Monday, December 15, 2008

The battle for the riches in Niger

The war in Niger isn't so much for the land, but what is beneath it. The country has a large deposit of uranium which is needed for nuclear power. A people fight against it's government for the rights to the unclaimed uranium.

The New York Times Lydia Polgreen writes an extensive piece about the battle in Niger.

Until last year, the only trigger Amoumoun Halil had pulled was the one on his livestock-vaccination gun. This spring, a battered Kalashnikov rifle rested uneasily on his shoulder. When he donned his stiff fatigues, his lopsided gait and smiling eyes stood out among his hard-faced guerrilla brethren.

Mr. Halil, a 40-year-old veterinary engineer, was a reluctant soldier in a rebellion that had broken out over an improbable — and as yet unrealized — bonanza in one of the world’s poorest countries.

A battle is unfolding on the stark mountains and scalloped dunes of northern Niger between a band of Tuareg nomads, who claim the riches beneath their homeland are being taken by a government that gives them little in return, and an army that calls the fighters drug traffickers and bandits.

It is a new front of an old war to control the vast wealth locked beneath African soil. Niger’s northern desert caps one of the world’s largest deposits of uranium, and demand for it has surged as global warming has increased interest in nuclear power. Growing economies like China and India are scouring the globe for the crumbly ore known as yellowcake. A French mining company is building the world’s largest uranium mine in northern Niger, and a Chinese state company is building another mine nearby.

Uranium could infuse Niger with enough cash to catapult it out of the kind of poverty that causes one in five Niger children to die before turning 5.

Or it could end in a calamitous war that leaves Niger more destitute than ever. Mineral wealth has fueled conflict across Africa for decades, a series of bloody, smash-and-grab rebellions that shattered nations. The misery wrought has left many Africans to conclude that mineral wealth is a curse.

Here in the Sahara, the uranium boom has given new life to longstanding grievances over land and power. For years, the Tuareg have struggled against a government they largely disdained. But this new rebellion has shed the parochial complaints of an ethnic minority, claiming instead that the government is squandering the entire country’s resources through corruption and waste. Armed with a slick Web site and articulate spokesmen in Europe and the United States, the movement has gotten sympathy from Westerners drawn to the mysterious Tuareg and their arguments for justice.

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