The Tuareg in Niger: A Story of Uranium and Post-Colonialism

A Tuareg family takes shelter from a sandstorm at Lake Banzena. It has not rained for months and the area is suffering from the most severe drought to hit Mali in 29 years. Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith made available by ARTSTOR.

Since the 1960s, the Tuaregs of Saharan Africa have launched multiple rebellions against the Malian and Nigerien governments. The latest round of armed rebellions happened in 2012 in Mali which has severely destabilized the country. Since then France, the United Nations, and other nations have intervened to support the Malian government. While that conflict also has ties to other international Islamist terrorist groups due to initial alliances in the rebellion breaking down, the Tuareg’s fight has little evidence that their fight is tied to Islamist extremism. Instead, when we peel away the superficial layers of the conflict, we see that the Tuareg have been involved in a fight for what they claim are indigenous rights to their native lands. We see them fighting for greater economic say in their claimed lands, a fear of environmental degradation destroying their lands and people, and a suspicion towards the Nigerien government and its alliance with international states.

Who are the Tuaregs?

The Tuaregs (also can be spelled as Twareg or Touareg) are a semi-nomadic people that arrived in the Sahel region in 4th or 5th century A.D. and have since established themselves as different clans in confederations throughout lands in Niger, Mali, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. The Tuaregs have described the Aïr Mountains in Niger as being one of their most important homelands and has the highest population of Tuaregs residing in Niger. The Tuaregs share many cultural aspects with the Berbers throughout most of North Africa and are also predominantly Muslim. When colonialism began, the Tuaregs were extremely resistant to colonial rule by the French. They often violently resisted French rule and even were successful in wiping out a French military unit in 1881. This event, mixed with other events, led to a very strong anti-colonial mindset among the Tuaregs which can be seen even today towards foreigners working in the area.

Made available through Wikipedia.

What about Niger?

Niger is consistently ranked as one of the poorest nations in the world with some of the worst civil and social infrastructure. Since achieving independence in 1960, Niger has had 5 different constitutions and 3 different military regimes in power, so it’s definitely easy to say that the country isn’t one of the most politically stable in the world. Apart from these significant issues, Niger is the largest country in West Africa that is also landlocked and mostly made up of part of the Sahara Desert. In terms of the economy, Niger’s main exports are minerals, but most importantly Uranium which will be brought up again in the very near future. The last time there was a Tuareg rebellion in Niger was in 2008, though this rebellion was put down by the Nigerien military. Since then, Niger has had to deal with violence spewing over from international terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), ISIS, and other regional terrorist groups. These terrorist groups have not found popular support though from the Nigerien populace. That being said, domestic terrorism doesn’t seem to be too active apart from sporadic fighting between the government and Tuaregs near Agadez, which is near the Aïr Mountains.

Niger is not alone in it’s fight against those various international terrorist groups. Since 2003, the United States have kept some troops in the region recognizing the strategic importance and vulnerability for the Sahel region to become a hot bed for Islamist extremism. Even to present day, the U.S. troops have been assisting the Nigerien military (though the extent of how much assistance and exactly what is defined as assistance is difficult to discern). In 2016, President Obama authorized the construction of a drone base in Niger leading to a wave of nonviolent protests from the local Nigerien populace. The last notable mention that has come about the U.S. military involvement was an ambush by unknown Islamist militants that killed 4 U.S. service members. This military presence is important to note for later explanation regarding Tuareg frustrations.

The uranium mine in Arlit run by French nuclear firm Areva. Photo by William Daniels and made available by ARTSTOR.

What about the uranium?

As mentioned before, uranium is one of Niger’s most important exports and one of the biggest sources of cash for the country’s struggling economy. Niger sits on one of the largest uranium deposits in the world and is the world’s 4th largest exporter of uranium. This uranium mining doesn’t seem to be handled by a state controlled or Nigerien company. Instead we find mainly French and Chinese companies that control the uranium mining operations. These mining operations have been found to have unsafe working conditions and have caused severe ecological damage. Workers are not given proper protective safety equipment and often pay the price later in their lives for that with numerous health issues. In terms of the environmental issues surrounding these mines, scientists have found radioactive dust miles around mines. That dust has also been found in water sources causing those to become contaminated and unsafe as well.

This has not gone well with locals in the area who have often tried to ask for better safety and environmental regulations. However, due to alleged corruption within the Nigerien government, regulatory reform has never manifested leading to a status quo scenario of radiate, replace, and repeat cycle with workers. Recently there has been some international attention given to the issue, but this attention has been overshadowed by other events in the international system.

But why does this all matter to the Tuaregs?

MALI. Portraits. MALI. Gao. 1986. Tuareg woman. Photo by Steve McCurry from ARTSTOR.

Now as mentioned before, the Tuareg consider the Aïr Mountains to be one of the most important lands they claim. Guess where the Arlit uranium mine is. If you guessed around the Aïr Mountains then you were right. This is a major source of contention between the Tuaregs and the Nigerien government for many reasons:

  1. The Tuareg believe that the unregulated mine is leading to the ecological destruction of their most sacred lands. Therefore they want for Areva (the French uranium mining company) and the Nigerien government to provide stronger protections for the environment around these mines.
  2. Since the Arlit uranium mine is on Tuareg land, they believe they should have greater access to the benefits of the mine which at the moment is rather pitiable. Therefore the Tuaregs should either have more representation on the running of the mine or a greater share of the revenue.
  3. Areva is a French company. Therefore, the Tuareg see the presence of this French company as yet another form of French colonialism (which based on how little Niger receives from the export of it’s exports of uranium to France, this author is inclined to agree with this statement). Niger is considered a strategic supplier of uranium to France. In fact uranium makes up 70% of Niger’s exports, but yet uranium only provides 5% of Niger’s GDP. Therefore the Tuareg would want to see the Nigerien government reduce the amount of foreign control (both Chinese and French) on uranium extraction and instead see more domestic (or for the Tuareg, more indigenous) control of the mining operations in Niger.

Apart from these reasons, the Tuareg seem to have other motivations in their resistance against the government that relate to the anti-colonial/western mindset mentioned before. In very recent times, the Tuareg have been angered by France intervening in the pseudo-civil war in Mali and see the current Nigerien administration’s support for France as supporting a colonial power (which is also seen negatively by much of the Nigerien populace as well). The Tuaregs and the Nigerien populace also share the sentiment towards the United States, though public sentiment seems a lot more muddled in this arrangement. While yes, there is an appreciation for the United States fighting these international terrorist groups. Popular opinion in Niger and among the Tuareg also suggests that some people think some of the terrorism is there because the United States is there. Mix this opinion with the already negative idea of allowing another international actor to come into the country and anti-colonialist/western opinions are stoked again making yet more dissatisfaction with an already messy situation.

AFRICA. Niger. 2005. AFRICA. Niger. 2005. NIGER. Tajae. Tuareg chieftan Syadi Ibrahim with his family in the Tuareg palace. 2005. Photo by Stuart Franklin and made available by ARTSTOR.

So what now?

Arguably this is the hardest thing that can be answered. For one thing, international pressure should be applied onto Areva to have a higher standard of worker and environmental safety around the mines that the company runs. I would also encourage an international observer to be posted to these mines so that third party verification of safety and environmental standards being met. I think this is a relatively easy way to help minimize tensions between all parties involved. I would also propose that the Niger government creates a joint oversight committee between Tuareg and Nigerien civilians to oversee that regulations on the uranium mining in the country.

In terms of the United States, I would propose that instead of focusing so much on military support, to create a strategic approach to helping the Nigerien government to establish more domestic control of domestic resource extraction that way they are able to gain more legitimacy in Niger and help the country improve economically. If the U.S. were to address more of the socio-economic issues in this already politically secular country, I am positive that the little public support for international terrorism there would drop even more. If this were to happen, then a successful bastion would be creating the Sahel region that could be a tremendous strategic asset as the security situation in the Sahel continues to deteriorate.

For the Tuareg, this conflict with surrounding nations and states doesn’t seem at all to be about Islamist extremism. Regardless of the fact that they allied with Islamist groups in the 2012 Malian uprising, the Tuareg goal seems to be to achieve more autonomy and more rights for the Tuareg. They want to safeguard their people against environmental threats created by international mining companies, a way to bring their people out of poverty, and more autonomy. Therefore I believe for more stability in the region, the international community should pay more attention to this situation as the Sahel region becomes more chaotic.

Other helpful resources to learn more about this conflict:

Schritt, Jannik. “The ‘Protests against Charlie Hebdo’ in Niger: A Background Analysis.” Africa Spectrum, vol. 50, no. 1, 2015, pp. 49–64., Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.

Keenan, Jeremy. “Uranium Goes Critical in Niger: Tuareg Rebellionsthreaten Sahelian Conflagration.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 35, no. 117, 2008, pp. 449–466. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.

“Is There a Nigerien Model of Resilience?” Achieving Peace in Northern Mali: Past Agreements, Local Conflicts, and the Prospects for a Durable Settlement, by Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, Calif., 2015, pp. 59–88. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.

Graduate Student in International Security, Political Junky, History Buff, Star Wars Fan.

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