Mali Pays the Price of al-Qaeda’s Asymmetrical Threat

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2010

Over half the world’s kidnappings for ransom occur in Latin America, however, among these nations only Mexico and Colombia merit official U.S. travel advisories that mention the danger of kidnapping. Despite this, Mexico and Colombia continue to enjoy thriving tourist industries. Yet the African state of Mali, with only a handful of such kidnappings each year, has been afflicted with similar travel advisories, not only from the United States, but from other Western nations as well that have devastated a nascent tourism industry with enormous potential. The difference? Al-Qaeda.

Mali millitary 1Mali’s Military: Up to the Job?

With an economy based on agriculture and gold production, Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world. The development of a tourism industry based on the growing popularity of Saharan tourism (particularly in European markets) promised a new economic sector, a source of foreign currency and a potential solution to the unrest in Mali’s Saharan north, which is largely based on lack of economic opportunity. To the disappointment of Mali’s government, this growing economic sector has come to a halt due to the criminal activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose Southern Command now focuses on drug trafficking, smuggling and high-profile kidnappings for ransom. The tourism industry of some regions of the north is now operating at only 10-15% of capacity.

On October 15, Mali’s Minister of Tourism and Crafts, N’Diaye Ba, complained of what might be termed “the al-Qaeda effect,” or the disproportional damage caused by even the limited presence of Islamist terrorists:

While it is undeniable that some events that took place in the Sahel-Saharan strip incite prudence to avoid endangering the lives of visitors, it’s equally evident that a zero risk exists nowhere in the world… The use of the terrorist menace, which gives free publicity to the terrorists, seems like a fearful weapon to compromise all the prospects of development of a place, a region, a country (AFP, October 15).

Since al-Qaeda took advantage of Mali’s weak security infrastructure to establish bases in the vast desert wilderness of the country’s north roughly two years ago, Mali has entered a situation in which the presence of the terrorists prevents the economic development that would convince tribal elements in the north (particularly the Arab tribes and to a lesser degree, the Tuareg) from joining or doing business with AQIM units that are rolling in cash as a result of collecting enormous ransoms (estimates vary from 70 to 150 million Euros in total) based on their fearsome reputation.

International vs. Regional Solutions

Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré says that Mali is both “a hostage and a victim” of AQIM: “These people [i.e. AQIM] are not Malians. They came from the Maghreb with ideas that we do not know. The problem is the lack of regional cooperation. Everyone complains about their neighbor…” (Ennahar [Algiers], October 1). Mali’s government has declared a series of measures designed to deal with the concerns about its security:

• A rational occupation of territory by the state administration.

• Increased mobility on the part of troops for prevention and intervention.

• A social mobilization to reduce the influence of sects and criminal groups (AFP, October 15).

The G8’s Counter-Terrorism Action Group (CTAG) held a two day meeting in Bamako in mid-October to discuss the AQIM threat. President Amadou Toumani Touré told the meeting that security alone could not resolve the AQIM issue, saying that development of the Sahel region is necessary to undercut support for militant groups (AFP, October 14). Though the meeting was also attended by representatives of the African Union (AU), the UN, the EU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), its success was hampered by the absence of Algeria, which refused to attend due to the presence of Moroccan representatives (Le Républicain [Bamako], October 14; Ennahar [Algiers], October 13; AFP, October 13). Tensions between the two states remain high due to disagreement over the status of the Western Sahara.

Malian Colonel Yamoussa Camara said in the meeting that foreign forces should avoid operations in Mali and limit themselves to providing training and equipment to Mali’s armed forces to prevent the latter from losing popular support (AP, October 13). There were complaints in Mali in September that Mauritanian troops were operating against AQIM in the north of the country while Mali’s own troops were busy with parades celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence (Jeune Afrique, October 9). Colonel Camara’s remarks were echoed a week later by Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mourad Medelci who said foreign military operations in the area are undesirable. According to Medelci, “We are responsible for security, as the Sahel, of all who live in the area where the situation is worrisome…   Algeria has never said that countries that are not part of this area were not affected [by terrorist activities]. If these countries can provide assistance, they are welcome but they cannot establish themselves among us to bring the solution” (Ennahar, October 22).

Mali’s insistence that regional cooperation is the key to solving the AQIM dilemma must overcome significant distrust between many of the countries of the Sahel/Sahara region. Besides the seemingly intractable diplomatic conflict between Algeria and Morocco, there is also suspicion of the motives and activities of Libya’s Muammar Khadafy. Even inside Mali, there are misgivings regarding the sincerity of Algeria’s counterterrorism efforts; according to numerous reports circulating in Mali, the last words of Colonel Lamana Ould Bou (a senior Malian security officer investigating AQIM activities in northern Mali before being gunned down in his home last June by unknown assailants) were, “The Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité [DRS] is at the heart of AQIM” (al-Jazeera, August 29; Le Hoggar [Bamako], October 11). The Algerian DRS is widely believed to have infiltrated operatives into the DRS, with some suspicious Sahel observers even claiming AQIM is a false-flag operation run entirely by the Algerian intelligence service.

