Thursday, December 20, 2007

Plus ça change du Niger: journalists arrested, human rights violations abound and blame falls on the French

Just days after Niger President Mamadou Tandja offered a fig leaf to Tauregs by assuring rebels the state would not seek reprisals if they put down their weapons, the government arrested two French journalists in connection with the conflict, Reuters says.

The country’s security forces claim the two men, both television journalists working for European TV ARTE, defied a ban on foreign reporters for the north of the country during what is being called the Second Tuareg rebellion. The journalists have been in custody since Monday.

The indigenous and formally pastoral Tuaregs claim the government is not fulfilling economic development and political requirements from the 1995 peace deal, which ended their 1990s uprising. The Niger government declares the rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice, MNJ, does not represent the mainstream Tuareg community; rather, it is a group of smugglers and bandits.

Aid organizations have complained that because of violence and government decree, the north of Niger has largely been sealed off.

A spokesman for the Gendarmerie said the two reporters obtained accreditation to film in the southern city of Maradi. When they returned to Niamey, their tapes were searched and found to have interviews with members of the MNJ.

Niger is also holding two Nigerien journalists in custody relating to the rebellion. Moussa Kaka, local correspondent for Radio France International, has been imprisoned since Sept. 20 for allegedly aiding the MNJ. Ibrahim Diallo Manzo, a journalist for the Agadez-based Air Info, has been imprisoned since October 9.

Human Rights violations
Two international human rights organizations released the details of their investigations, decrying violations perpetrated against citizens by both sides of the conflict. Amnesty International’s report condemns the increasing number of extra-judicial executions of civilians in the northern Agadez region by the country’s military forces.

Over the past four weeks, at least thirteen civilians have been unlawfully killed by the Niger security forces in the north of the country. Some, if not all, of them were apparently killed by the army in reprisal for attacks carried out by the Tuareg armed opposition group, the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ), Niger Movement for Justice, which took up arms against the government in February 2007

Human Rights Watch pointed a finger at the Tuareg rebel movement for human rights violations against citizens. HRW singles out the group’s use of anti-vehicular land mines. From the report:

Foreign military analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch have suggested that landmine use by the rebels has recently transformed from being defensive in nature – designed to deter entry of the military into rebel bases or areas of control – to being more offensive, and intended to inflict military losses. This change in their deployment, and the subsequent increase in civilian casualties, has generated considerable fear and hardship for the civilian population.

Anti-vehicular landmines are not banned under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty on anti-personnel mines, to which Niger is party. However, their use is still governed by the general laws of war, which prohibit the use of weapons that cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets. Placing anti-vehicular weapons on roads commonly used by both military and civilian vehicles is such an indiscriminate use. Where their use is not prohibited, particular care must be taken to minimize their indiscriminate effects.

The Areva question
One rumor that has gained traction in recent months is that the spurned French uranium firm Areva has been financially supporting the Tuareg rebellion. The firm, run by a close adviser to former French president Francois Mitterand, recently lost its 30-year monopoly on mining uranium in Niger, for which they compensated the government well below market value.

Niger, currently the world’s third largest producer of uranium, had long asked Areva to renegotiate its agreement that stipulated a price of €42 per kilo, while the world market rate has increased more than five-fold since 2001 to upwards of €180 per kilo.

The company stalled. The government recently gave nearly 90 uranium exploration permits to mining companies from a host of different countries. As oil prices keeps rising, uranium will become increasingly popular for countries wishing to dabble in nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency has argued that by 2025, global nuclear energy capacity should grow between 22 per cent and 44 per cent, increasing demand for uranium.

Tuaregs have complained that the government does not share with them enough profits from its booming uranium industry. They also criticize mining companies for not hiring enough Tuaregs living in the area and failing to address the environmental degradation created by their mines.

Things did not get off to a good start for one of the first firms to receive a mining license in northern Niger. In July, Tuareg rebels kidnapped a number of employees of the China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Corporation. The hostages were released nine days later, but afterwards the Nigerien government openly accused officials of the French mining company of supporting the rebellion movement.

Once Nicolas Sarkozy became President of France, he called President Tandja directly and tensions have eased somewhat. Since then, Areva, Niger’s largest private employer, will now pay a per kilo price of €60 through the rest of 2007. Government of Niger officials say that in 2008 the price will be negotiated again.

Pick your fights
At least one group believes the conflict between the government and the mining firm should not be viewed through the lens of the Tuareg rebellion, but framed by the larger effort of third-world countries to be fully compensated for their natural resources.

From Consultancy Africa Intelligence:

Supposedly weak, African Governments are following a route not dissimilar to the modus operandi employed in the oil and gas sectors in South American countries. Just as Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia did in 2005 and 2006, the African Governments are trying to renegotiate natural resources contracts and adjust them to better reflect market price - a factor which is sure to drastically change the monopolistic contracts signed in the 1970’s, much to dismay of the continents ‘traditional partners’.

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