Uranium Under the Sand, Anger Above

By Claire Spiegel
Sunday, April 27, 2008


Most Americans have heard of Niger only because that's where the CIA dispatched former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to find out whether Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium. But Niger's precious resource, just a footnote to the Iraq war, is the cause of monumental suffering here.

In the dusty town of Agadez, at the gateway to the Sahara in northern Niger, Mohamed Abdou used to sell ornate jewelry made by nomadic Tuareg silversmiths squatting over tiny fires. His mud-brick shop, across the road from a 16th-century mosque, once employed 18 jewelers and brought in enough money for the tall, turbaned merchant to support his wife and baby, mother, nine younger siblings, aunt, two uncles and six cousins -- an excellent living in the world's fourth-poorest country. But that was before the fight over Niger's vast deposits of uranium crippled commerce in Agadez and turned the surrounding desert into a combat zone.

Mining operations in Niger threaten the existence of the Tuareg people, who have inhabited Niger's uranium-rich northern desert since the 10th century, and who are now fighting to preserve their nomadic lifestyle and to share in the new wealth.

This battle has erupted in a dangerous neighborhood. To the north, Libya and Algeria continue to act as breeding grounds for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Ethnic violence has wracked Chad and Sudan to the east.

U.S. military officials say that stabilizing impoverished Muslim countries such as Niger is the best way to prevent them from becoming havens for terrorists. And if there is a lesson to be learned from recent experience in Afghanistan, it is that war and poverty create opportunities for terrorists to take hold.

Two-thirds desert and 99 percent Muslim, Niger has long suffered the effects of grinding poverty, ethnic tension and regional rivalry, but soaring demand for uranium lit the powder keg. The price of uranium, which is used to fuel nuclear power plants, has skyrocketed from $9 to $75 per pound during the past decade, briefly hitting $135 last June. Niger plans to more than double its output over the next several years, and companies from Australia, Canada, China, India and France are scrambling to stake claims to the deposits, which are considered among the world's largest.

Like gold, diamonds, rubber and oil elsewhere in Africa, uranium has triggered chaos and violence, with young Tuaregs taking up arms and forming the Niger Movement for Justice in February 2007 to demand some control over uranium mining and the riches that come from it. They are challenging the government's position that nomads have no legal right to the land they have occupied for centuries -- or to the resources found on it. And they are demanding the health care, education and economic opportunities that the Niger government promised in a 1995 peace accord that ended an earlier Tuareg rebellion.

Last summer, Niger's government dispatched 4,000 troops to quash the latest Tuareg uprising in the country's vast northern expanses. Since then, any vestige of prosperity there has vanished. "My shop is closed now. I cannot sell a single ring. I live at the bottom of the economy," 31-year-old Abdou wrote in an e-mail from Agadez, which until a year ago was a commercial hub for nomads trading camels for grain and tourists flying in from Europe for desert sightseeing expeditions. "I live the life of a caged pigeon," Abdou continued. "Everything is blocked off, and the military do not let us leave our houses after 7 p.m. There are no cars or motorcycles here anymore. The children no longer go to school because they are so frightened."

During the past year, Tuareg rebels have killed more than 50 soldiers in the Niger army, which has retaliated by killing at least as many Tuareg rebel fighters and civilians. Dozens more have been imprisoned without trial, raped or terrorized, and herds of Tuareg livestock have been slaughtered, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch in December.

And the situation is getting worse. Incensed by Tuareg guerrilla attacks, soldiers last month launched a new wave of violence, according to Amnesty International. In one case, they cut off a man's ears and set his head on fire before stabbing him to death.

The Tuareg, known as the "Blue Men of the Desert" because of the indigo dye in their veils and turbans that rubs off on their skin, are an insular people who practice a moderate form of Islam and speak their own language, based on an ancient Libyan alphabet. For centuries, these nomads prospered from their trans-Saharan caravan trade. But now most of them struggle to survive -- herding camels and livestock and moving camp as often as once a week in search of pasture made scarce by drought and desertification.

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