The question of allowing foreign military operations in Mali became more complicated when Mauritanian aircraft in pursuit of suspected al-Qaeda fighters killed two civilians near Timbuktu in September (Reuters, September 20). However, with little ability to control its northern region, Mali seems determined to avoid inflaming AQIM by allowing military forces of France (the former colonial power) to be based there (Le Monde, September 22). Mali does, however, accept military training from French forces and has a number of American Special Forces training teams stationed within Mali (see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, June 4). Nevertheless, based on the inability of Mali’s military to even refuel Mauritanian forces during a September 18 clash with AQIM in northern Mali, Algerian authorities have described Mali’s armed forces as “incompetent” (Jeune Afrique, October 15).

The Arlit Hostage Crisis

The latest crisis involves the kidnapping of seven Areva and Satom employees from the uranium mine at Arlit in northern Niger on September 15. The operation was carried out by the Tarek Ibn Ziyad katiba (military unit) led by AQIM commander Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaid  (a.k.a. Abid Hammadou) (Le Monde, October 11). Five of the hostages are French; the other two are from Togo and Madagascar. Heavy fighting between AQIM forces under Algerian commander Yahya Abu Hamam and Mauritanian forces was reported shortly after the abductions (Ennahar, October 15; Jeune Afrique, October 9).

Mali military 2The Arlit Hostages

While this latest group of hostages is being held in northern Mali, there are denials from all sides that France ever requested permission to base troops or aircraft involved in the search on Malian territory, though this may be a sop to Bamako’s sensitivity on the issue. The air component of the search is thus based in Niamey in neighboring Niger, while French Special Forces are awaiting deployment in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou. The Kidal airstrip in northern Mali would be useful in the search, but would have the disadvantage of exposing French forces to direct attacks by AQIM (Jeune Afrique, October 9; Air & Cosmos [Paris], September 29; Le Monde, September 22). Not surprisingly, one of AQIM’s reported demands for the release of the hostages is a commitment from Bamako that further French and Mauritanian military operations will not be allowed on Malian territory (L’Indépendant [Bamako], October 12). When and if the time comes for a military intervention on Malian soil to save the hostages, it is expected that Bamako will look the other way until the operation is completed.

Is Regional Security Cooperation a Mirage?

As a result of the Tamanrasset meeting, a joint Sahel information center (Centre de Renseignement sur le Sahel – CRS) was established by the intelligence chiefs of Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania in Algiers on October 7 to collect intelligence from the security services of the four nations and make it available to the new joint military operations center in Tamanrasset (L’Expression [Abidjan], October 7).
In April, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania formed the Tamanrasset-based Joint Operational Military Committee, designed to provide a joint response to border security and terrorism issues. Ten days after the Arlit abductions, the committee (composed of the military chiefs of the four nations) met on September 26 to establish a coordinated response against the AQIM threat. The committee is currently headed by Malian Brigadier-General Gabriel Poudiougou, but there is little enthusiasm in Bamako for the new security center in Tamanrasset, which is referred to at the highest levels of the government as “an empty shell” (Jeune Afrique, October 15).

The absence of Chad, Libya and Morocco from the new cooperative security infrastructure will certainly hinder efforts to eliminate AQIM from the region. The leaders of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Mali and Chad held a consultative meeting on the sidelines of the Arab-African Summit in the Libyan city of Sirté on October 10, though this did not seem to ease the admission of new members into the four-nation Sahel security grouping. Mali’s efforts to broaden the group have been continually vetoed by Algiers. Earlier this month, however, Libya donated two much-needed Italian Marchetti surveillance aircraft to Mali to combat local unrest (AFP, October 4).

Despite the insecurity in its own northern region and the fact the Arlit hostages were seized in Niger before being moved to Mali, Niamey has been quick to identify Mali as the source of regional insecurity. According to Amadou Marou, president of Niger’s National Consultative Council (which is managing the country in the aftermath of February’s military coup), “Somalia got away from us and northern Mali is in the process of getting away from us”  (AFP, October 15).


International crime statistics alone will not solve Mali’s dilemma, nor will claims that it is the object of a “disinformation campaign” (AFP, October 15). So long as AQIM can conduct one kidnapping or hold one hostage on Malian territory each year, it will, in the current perception that there is no kidnapper as deadly as an al-Qaeda kidnapper, prevent the necessary economic development of Mali’s northern region. To enable development, Mali is left in the unenviable situation of having to establish almost complete security in a vast region with precious few security resources or having to turn to foreign military forces to aid in the elimination of al-Qaeda elements – something these same forces have failed to achieve elsewhere. Mali, however, cannot disclaim any responsibility or involvement in the rash of AQIM kidnappings. A sophisticated network of mostly Malian negotiators and mediators has emerged, with these middlemen making enormous profits through receiving a cut of the ransoms. Some mediators are even believed to participate in the kidnappings and then act as negotiators (Info Matin [Bamako], October 14; L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], October 14; Daily Times [Karachi] October 12).  There can be little doubt that, as with the Sahel/Saharan narcotics trade, some of these illicit funds are reaching senior levels of the political and military structure in Bamako. This does not make Mali unique among nations facing similar problems, but the lure of easy money in an impoverished nation represents a threat in itself.

One option being considered in the Malian capital to deal with the security threat is rearming and deploying Tuareg fighters (only recently disarmed after rebelling against the central government) to hunt down and eliminate al-Qaeda operatives. At present, Bamako faces a problem that is more criminal in nature than political or religious, but foreign intervention brings the immediate risk of escalation and an uncertain political future in the event of a popular backlash in Mali. Neither prospect promises a new era of stability, so Bamako will likely continue for now in its calls for a regional security cooperation that may be largely illusory due to the mutual suspicions of the Sahel/Sahara nations.

This article first appeared in the October 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Tuareg Rebel Leader Rhissa ag Boula Arrested in Niamey

Andrew McGregor

April 17, 2010

A Tuareg rebel leader who was sentenced to death in 2008 has been arrested in Niger’s capital of Niamey after returning from exile to negotiate peace with the government (Radio France Internationale, April 1). A veteran Tuareg rebel leader, Ag Boula was sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged role in the 2004 murder of politician Adam Amangue. Ag Boula, who arrived in Niamey in late March, appears to have severely misinterpreted the mood of the military junta which took control of Niger in February. The arrest has effectively squelched earlier speculation that Ag Boula’s return was a sign he had reached a deal with the new government, the Conseil Suprême pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (CSRD) (L’Evenement [Niamey], November 29, 2009).

Rhissa ag BoulaRhissa ag Boula

The military has recently arrested dozens of former members of ex-president Mamadou Tandja’s administration, as well as over 600 individuals in an unrelated crackdown on crime (AFP, April 1). Ag Boula arrived in Niamey in the company of the main leaders of the various Tuareg rebel movements involved in the 2009 Libyan-mediated peace agreement—the Mouvement des nigériens pour la justice (MNJ), the Front patriotique nigérien (FPN) and Ag Boula’s own Front des forces de redressement (FFR). All the leaders were covered by a government amnesty except Ag Boula, who remains under sentence of death (Jeune Afrique, April 1).

With a brief interruption caused by a military coup, Ag Boula served as Tourism Minister in Niger’s government from 1997 to 2004. A pioneering desert tour operator in the 1980s, Ag Boula is generally acknowledged to have performed well in that role (including a 2000 visit to the United States) before being charged in 2004 with orchestrating the kidnap and murder of Adam Amangue. He was convicted of ordering three men to carry out the murder, all of whom were sentenced to 20 years in prison (Radio France Internationale, July 14, 2008). There was speculation at the time of his 2004 arrest that his detention was intended to spark a new Tuareg rebellion, allowing the Forces Armées Nigeriennes (FAN) to receive additional arms and funds from the U.S. military, which had just begun its Pan-Sahel Initiative, designed to secure the region against terrorists (see Jeremy Keenan, “Security and Insecurity in North Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 108, pp.280-81).

While their leader sat in prison, Ag Boula’s men took three police officers and a soldier hostage. The hostages were exchanged for Ag Boula’s provisional release in 2005 in a deal mediated by the Libyans. Ag Boula fled to France, but when he announced he was returning to Niger in 2008 to join a new Tuareg revolt, his release was withdrawn and a sentence of death imposed following an in absentia conviction for Amangue’s murder (Le Canard Dechaine [Niamey], July 14, 2008; AFP, July 14, 2008). In July, 2008 Ag Boula complained that the MNJ failed to retaliate for Tuareg deaths in a military offensive and left to create his own movement, the Front des Forces de Redressement (FFR) (RFI, June 1, 2008).

Ag Boula’s fate will depend largely upon the mood of the junta and their reasons for arresting him. At the time of his conviction the prosecutor stated that Ag Boula could opt to be retried if he returned to Niger, where most death sentences are eventually commuted to life imprisonment (AFP, July 14).

Also arrested was Major Kindo Zada, an ally of Ag Boula. A field officer, Zada was closely tied to the administration of President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who was assassinated when his bodyguard fired on him with a truck mounted machine gun at Niamey Airport in April 1999.  Mainassara had himself taken power in a military coup in 1996.   Major Zada deserted the army in 2007, leading dozens of his men and 20 pick-up trucks north to join the Tuareg rebellion (African Press International, July 22, 2007; AFP, April 1). Major Zada is reported to have been arrested on charges related to the 2000 kidnapping of then-Major Djibrilla Hima Hamidou “Pele” by a group of officers loyal to Mainassara (, April 1; Pan-African News Agency, June 12, 2000). Colonel Hima played an important role in the 1999 coup that killed Mainassara and is believed to have been a prime mover behind the latest military takeover.

This article first appeared in the April 17, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Fueling the Dragon: China’s Uranium Industry in Niger

Andrew McGregor

October 3, 2007

A latecomer to the exploitation of foreign energy resources, China has resorted to developing economic relationships with high-risk yet energy-rich nations like Niger in order to maintain its extraordinary pace of development. According to the International Energy Agency, with China’s demand for energy resources steadily increasing, it faces the possibility of having to import 80 percent of its energy needs by 2030 [1]. Demand for oil products in China is expected to grow by at least 5.6 percent each year for the next five years (Xinhua, October 25, 2005).

Niger energy mapFor several years now, China has looked to Africa for its energy future, and the continent already supplies 25 percent of China’s oil needs. Niger, an impoverished former French colony, has been targeted by China for energy resource development due to its potential reserves of petroleum and its vast confirmed reserves of uranium. Uranium production in Niger (until recently dominated by France) represents 8-10 percent of the world’s supply (3,400 tons in 2006) and accounts for nearly 70 percent of the country’s exports. Given China’s recent emphasis on developing additional nuclear power plants, such a supply of uranium has proven to be incredibly attractive for China’s state-owned energy companies.

The Diplomatic Front

China and Niger first established diplomatic relations in 1974. After a four-year hiatus due to Niger’s short-lived diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, China resumed official relations with Niger in 1996. Since then, Nigerien and Chinese leaders have been frequent visitors to each other’s capitals. The groundwork for the resumption of relations between the two nations was laid during meetings between Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2001. During the same visit, Tandja became the first foreign head of state to visit the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of northwest China, a largely Muslim province that has had experience in anti-desertification and irrigation techniques (People’s Daily, June 6, 2001).

China’s main exports to Niger include textiles, communications equipment and rice. Niger, like most other African countries, supplies China with raw materials but has had great difficulty in establishing a Chinese market for its own manufactured goods. China’s booming export industry tends to suppress the manufacturing sector in many African countries, hindering local development. Sino-Nigerien economic relations are governed by a bilateral trade agreement and a joint economic and trade commission. China also provides scholarships for Nigerien students to Chinese universities and medical assistance in the form of a 36-member medical team. In addition, Chinese goodwill has also been expressed through prestige development efforts like the Zinder water supply project, completed in May 2006.

A Strategic Energy Supply

Niger presents the most promising source of uranium to fuel China’s program to dramatically increase its use of nuclear power. China’s current reliance on coal-powered energy plants is quickly choking its cities in layers of toxic smog. To remedy this, China plans to build one nuclear plant a year until 2020, mostly in the rapidly expanding industrial centers along the Chinese coast. The project will increase China’s nuclear generating capacity from its current nine gigawatts (GW) to 40 GW (Reuters, September 20). China’s attempt to develop cleaner energy sources, however, could come at a cost to Niger’s environment, a cost Niger seems willing to bear given its desperate need for capital.

Chinese firms active in Niger’s energy sector include the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-Uranium), the China National Uranium Corporation (CNUC) and the Société des Mines d’Agelik, a Chinese prospecting company owned by the China Nuclear Engineering and Construction (Group) Corporation. The CNUC is developing two sites in the Agadez region of Niger, Teguidda and the smaller Madaouela. Production was scheduled to begin in 2010, though this is now threatened by rebel activity. The CNPC is currently exploring for oil in the Agadez region’s Bilma and Tenere concessions.

Domestic Instability

Rebel activity in Niger’s resource-rich north has threatened the short-term development of its resource industry and has made it much more difficult for Chinese firms to operate in the region. A Tuareg-led rebel group, Le Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ), is demanding an end to economic marginalization, environmental degradation and ethnic discrimination. Under pressure from the elusive rebels, the northern region of the country has reverted to military rule. While President Tandja has attempted to stifle all news coming out of the north, Niger’s rebel movement has been effective in capitalizing upon modern communications technology as a medium for public relations [2].

Already, the rebels have already begun harassing Chinese companies, and the July kidnapping of a Sino-Uranium executive by the MNJ was intended as a warning to foreign mineral firms that their disregard for the environment and their present arrangements with the Niger government are unacceptable (Xinhua, July 7). (The executive was later released unharmed.) Rebels also attacked an armed supply convoy heading to a CNPC exploration camp in July, killing four soldiers. Following these incidents, the Chinese pulled out of their field operations to return under military escort to Agadez.

The MNJ accuses China of supplying arms to Nigerien military operations in the north in exchange for mineral concessions. They also accuse the government of using mineral revenues to purchase military arms and equipment, including two Russian-made helicopter gunships. Niger’s government denies the charges, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry maintains that it takes a “cautious and responsible approach” to arms exports, strictly observing “domestic laws and international obligations” [3]. Yet, rumors abound in West Africa of a Chinese military presence in the region; in January, the Nigeria’s Defense Minister was forced to issue a public denial after reports of Chinese troops operating in the Niger Delta under contract from the Lagos government were published in a local newspaper (The Guardian [Nigeria], January 24).

French-Chinese Competition

Until recently, the French uranium company Areva had a virtual monopoly on uranium production since the material was first discovered in Niger in 1957. In early September, several Nigerien civil-society groups organized marches to demand Areva’s departure from Niger for allegedly supporting the northern rebels, though no concrete proof was offered to support the charges. The leader of one of the groups involved in the protest suggested that Areva was hiring mercenaries to plant landmines (VOA, September 8). Concurrently, officials of the Niger government have accused Areva of plotting to frighten off their Chinese rivals in the uranium-rich Agadez region by financing MNJ attacks. Even the French government was pulled into the dispute, eventually offering resolution services as well as a team to demine northern Niger. After both the rebels and the French uranium miners denied the accusations of collaboration, Areva increased its payments to the Niger government and committed itself to improving environmental safety measures. It should be noted that Areva has hardly been immune to MNJ activities; on April 30, rebels attacked Areva’s Imouraren exploration camp, killing one and wounding four (AFP, April 20). Areva was subsequently forced to halt operations in the area for a month.

Areva is also making efforts to enter China’s nuclear development sector, but there are reports that China has recently cancelled plans for two Areva reactors to be built in Guangdong Province in favor of using domestic technology (though there is still the possibility that the Areva reactors might be relocated) (Reuters, September 20). France relies heavily on the Areva operations in Niger for uranium to supply its own reactors and nuclear weapons program. Without alternative sources of supply, France will use all of its influence to maintain its leading position in Niger’s resource sector. Reflecting energy competition abroad, India has also suddenly emerged as a major competitor for undeveloped energy supplies in the West African region, though in Niger, China may have acted quickly to sideline India’s offers to the Niger government (Times of India, September 23).


The recent international revival of interest in nuclear power has created an opportunity for Niger to break out of the neo-colonial legacy of French rule by broadening its trade and cooperation with countries like China. As Niger’s Prime Minister Seyni Oumarou recently said of this shift in patrons, “Nothing is going to be as it was in Niger…Today the whole world is seeking to profit from the partnership with the Chinese and we should not isolate ourselves from that” (Reuters, August 1). Yet China’s sense of urgency in locking up energy supplies makes it vulnerable to major disruptions from opposition groups, such as Niger’s MNJ. Efforts to secure energy resources irrespective of market supply and demand threatens to destabilize global energy markets while perpetuating corrupt and undemocratic regimes that are able to offer protection to Chinese operations, thus leading China into a neo-colonial style relationship it has long tried to avoid in Africa.


  1. Osumi, Yo, “World Energy Outlook, and Energy Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia,” presentation at IEA Conference, “The Korean Peninsula and Energy Security in Northeast Asia: Toward a Northeast Asian Energy Forum,” November 27-28, 2006, available online at:
  2. The MNJ posts information about itself at:
  3. The statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry is available online at:

This article first appeared in the October 3, 2007 issue of the China Brief

China’s Oil Offensive Strikes: Horn of Africa and Beyond

Andrew McGregor

August 10, 2007

In its efforts to expel an Islamist government and capture a handful of inactive al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia, the United States has risked its political reputation in the region through a series of unpopular measures. These include backing an unsuccessful attempt by warlords to take over the country, several ineffective air raids, and finally, the financing of an unpopular Ethiopian military intervention. As African Union peacekeepers struggle to restore stability in the capital of Mogadishu, China has stepped in to sign the first oil exploration deal negotiated by Somalia’s new government. The agreement is the first of its kind since the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 began a long period of political chaos in the strategically important nation.

China Oil 1Chinese Oil Rig in South Sudan (Tong Jiang/Imaginechina)

China’s four major oil corporations have unlimited government support, allowing them to edge out the smaller Western oil companies that traditionally take on high-risk exploration projects like Somalia. Latecomers to the global oil game, the Chinese companies and their exploration offshoots have focused on oil-bearing regions neglected by major Western operators because of political turmoil, insecurity, sanctions or embargoes. China once hoped to supply the bulk of its energy needs from deposits in its western province of Xinjiang, but disappointing reserve estimates and an exploding economy have given urgency to China’s drive to secure its energy future. Twenty-five percent of China’s crude oil imports now come from African sources.

The Somalia deal is part of a decades-long Chinese campaign to engage Africa through investment, development aid, “soft loans,” arms sales and technology transfers. The European Union recently warned China that it would not participate in any debt-relief projects involving China’s generous “soft-loans” in Africa (Reuters, July 30).

Global demand for oil is expected to rise over 50 percent in the next two decades even as prices rise and reserves decline. To meet this demand, China and other Asian countries offer massive infrastructure developments in exchange for oil rights. President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders are regular visitors to African capitals and Chinese direct investment in Africa totaled $50 billion last year.

Oil in Somalia?

Last month a deal was reached between Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China International Oil and Gas (CIOG) to begin oil exploration in the Mudug region of the semi-autonomous state of Puntland (northeast Somalia) (Financial Times, July 17). Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has yet to secure its rule, is to receive 51 percent of the potential revenues under the deal.

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf (a native of Puntland) appears to have negotiated the deal in concert with Puntland officials but without the knowledge of the Prime Minister, Ali Muhammad Gedi, who is still working on legislation governing the oil industry and production-sharing agreements. Gedi insists that “in order to protect the wealth of the country and the interests of the Somali people, we cannot operate without a regulatory body, without rules and regulations” (Financial Times, July 17). The agreement with China may become an important test of the authority of the transitional government. China has effectively pre-empted the return of Western oil interests to Somalia, though it is unclear how the Chinese project may be affected by the passage of a new national oil bill. Somali negotiators assured the Chinese firms that new legislation would have no impact on exploration work due to begin in September (Shabelle Media Network, July 17).

Though Somalia has no proven reserves of oil, Range Resources, a small Australian oil company already active in Puntland, suggests that the area might yield 5 to 10 billion barrels (Shabelle Media Network, July 14). Somalia is also estimated to have 200 billion cubic feet of untapped natural gas reserves. Western petroleum corporations, however, conducted extensive exploration of potential oil-bearing sites in Somalia in the 1980s and found nothing worth developing.

Public unrest is already on the rise in Puntland as the local government grows increasingly authoritarian and the national treasury has mysteriously dried up. Discontent has accelerated as leaders of the one-party regime continue to sign resource development deals with Western and Arab companies without any form of public consultation. The new deal with China has the potential to ignite political unrest in one of the few areas of Somalia to have avoided the worst of the nation’s brutal political nightmare.

China’s Strategy in Africa

Last November, Beijing hosted an important summit meeting between Chinese leaders and representatives of 48 African countries. The African delegates gave unanimous support to a declaration endorsing a one-China policy and “China’s peaceful reunification” [1]. China in turn announced a $5 billion African development fund (administered by China’s Eximbank), with a promise of $15 billion more in aid and debt forgiveness to come. In exchange for secure energy supplies, China is also offering barrier-free access to Chinese markets, something Africans have been unable to obtain from the United States or the EU.

China Oil 2While China has had success in securing energy supplies in Africa, its oil offensive is by no means flawless. Chinese corporations working abroad provide little employment for local people and are remarkably tolerant of corruption and human rights abuses. Chinese overseas operations are also notorious for their disregard of environmental considerations. The latter is perhaps unsurprising, considering the environmental devastation afflicting China’s own industrial centers. Yet, the combination of all these factors tends to create unrest in nations where Chinese operations are seen as benefiting members of the ruling elite and few others. What is also notable is that of the five African countries where China is involved in major resource operations, only one, Angola, is not dealing with a major insurgency.


China continues to expand its operations in the Sudan, its most successful foreign energy project to date. Oil from southern Sudan currently supplies 10 percent of China’s imported energy needs. Chinese and Malaysian companies operating as a joint venture (with a minority Sudanese share) stepped up to take over the exploitation of Sudan’s vast oil reserves after international pressure forced out the Canadian Talisman Corporation. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) recently announced the acquisition of a 40 percent share in a major exploration site off the Sudanese Red Sea coast. A 1997 embargo prevents U.S. companies from operating in the Sudan.

The Sudanese/Swiss ABCO Corporation claims that preliminary drilling in Darfur revealed “abundant” reserves of oil. These reserves have yet to be confirmed, but it appears that the rights may have already passed into Chinese hands (AlertNet, June 15, 2005; Guardian, June 10, 2005).


China and Malaysia, partners in the Sudan, are trying to replicate their Sudanese success in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. As a demonstration of goodwill—and to increase the incentives for cooperation—China and Ethiopia signed a debt relief agreement in May worth $18.5 million (Xinhua, May 30). In addition, a new convention center for the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa is being built with substantial Chinese assistance.

