Niger nomad speaks out: "We are not terrorists!"

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven people in Niger on September 16 - five French, one Togolese and one Malagasy. However, Tauregs – a Niger nomadic tribe - who live in the region have been accused of being part of the plot, a charge they strongly deny.  


Camel pack train trip across the Sahel desert.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven people in Niger on September 16 - five French, one Togolese and one Malagasy. Most of them are employees of Areva, one of the world’s leading nuclear energy companies.

A former chief of the Tuareg – a Niger nomadic tribe - rebellion that took place in the 1990s was called upon to act as a mediator. The chief, who is familiar with the region, was hoping to call on his previous connections to Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC, also known as Group for Call and Combat), a predecessor of Aqmi, to push for a peaceful solution.

However, the role of this negotiator has been denied by the Malian President, Amadou Toumani Touré. Furthermore, Bernard Kouchner, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, has suggested that the kidnappers of these seven employees were Tuaregs who hoped to sell the hostages to Aqmi.

Tuaregs reacted strongly to these allegations, and two of their community addressed a letter to the French ambassador in Bamako “strongly protesting” these claims.


Niger desert Tuaregs in traditionnal clothes.

"The main reason for this situation is the lack of opportunities for young people"

Assan Midal is a Tuareg guide in the Sahel dessert. He is currently in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where he is responsible for an NGO that specialises in education.

Aqmi and the Tuaregs have absolutely nothing to do with one another. All that we share is the same immense territory. The Tuaregs are very moderate and tolerant Muslims, Aqmi is a group of foreign extremists who know how to take advantage of an unstable and uncontrolled territory. The lack of opportunities for young Tuaregs makes them easy targets for this organization, and sometimes they are recruited by Aqmi. So when they left the rebel army, some of these young people became “bandits” or kidnappers in the pay of a terrorist organisation. The young people of northern Niger, who have been totally abandoned and who thus make bad choices out of weakness, must be offered a better future.

A Tuareg marketplace.

It is more of an identity problem than a political problem


Certain people say that there is complicity between the Tuaregs and Aqmi. We cannot say that the opposite is true, nor claim that this does not concern us. But be careful not to treat the Tuaregs and Aqmi as if they were one. More than being a political problem, this problem is linked to contempt for our culture.

I know Arlit – the town where the five French people were kidnapped ­– really well. It is an unbearable city. There are huge problems concerning pollution, and the wind blows the dust from the open-air mines all over the surrounding area. It is also a town where you will find extreme poverty, and where the workers are squashed into shantytowns made up of grass huts. Meanwhile, the majority of the expats live in luxurious villas.

Rock formation in the Sahel desert.

Let us protect you!

I condemn this kidnapping. But the Westerners are protected by the Togolese, the Malagasy and the Somalians, 90% of whom are not local to this area. But let us protect you! The Tuaregs are careful to remain. Give us the means to control this lawless space that only we know. Give us the means to guarantee protection from Aqmi.  

Foreigners imposed limits on us buying our own land

It must be acknowledged that the arrival of huge numbers of French people from Areva, as well as Chinese, South-Africans, Panamanians, and Indians – all of whom came to extract our uranium and our oil – was viewed by the Tuaregs as an invasion. They were seen as a foreign body that changed our lives and went against our ancient culture.

The Tuaregs live only on the camels, sheep and goats that they raise. Their way of life is based on the freedom of their flock, the only limit is the horizon. But the foreigners imposed limits on us by buying our land. The pastures were divided up and considerably reduced. And there is the pollution linked to the production of uranium. Furthermore, this year, the weather was against us and the Tuaregs lost a lot of animals.

At first, the Tuaregs thought that they were going to benefit from the arrival of Areva. Then, as the company intensified its activity, more and more workers from surrounding countries came to work here. It is not local workers who are working here! The big problem, which explains everything, is the lack of opportunities for young people. They could work here if it wasn’t for the foreign workers that have been recruited. Former fighters who distinguished themselves during the Tuareg rebellion now feel disappointed with their leaders. So, they leave for Libya or Algeria and they make mistakes. 

Tuareg child.

Areva has never paid for a single school in the region

In our opinion, the CEO of Areva [Anne Lauvergeon] represents France. And France doesn’t trust us. The French have lived with us for 40 years and we deserve their respect. A Tuareg has never kidnapped a French citizen. We cannot fight against France. All we can do is demand that our rights are respected, and that the great powers stop ignoring our way of life. The Tuaregs have never wanted or demanded access to electricity or an oven. All that they want is a school, a chemist, and a well for the animals. But Areva has never paid for a single school in the region. They could also invest some money in the Agadez-Arlit road, which is currently completely impassable. Or make a serious effort to reduce pollution.

Let me conclude with an anecdote. I am a guide in the Sahel dessert. I met a Belgian family who wanted to get to know the Tuaregs so I brought them to stay with a family of nomads. They were very poor and hardly had enough to eat, but they invited their guests to stay with them for a whole week, welcoming them with open arms. I learnt afterwards that one of the women in the Belgian family was the mother of the manager of a huge factory which was about to open. At the end of her stay, this woman came to see me and told me that as soon as she got back, she would ask her son to hand in his notice. I don’t know if he did."


Traditional Tuareg wedding. All photos courtesy of d'Assan Midal.

Post written with Paul Larotourrou, journalist