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Oil, terror and social exclusion in the Sahara

Throughout history the Sahara Desert has been a key point to many rulers, both African and Western, due to its geostrategic position. Recent events have brought it under the negative spotlight of the media. News reports bring attention to kidnappings, the presence of Al-Qaeda, military operations but they usually fail to mention all the interests involved in the area, and most notably oil and uranium.

Sahara is back on the headlines following the kidnapping of seven employees of French nuclear energy giant, Areva, five of whom are French, one is Togolese and one Malagasy. The unfortunate event occurred in Northern Niger, near the mining town of Arlit, at the heart of the Touareg country. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.

Niger is one the poorest countries in the world in spite of having the third biggest uranium resources. The northern part of the country has been facing chronic instability in the recent decades. This is due to two main factors. Since the decolonisation in the 60s, the Touareg, semi-nomadic people living in the Sahara Desert, have spread out in several countries, including Niger and Mali, where they have become left out minorities. Also, the Touareg have been exluded from the benefits generated by the uranium mines, having to deal with the environmental consequences only.

During the recent events, a statement from the Malian President, Amadou Toumani Touré, and the French Minister of Interior, Brice Hortefeux, has suggested that AQIM “subcontracted” the abduction to the Touareg, which has made the situation very ambiguous. However the Touareg as a community have always insisted they have never taken part in any criminal activities despite their resentment.

It would obviously be impossible to claim that no Touareg has been involved but speaking of the Touareg as a single entity, and linking it with AQIM, is not only unfounded but also damaging for the Touareg people. If some French nationals were involved in a terrorist group, no one would declare “the French” as a whole to be part of such organisation.

But what is paradoxical is that the very word “terrorist” seems in fact to be a pure product of the ongoing social order. Due to complex power relations, our society creates what it calls terrorists. It’s indeed the current political and economic structures that determine who will be labelled as terrorist or as freedom keeper. In other words, a bomb in the streets of London is a criminal act but killing innocent people in Afghanistan is an act of peace.

Then what appears to be the normal attitude consists in eliminating terrorism, although terrorism is only the consequence of the problem rather than its source. However Western governments are not considering this side of the situation, or I should say they are more disposed to skip it, as, on the one hand, it’s a direct result of some of their actions, and on the other hand, it would require an in-depth study of the social environment in the region.

Their simple solutions in favour of the use of force have and will only lead to more tensions, more socially excluded or discontented people. These people have become ideal targets for criminal organisations which threaten the West that in turn engages more force, producing an endless vicious cycle.

What’s really at stake in the Sahara? The region’s soil contains two of the most sought after natural resources: uranium and oil. The so-called energetic crisis generates many interests, especially in the oil domain. Episodes such as the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the ongoing war in Afghanistan, have demonstrated a clear imperialistic enterprise. Now Iran has become the new focal point, and the Sahara follows.

The Guardian reported on Monday 20 September that France had launched an anti-terror plan in Niger, with the blessing of the Nigerien government, and in spite of an official line insisting on negotiations. As a matter of fact, France, in conjunction with Mauritania, had already attempted to rescue another hostage in the region a few months ago but the operation had miserably failed. The soldiers had killed a few AQIM members but the hostage, French humanitarian worker Michel Germaneau died soon after. AQIM promised there would be further retaliations.

The US has also been present in the region for some time, and particularly since the creation of Africom (US African Command) in 2007. For decades, the US’ foreign policy has put forward a simplistic Manichaen vision of a battle between of good and evil. The “enemies” who used to be Soviet terrorists, as Ronald Reagan called them, have now become Islamic.

Asserting that the same organisation, led by Osama Bin Laden, is behind all the wrong-doings in the world is not only oversimplified but also groundless, as this theory ignores the vast range of social and political contexts existing in these places, from North Africa to Central Asia.

People living in the Sahara have become a central factor of this situation. Historically, the Touareg have never been united but they now must overcome their differences, and come together to present their side of the story to the rest of the world.

For those who would like to know more about the situation, I recommend the documentary “Sahara Blues” by Arnaud Contreras, which will be broadcast on France Culture on Monday 04 October, at 5pm (French Time, GMT+2). Available as a podcast the following seven days.

Click here for more info.

An edited version of this article has been published in People With Voices.

Read also: Will the Sahara be the next Afghanistan?

Photo credit by Arnaud Contreras

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