Following its usual practice, China imported its own labor to work in the Ogaden projects in preference to hiring local workers. Asian exploration companies tend to arrive in the region with large military escorts after negotiating contracts with the Tigrean-based government in Addis Ababa. The ethnic-Somali inhabitants of the Ogaden region have little input, making the operations a target of the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). A commando unit of the ONLF attacked a well-guarded Chinese oil exploration facility in northern Ogaden on April 24, killing 65 Ethiopian troops and nine Chinese workers. A further seven Chinese workers were abducted “for their own safety” and released a week later (ONLF communiqué, April 24)


In Niger the CNPC (already active in two other concessions) appears to be in the lead for the sole rights to the promising Agadem concession, to be awarded sometime this month. With financial support from the Chinese government, CNPC is offering to build a refinery and a pipeline in exchange for the rights, a commitment even Western oil giants like Exxon have shied away from. A Tuareg-based rebel movement in the resource rich north has declared Chinese oil and uranium operations “unwelcome” while accusing China of supplying the Niger army with weapons to pacify the region. Rebels attacked an armed supply convoy heading to a CNPC exploration camp in July, killing four soldiers (Reuters, July 31).


Last year, the CNOOC moved into territory previously dominated by major Western oil companies in the Niger Delta, paying $2.7 billion for a 45 percent share in an offshore oilfield expected to go into production in 2008 (Reuters, April 26, 2006). China is building $4 billion worth of oil facilities and other infrastructure in return for access to other promising Nigerian oil-fields, including the untapped inland Chad basin (BBC, April 26, 2006).

With a growing insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta threatening Nigeria’s oil industry, China has stepped in to supply weapons, patrol boats and other military equipment. Beijing does not share Washington’s reluctance to supply such hardware to a Nigerian military accused of corruption and human rights violations (Financial Times, February 27). The insurgents claim that Chinese, Dutch and U.S. resource companies fail to hire local labor and are devastating the local economy and environment through unchecked pollution. The world’s eighth largest oil exporter, Nigeria is also a major market for Chinese exports.


Beijing has been wooing oil-rich Angola through promises of aid and development. Its promise of $2 billion in soft loans brought a guarantee of uninterrupted oil supplies to China and offshore exploration rights for CNPC while enabling Angola to avoid Western pressure to restructure a corrupt and inefficient economy.

Competition with the United States

As China intensifies its economic engagement with Africa, the United States has been steadily increasing its military presence in Africa, supplying arms, training troops and opening new bases for U.S. personnel. Efforts such as the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative have brought U.S. forces into many countries for the first time as part of the global effort against al-Qaeda. The creation last February of AFRICOM, a new U.S. regional combatant command for Africa, reflects Washington’s new interest in the area. Despite the anti-terrorism rhetoric, it appears that the main function of AFRICOM will be to secure U.S. energy supplies in a region that is expected to provide a growing share of the United States’ future energy needs.

Ironically, U.S. arms and military training provided under the guise of “counter-terrorism assistance” may ultimately provide Chinese oil interests with the security they need to carry out operations in high-risk areas. An Ethiopian army financed and equipped by the United States for use against “Al-Qaeda terrorists in Somalia” is now being used to protect Chinese oil exploration efforts in the Ogaden region through military operations against ONLF rebels and punitive attacks on ethnic-Somali civilians.


So far, a visible disinterest in tying resource development contracts to social or economic reforms has aided China in securing its energy future in Africa. To be fair, this pattern of tolerance for corruption in regimes with desirable natural resources was set long ago by Western corporations and governments. China still employs the rhetoric of anti-colonialism in its relations with Africa, but many Africans are beginning to see China as an exploitive major power supporting corrupt regimes in the same manner as the former Western imperial powers. While China is taking some small steps to correct this impression, problems will persist unless Africans see immediate benefits from the Chinese presence, particularly in the field of employment. China’s success in presenting itself to the Third World as “the largest developing country” will eventually have limited currency if its business operations become indistinguishable from Western corporations. In the meantime, China’s rivalry with the West for control of Africa’s oil is certain to intensify.


  1. See the full text of the Declaration of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, available online at:

Niger’s Uranium Industry Threatened by Rebels

Andrew McGregor

July 31, 2007

As the focus of U.S. justifications for its invasion of Iraq and the subsequent “yellowcake” political scandal, both the African country of Niger and its considerable uranium reserves have become well known since 2002. While claims that Niger was supplying uranium to an Iraqi nuclear weapons program have been refuted, there are new concerns that a growing rebellion in Niger’s north might destabilize the country and its uranium industry, now the third largest in the world.

