With the proclamation of total war against terrorism following Al Qaida attacks in the USA, the American Department of State promoted several regional initiatives, among them the Pan Sahel Initiative (2002). This is a military agreement between Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and the USA to contain the expansion of Islamic terror groups in the Sahel. The agreement had also the not so secondary intent to displace France as the Western power controlling the region. France, the past colonial master, kept a strong military, political and economic presence in all its former colonies. The local currency – the CFA – was linked to the French Franc, and now to the Euro, through the management of the French central bank. For the time being, the presence of American military advisers and troops does not seem to clash with French interests. But things might change in the future.
In 2004, the Pan Sahel Initiative was given a larger mandate becoming the Trans Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI). Algeria and Nigeria were co-opted in the new pact which defined more clearly the rules of engagement of American troops. With the TSCTI, the USA clarified that their presence in the Sahel was directly linked to home security and that military solutions were considered the norm to solving USA and local security issues. The TSCTI, in fact, shift attention from the war on terror to a wider range of security threats. Bandits’ operations, armed rebellions, illicit trafficking: all these are issues now falling under the interest of the Initiative. With their military support – comprising information gathered with satellite surveillance – the USA have de facto given a blanket approval to local governments, offering the tools for a tighter control. If one consider that some of these countries can hardly be called democratic, it is not difficult to understand that the TSCTI must have different aims than fighting terrorism alone. The answer is under the sands of the deserts of the region.
In the past years, the search for new sources of oil and minerals has brought many prospectors to the Sahara and the Sahel. Oil has been found in the South of Algeria and in the Tenerè, in Niger. The Tenerè is expected to yield other surprises as more companies have been allotted exploration rights by the government of Niamey. The mountains of the Air are known for their uranium deposits. The French AREVA controls a few mining sites. The environment has already been devastated by its operations. Uranium is present also in many mountain chains in Europe. It is not mined there because of the danger for the environment and the health of the neighbouring population. These restrictions clearly do not exist in Niger, where the life quality of a few thousand Tuareg is not worthy of consideration. Mining in Niger is cheap, profitable and far away from tree huggers, who can notoriously be a nuisance! This is why northern Niger is moving fast towards being an environmental disaster. All water sources near the mines have been polluted. People and livestock are developing cancers at a previously unseen rate. To add salt on the bruise, apart from a few poorly paid jobs, the local population does not profit from the extraction of uranium. All the profit goes to fat cats in Niamey and AREVA.
If the USA have made their move to gain a foothold in a region previously far from their geo-political interests, and the omnipresent Chinese are gaining critical contracts from local governments, the French did not remain sitting on the fence. French officers train soldiers in most countries in the Sahel. In Mali, they have been a fixed feature since independence. Yet, they did not take part to any action against the rebel of Azawad. 200 French soldiers were stationed at Mopti, 600 km north of Bamako, but returned to France as soon as the present revolt started.
In Mali, Paris clearly wants to remain neutral as long as it can, and befriend the final winner. The experience of Niger, where AREVA is losing its monopoly on mineral resources, has taught a hard lesson. This is why Paris does not want to burn a possible alliance with the Tuareg. The Azawad is certainly rich in mineral resources. Prospectors are certain that uranium and oil are present there, but many other minerals could be waiting exploitation. Question marks are also raised about who is really supporting the Tuareg. If it is true that much of the weapons and munitions they use come from the Libyan arsenals, who provides the fuel for their lorries and pick-ups? Since the Tuareg did not have large deposits of fuel prior to the start of the war, it is clear that they receive regular supplies from Mauritania and Algeria. Who is the secret donor is not to be known. The war in Mali pits north and south one against the other. Yet, the ramifications of the conflict go much farther than the borders of their country.