maximize the available pasture and water in the Sahara. They have been able to survive in this hostile environment for hundreds of years, as a result of carefully-planned use of the available environment.

The Azawagh Valley and its seasonal mineral-enriched rainfall-water and pasture availability are key to Tuareg survival. But so is the water from wells, which comes from deep underground aquifers.

The ecological balance of water availability and herd management is fragile, and the uranium mining activities are steadily undermining the ability of the Tuareg people to making a living in their homeland. Within 20 years, groundwater sources will be exhausted through steady depletion caused by the uranium exploitation process, and the Tuaregs will not be able to survive the nine-month dry season which depends largely on the availability of (safe and abundant) groundwater to sustain people and herds for most of the year. Moreover, the water and land of the Azawagh Valley is being polluted by the uranium exploitation process, putting people and animals increasingly at risk for illness, cancer, stillbirths, and genetic defects.

Why does uranium mining deplete the groundwater?

Copious amounts of water are used in a variety of ways in the process of extracting uranium ore from the earth and processing it into convenient lumps of "yellowcake."

With "open-pit mining" techniques (conventional mining), the soil and rock ("overburden") on top of the underlying uranium-laden rock is removed by blasting and drilling, and water is extensively sprayed to suppress airborne particles, to reduce the workers' exposure to inhalation of radioactive dust. With "underground mining" techniques, shafts and tunnels are dug into the ground, and water seeps in and becomes perfused with radioactive and toxic waste. This is the most expensive method, because of the associated cost of blasting, drilling, digging and hauling, and because it is a lot slower.

With " leaching" techniques, liquids (solutions that combine caustic acids with water from wells that tap underground aquifers) are pumped into "injection wells" placed on one side of the uranium deposit, forced through the deposit, and then sucked up through "recovery wells" on the other side of the deposit, and thus leach out the uranium which emerges mixed with the large amounts of water pumped through the deposit. The large amounts of waste liquids must then be dumped somewhere, and they seep into the groundwater. This type of uranium extraction is the only type of uranium mining currently practiced in the U.S., and in the U.S. it is accompanied by environmental impact studies because the ground water can be affected adversely. This type of extraction is also the one most widely preferred, because it is the cheapest -- no extensive digging of volumes of overburden. Also, uranium companies get their uranium a lot faster this way.

What are the risks of uranium mining?

Uranium ore emits radon gas. During the 1950s in the U.S., after large deposits of uranium were discovered on Navajo reservations, mining companies hired a lot of Navajo Native Americans to work in the mines. Many Navajo miners developed small cell carcinoma as a result. Uranium mining also releases radioactive dust into the air and across the land. Uranium mining waste products from both conventional mining and from "leaching" procedures pose a great risk to people, animals and plants, through the pollution of aquifers -- the groundwater that seeps into wells, where people get their water for drinking and for watering livestock and gardens.

Where are the uranium mines in Niger?

For forty years, the French mining company Areva has been exploiting uranium around Arlit. Recently, the government of Niger issued mining permits to China, to explore for uranium and establish mines around Teguidda n-Tesumt and In Gall, south of Arlit. Numerous additional permits have been awarded to India, Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia and others for uranium exploration from the area around Agadez, to the west of In Gall, and in all of the areas north to the border with Algeria. Nearly all of these areas are right in the middle of the great Azawagh Valley which is key to the survival of most of the Tuareg people in Niger.

Where are the aquifers that are affected by the mining industry?

The Agadez Aquifer (Grès d'Agadez), the major water table (nappe in French, groundwater, aquifer) in northern Niger, extends throughout the area where uranium mining permits have been awarded, from the Falaise de Teguidit (south of In Gall and Agadez), to Agadez, all along the western Air Mountains, up to Arlit, and west to In Abangharit and Mabrouk. This is an enormous area, one that has been key to Tuareg pastoral nomadism for hundreds of years. This vast aquifer, which represents clean water collected in the ground over hundreds of thousands of years, is being depleted and polluted by the uranium mining companies in order to extract uranium that will be used to produce electricity and nuclear weapons in richer nations of the world. In order to gain some perspective on the enormity of the problem, please refer to the map below, which is a .pdf file accessed on the Internet:

Map showing the affected aquifer regions in Niger:

Download a 53-page report prepared by Tchinaghen on the situation, "The Uranium Malediction: North-Niger, Victim of Its Riches"

Issouf ag Maha's organization, Tchinaghen:

Other sources:

Hull, Augustin F. C.
1998 The Dawn of African Pastoralisms: An Introductory Note. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17(2):81-96, December 1998.

March 04, 2008

Niger: Insidious Return to a "State of Exception"

Photo: Issouf ag Maha

Photo Credit:

The Insidious Return to a "State of Exception"

by Issouf ag Maha

March 3, 2008

[Translator's note: In Carl Schmitt's legal theory, a "State of Exception" is like a state of emergency, except that the ruler has managed to acquire the authority to act outside of Constitutional law, claiming to be for the public good.]