Niger Uranium 1 Fighters of the Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ)

The Tuareg-led rebel group, Le Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ), also includes a number of disaffected members of the Tubu, Arab, Peul, Hausa and other nomadic or semi-nomadic groups dwelling in northern Niger. Despite unsubstantiated claims that the Tuareg present a critical North African link to a supposed expansion of al-Qaeda operations to the Sahel region, the MNJ rebellion has no apparent Islamist component. The grievances of the MNJ are nearly identical with the causes of past Tuareg revolts—government corruption, underdevelopment, inequitable distribution of wealth, economic marginalization and ethnic discrimination.

The government of President Mamadou Tandja has responded by restricting press freedom, refusing to negotiate with the rebels and dispatching 4,000 troops to the north (Le Republicain [Niamey], July 1). The final move is not without its own dangers, as there are reports of mass desertions from the military to the rebels (Afriquenligne, July 21). Militarization of the northern region has already brought the vital Saharan tourist trade to a crashing halt, with European charter flights into Agadez canceled until December. The government has also reduced fuel supplies to the north, making it difficult for food to find its way to the market. Although the official reason is to prevent fuel theft by the rebels, the government is no doubt hoping that pressure on the food supply will diminish MNJ popularity in the north.

Uranium production in Niger represents 8-10% of the world’s supply (3,400 tons in 2006) and accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s exports. The French discovered uranium in Niger’s Tim Mersoï Basin in 1957, using the metal for its nuclear weapons program. Since then, French uranium concern Areva has developed two major uranium mines at Arlit and Akouta, both in the Agadez region, home of the old pre-colonial Tuareg sultanate. The mines operate as joint ventures with ONAREM (Niger’s state mining concern) and a number of minority interests. Although Niger’s uranium is expensive to produce, it is plentiful—with reserves expected to hold out for several more decades. All Niger uranium is pre-sold to COGEMA (France), ENUSA (Spain) and OURD (Japan). Massive diversions of the metal, such as those claimed by the U.S. administration in 2002, are virtually impossible. The rebellion threatens government plans to double the output of its uranium industry in the next four years to meet a growing demand for nuclear fuels. The cost of uranium has soared from $7 per pound in 2000 to over $130 per pound in 2007. Chinese, Canadian and Indian firms are leading the resulting exploration rush in the Agadez region.

Little of Niger’s wealth in natural resources, which includes other precious metals and petroleum, has reached the people of Niger—recently ranked last in quality of life by a UN development index. Impoverished tent cities, burdened with unemployed Niger citizens seeking work, have developed around foreign mining operations. According to the MNJ, as few as 15% of the jobs are available to locals; they, instead, survive on the crumbs of the foreign-managed facilities. Uranium dust has contaminated pastures and the scarce water sources in northern Niger, and a coal-fired fuel plant provides energy for the mines with few environmental restrictions.

Niger Uranium 2Development of the Ingall region of Agadez, a vital grazing ground for Niger’s pastoralists, is specifically opposed by the MNJ—who expressed their displeasure with China’s efforts in the area by kidnapping an executive of the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation on July 6 (Xinhua, July 7). Although the worker was later released, all the company’s personnel were withdrawn under military escort to Agadez. According to a MNJ spokesman in Paris, the Chinese are not welcome “because they don’t work with locals, they don’t employ locals, and they respect the environment even less” (Reuters, June 27). The halt in Chinese operations is unlikely to last; China needs fuel for a planned series of nuclear reactors that have been designed to reduce the growing economy’s dependence on coal-fired energy plants. The MNJ claims that the government used fees from exploration permits to buy two Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and it accuses China of providing arms to the Niger military. MNJ leader Aghali ag Alambo states that “We’re not against any firm, be it from China or elsewhere. But we are against companies which supply the national army while that army is directing its force against civilians who are demanding their rights” (Reuters, July 7).

Libya has been accused of supporting the insurrection, likely because of its close ties to Tuareg militants dating back to the Libyan-sponsored Islamic Legion of the 1970s. French uranium miners Areva have also been charged within Niger of supporting the rebel movement, reflecting a common belief in some elements of the ruling class that French sympathies tend to lie with the desert Tuareg rather than the African tribes of the south. Areva denies the charges, pointing to its own financial losses due to rebel activity, including an April 20 attack on an Areva camp that shut down production for a month (Agence France-Presse, April 20). In an effort to quell opposition to the uranium industry, Areva has announced plans to spend over $1 billion on health and environmental concerns in northern Niger (Africast, May 3).

While Areva is moving toward alleviating the impact of its operations, it is yet to be seen whether its concerns will be shared by other foreign operations in northern Niger. Past experience shows that Niger security forces do not have the ability to quash opposition in the area. Unless measures are taken to accommodate the needs of indigenous tribal groups, the risk of heightened radicalization will be unavoidable.

This article first appeared in the July 31, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus