25 November 2007

In April of 2006 we toured Niger. At the time we encountered Chinese oil prospectors, which is bad news for any landscape; it now develops that it was a harbinger of genocide for the Tuaregs, who were our hosts. There has recently been massive Chinese investment in Niger for its mineral wealth, and the Niger government is now determined to move the Touareg people out of their homeland to make way for Chinese industry. In 2007, they tried to relocate an estimated 200,000 of them by force, initially by emasculating their livelihoods by killing all their camels. The Tuaregs formed into small guerrilla units and the Government have reacted predictably by attacking their villages. One such village is Iférouane, where we had visited the school.

The persons on the eclipse tour received a letter on 20 November 2007 from Gavin Bate, our English tour guide. He wrote:

I thought I would update you on what is happening in Niger, since I have been in touch with Souleymane a lot in the last few weeks. There has at last been a report on the BBC which is worth reading since we actually passed through Iferouane on our journey last year.

Souleymane told me that he is currently using his resources in Agadez to help supply food and medicines for the French Red Cross which is about the only NGO allowed to work in northern Niger right now. It seems there is difficulty sending any money out since Western Union are not sure if it will be allowed to arrive, and the majority of their shops have been shut down.

Jiji who was one of our drivers is still in Agadez and working with Souleymane but three of our team from last year were killed. Dr Ahmed Dangana, who was the doctor I talked to on our last day in Niger and with whom I subsequently arranged the delivery of drugs to Bilma on three seperate occasions, has gone into the desert to help provide medical care to the fighting men. The Touareg people have been routed into many small disparate groups by the Government forces and there is little to no contact with them at all.

Needless to say tourism is zero and Souleymane told me that it is dangerous on the streets of Agadez, and he risks arrest if he tries to leave the area. The Govt have targetted the smaller towns where the camels and families are kept, hence this BBC report.

It seems there is nothing we can do as a charity, although I am still looking for ways. The Govt is clamping down on all communications and NGO involvement. I just thought you would want to know all of this since I am staggered by the lack of news in the press.

Here is the text of the BBC article, should it disappear in time from their website:

Niger raids leaves 'ghost town'

The entire population of northern Niger's remote desert town of Iferouane has fled as a result of insecurity, the deputy mayor has told the BBC.

Mohammed Oumma says an insurrection by Tuareg nomads, food shortages and army harassment have forced a wholesale exodus of the town's 5,000 residents.

The government in Niamey denies that Iferouane, home to several uranium mines, has become a ghost town.

But a spokesman admitted that rebels had mined roads, blocking supplies.

Mr Oumma said the last straw for the residents was when the armed forces conducted raids on the civilian population, whom they accused of lending support to the rebels.

The Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) launched an uprising in northern Niger in February to demand greater autonomy for the Tuareg people.

BBC West Africa correspondent Will Ross says the Tuareg rebels have threatened to attack the uranium mines, as they demand a greater share of the proceeds.

Most MNJ attacks have been concentrated on army garrison outposts in the desert areas between Agadez and the border.

The rebels say they have killed more than 50 government soldiers and taken dozens captive.

The central government says much of the insecurity has been fomented by bandits and smugglers.

But our correspondent says that, with a state of emergency in place and no journalists allowed in, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what is taking place in the north of Niger.

Published: 2007/11/19 17:23:48 GMT