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is not entirely clear why Tandja escalated the attack on Iférouane into a war. How has this soldier, who some people consider a most pathetic politician, been able to undertake, despite the reluctance of an entire population, a fratricidal conflict that threatens to engulf the country? If one assumes the colonel's game is succeeding, we should ask ourselves what are the motives that are guiding his approach.

Who Benefits From This Crime?

First Hypothesis:

In twenty months, President Tandja [of Niger] will complete his second term. The Nigerien Constitution does not permit him to run for a third. Tandja Mamadou was a member of the Supreme Military Council, the military junta that overthrew [former President] Hamani Diori and imposed thirteen years of dictatorship on Nigeriens. However, it will be recalled, Tandja was the most zealous of the group, the all-time tyrant of the team.

It will also be recalled that [former President] Kountché, the brutal and violent dictator, pushed the ticket to the extreme. Upon assuming power, he declared the word "political" forbidden. In his eyes politics was a science too risky for the people, whose role must be reduced to obeying orders, listening to the radio and respecting the meetings of tribunals that applaud official speeches.

Politics is an area reserved for the president of the supreme military council, the head of State, who had accumulated titles to such prestigious posts as Minister of National Defense and Minister of the Interior and Regional Planning. We also know the admiration our dear president [Tandja] nourished for his former master. The hard-line Prefect of Tahoua [Tandja] and all-powerful Minister of the Interior [Tandja] profits from the short memory of Nigeriens, reappearing to them now as a politician who's gentle, engaging, and thoughtful.

Tandja, elected and re-elected President of the Republic, nostalgic for the dark times of national emergency, only thinks of casting suspicion on the country's democratic achievements; for him, these are no longer an obstacle to his power-grabbing and dictatorial ambitions. Perhaps more intelligent or better organized than previously thought, he has seized an opportunity to put his political machine in order, by means of a conflict that he could have stopped at the outset.

Step One

Introduce to the collective subconscious of Nigeriens the logic of war and the feeling that the country's existence is threatened, through a strong campaign of intoxication throughout the media that martyrizes the security forces. (Step One already successful.)

Step Two
Track down people from the North [Tuaregs], forcing them into exile and joining the MNJ rebels, though arbitrary arrests, torture and summary executions. (Step Two has already begun with success.)

Step Three
Give the military a taste of power and dazzle them with a potential return to military dictatorship, by declaring a national security alert (Step Three has already been implemented).

Step Four
Remain cleverly vague on the issues, by forbidding the media's access to information. (Step Four has already been achieved with great success).

Step Five
Discredit decentralization, by arresting local elected officials on the pretext of misappropriation of public funds. (Step Five is currently in progress in Niamey, Dosso, Maradi, Zinder and Agadez).

Step Six
Quench partisan militancy, by alienating political leaders on all sides, in order to calm the passions of a multiparty politics that is dear to the people. (Step Six, there has been gradual disappearance of the political opposition and critical spirit).

Step Seven
Gradually replace civilian administrative authorities with army officers. (Step Seven already in process, first the prefect of Arlit was replaced, and soon afterward, the prefets of Tchirozérine and Agadez).

Step Eight
Declare a state of emergency throughout the nation. (Step Eight, already initiated, as revealed by urban terrorism).

Step Nine
Suspend the Constitution and introduce a "State of Exception" [where the ruler transcends Constitutional law] in the best interests of the nation. (Step Nine will emerge by surprise, after an event carefully prepared in advance, and proportional to the decision.)

Stage Ten

Develop a new Constitution with a 97% vote, allowing the re-election of Tandja for an initial term of a Sixth Republic.

This is how the game is played, and our politicians will realize after a long delay that they have fallen into a trap. To trap the fish, some will be promoted to high office that will allow them the necessary access to the feeder [corruption]. (Nigeriens will finally return to the blind submission which seems to be ingrained in them.).

Second Hypothesis

Northern Niger is replete with substantial deposits of uranium. Mineral exploitation at Arlit and Akokan has already exhausted 70% of the water resources from the Talak aquifer. Exploitation at Imouraren and Teguida N'Tessoum will tap the Tchirozérine aquifer that supplies Agadez. Twenty years from now, there will be no more water in this vast desert region. Life will be more than compromised: it will be the great catastrophe for indigenous peoples.

Before reaching that point, they will be forced to move away from the mining towns that will emerge in their native territories. As a prelude to this terrifying and inexorable reality, and in complicity with the world powers interested in the precious ore, the region must be depopulated. It will take some time to contain the movements and upheavals of the people concerned. This calls for preventative measures.

The outside observer will say: What an abomination!
=> The poorest country is exhausting its wealth, in order to finance a conflict that will maintain it as the poorest, least developed country in the world.
=> To extract the precious ore, they are depleting all the region's water, in one of the most arid areas of the planet.

If Tandja's principal objective is the combination of these two hypotheses, which are intimately linked and interrelated, then perhaps he is not as mediocre as one had supposed.

Issouf Ag MAHA
On March 3, 2008

Original article published in French, with the full text on Vouature Simone, and excerpts on Targuinca.

Map showing the affected aquifer regions in Niger: