In Niger's desert north almost fifty soldiers have been killed since February 2007 yet, according to President Mamadou Tandja's twitchy government, there is no rebellion. It blames bandits and drug-smugglers for the attacks and has responded by declaring a "state of alert" and deploying thousands of troops to the region.
Tristan McConnell is a freelance journalist based in west Africa. He writes for publications that include the Times and the Christian Science Monitor
Also by Tristan McConnell inopenDemocracy:
"Uganda: peace vs justice?" (13 September 2006)
"Liberia in transition" (15 March 2007)
Since the state of alert announced on 24 August local reporters have been arrested, civilians locked up without charge and foreign journalists banned from the northern region; protests from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have left the authorities in Niger's capital, Niamey, unmoved. Meanwhile, the rebel Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (Nigerien Movement for Justice / MNJ) uses a range of outlets - desert-based satellite phones, a website and exiled spokesmen in France - to declare its existence and record its claims of successful military strikes.
The rebels, led by light-skinned Tuareg nomads, famous for their flowing indigo robes and turbans, say they want a greater share of revenues from the uranium that is mined in the desert they call home. "The government extracts all the uranium without asking permission of the nomadic people and without giving anything to the people", says a representative in France.
They also accuse the government in Niamey of racist neglect, and demand more political representation. Much the same demands were made by Tuareg rebels during the 1990s. The MNJ leadership says the government's failure to implement fully a 1995 peace agreement is the reason why they have, again, taken up arms.
What looks like a little local trouble for the government in Niamey has broad implications, for a range of powerful foreign players - including China, France and Libya - have interests in a fight that is taking place among the beautifully desolate gravel planes, sand dunes and volcanic peaks of the Sahara desert. As one regional analyst puts it: "There are a lot of powerful countries meddling in a weak state and a lot of strategic interests involved."
A fracture zone
Niger has few resources to cope with such military threats and geopolitical rivalries on its territory. The vast, landlocked and arid country is ranked as the world's poorest by the United Nations, with its paltry wealth coming largely from the sale of uranium (3,500 tonnes of which was mined in 2006). The government says it wants to double production: two new mines are due to open for business in the next four years and close to a hundred exploration licenses have been issued to a range of foreign mining companies. The last thing the government needs now is disruption to uranium production caused by endemic insecurity.
Uranium was discovered in Niger in the late 1950s and the country has become Africa's biggest uranium exporter. Niger accounts for 8% of global uranium production, making it one of the world's top six producers. In 2003 Nigerien uranium achieved a measure of notoriety when the United States falsely alleged that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy some for a nuclear weapons programme, the claim being used as a justification for the invasion of Iraq.
openDemocracy writers track Africa's conflicts in 2007:
Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension" (28 February 2007)
Gérard Prunier, "The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)
Peter J Quaranto, "Ugandan peace: a second chance" (12 April 2007)
Gérard Prunier, "Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)
Godwin Nnanna, "Nigeria: the real democratic test" (19 April 2007)
Anna Husarska, "Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay" (8 October 2007)
During the 1990s a pound (lb) of uranium - in the form of "yellowcake" - sold for around $10 but by June 2007 the price had soared to a high of $135/lb driven by demand for uranium to fuel nuclear-power stations primarily in China and India. The price has since dropped back to around $90/lb.
From the start of uranium mining in Niger in 1971 the state-owned French nuclear-power company Areva has held a de facto monopoly which only ended in 2007 as foreign companies, in particular the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U), snapped up mining licenses.
Mining companies have been targeted by the rebels. In April the MNJ attacked an Areva facility and in July a Sino-U executive was briefly kidnapped. A rebel spokesman has warned foreign companies to leave the region; on 29 October the MNJ specifically charged Areva with providing financial backing to a government campaign and threatened its employees and with "serious consequences".
But the foreign companies are more than just unfortunate bystanders in the conflict. Niger has accused Areva of backing the rebels in order to deter competitor companies (the government expelled Areva's security advisor and declared its country manager persona non grata). Areva has strenuously denied the charge. For its part the MNJ leadership accuses China of offering military support in exchange for mining licenses. The Nigerien government dismisses these claims.
The other player is Libya whose leader Muammar Gaddafi has long coveted a chunk of Niger's north, giving rise to a longstanding border dispute between the two countries. Mamadou Tandja accuses Libya of giving the MNJ support, a claim that is denied by Libya and by the rebels, but one that draws credence thanks partly to the disputed area which lies in the Tuareg desert heartland, partly to the historic links that saw Tuareg rebels trained in Libyan camps in the 1990s, and partly due to Colonel Gaddafi's penchant for meddling in his neighbours' affairs.
A parched prospect
With the Niger government refusing even to acknowledge the rebels a negotiated solution seems far off. Meanwhile the eruption of violence and insecurity in Niger extends the swathe of instability that stretches almost the breadth of the continent, taking in a collection of weak states with poorly-controlled borders in a region awash with weapons and riven by ethnic divisions.
And in Agadez, the ancient northern city of mud-brick buildings at the heart of the insecurity, the rebellion is biting as residents find themselves trapped between the rebels and the army. The United Nations says both sides are using landmines, while banditry has increased in recent months despite an army presence that does little more than leave the civilians paranoid and fearful.
One tour operator who is out of work now that tourists have stopped coming to visit the desert and the jagged Aïr mountains looks around furtively before talking of the insecurity. He is afraid that to be overheard discussing the rebels might be enough to land him in jail. "The government and the rebels need to talk, not to fight", he says. "Normally you have a war and then you have the talks, but in this case the talks are not coming."