TCHINTABARADEN, Niger (Reuters) - In the weeks since a sudden Tuareg revolt split Mali in two, officials in neighboring Niger have been desperate to stop the Sahara uprising from spreading across their border.
If history is a guide, Niger has reason to be nervous. Since the first of several uprisings nearly a century ago by the indigo-turbaned nomads - who live in the vast desert spanning northern Mali and Niger - both countries have tended to be simultaneous battlegrounds.
Now, weeks after rebels swept across Mali’s north in the wake of a coup in the capital, residents and officials in Niger - home to the region’s largest Tuareg population - say Mali’s outcome will determine whether unrest leaps the frontier.
“The populations in northern Mali and northern Niger are virtually the same in this zone. Of course there are risks,” said Mohammed Anacko, a former Nigerien Tuareg rebel leader, now head of the regional council in Agadez.
“Our concern is how this (situation in Mali) will be managed. The way in which it is managed will determine what spillover there is in Niger,” he added.
Tuareg fighters have rebelled in the Sahara five times since 1916, mostly over complaints about the region’s poverty and about being sidelined by a centralized government situated hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.
This latest uprising in Mali marked a shift - instead of fighting guerrilla-style warfare with rusty rifles, Tuareg units now bristle with weapons, vehicles and soldiers spilling across the Sahara from Libya’s war last year.
The main Tuareg rebel group in Mali, MNLA, declared an autonomous desert homeland called Azawad after brazenly seizing northern towns in March and early April, putting it in control of about two-thirds of Malian territory.
They also swept in with them other Islamist groups and smugglers, complicating efforts to resolve the conflict and raising the regional stakes for stability.
Keeping them from crossing the border is important for Niger, saddled with a perennial food shortage and refugees from other regional conflicts, while at the same time trying to maintain investor interest in its resources.
Unlike Mali’s north, where oil and mineral wealth are still largely untapped, northern Niger already hosts fully-operational uranium mines, including projects run by French nuclear power giant Areva and China National Nuclear Corporation.
Northern Niger’s Agadez region was also once a hot spot for European tourists seeking a taste of the desert, but travel has dried up since the last Tuareg rebellion inflamed both Mali and Niger from 2007 to 2009, and since an increase in kidnappings by al Qaeda-linked gunmen.
With few other opportunities, young residents of northern Niger are increasingly targets for recruitment by bandits, smugglers, or an armed rebellion, officials said.
“What worries the youth is underemployment,” said Saadick Idrissa, an NGO worker in Tchintabaraden, where the government was hosting a conference on Niger’s north. “For us, it is essential to address economic development.”
Karim Alkassoum, an unemployed 22 year-old in Tchintabaraden, hinted at the temptation to join the fighting across the border.
“I would take any work that I can find,” he said. “But if I was given the chance, I would go to Mali,” he added, without explaining what he would do when he got there.
Residents in the area have little faith the government will solve their problems of poverty and unemployment.
“They will do nothing. They will go back to Niamey to their air conditioners,” said Mohamed Yacoubou, an unemployed 19-year-old in Tchintabaraden, of government officials.
Niger has so far done a better job than Mali of managing the flow of fighters and weapons out of Libya that accompanied the fall of the late leader Muammar Gaddafi and handed Malian rebels the firepower to rout government forces.
Niger officials also say their country has better integrated its ethnic groups over its history than Mali, where the Tuareg are mainly restricted to the impoverished north and efforts to bring them into the army failed to stick.
“You can see that the problems are not the same,” said Alkache Akhada, a Tuareg, and deputy director of the Nigerien cabinet. “You have Tuareg in every region of Niger, and this is not the case in Mali. In Niger, there is an ethnic mixing.”
Nonetheless, the stunning pace of Mali’s collapse has rattled authorities in Niamey. They are now in the uncomfortable position of wanting to help Mali put down its Tuareg uprising, without stoking lingering Tuareg complaints in Niger.
“We must (...) ensure that our population does not fall victim to the influence of these confused groups and factions. We have a culture to protect. We have national unity to protect. In this sense we cannot remain indifferent to what is happening at our door,” said Prime Minister Brigi Rafini.
Unlike the Malian capital Bamako, which is far from Tuareg areas, Niger’s seat of power Niamey is just 450 km (275 miles) from Gao, a Malian town awash with both local and foreign gunmen. Kidnappers have already struck there, taking two Frenchmen from a bar in the heart of Niamey early last year.
As a result, Niger has been the most vocal of Mali’s international partners and neighbors in calling for a robust response to the security void in Mali’s north.
West African bloc ECOWAS has said it plans to send a force of more than 3,000 troops to Mali to help oversee its transition back to democratic rule after its April coup, though the junta which took power there has bristled at the idea.
It remains unclear what role, if any, such a force might play in the Tuareg-controlled north.
Fighting between the Tuareg rebels and an international force in Mali could provide the perfect excuse for the rebellion to cross borders into Niger, and possibly other neighbors, Anacko said.
“If international, or regional, opinion opts for a military solution, inevitably there will be repercussions in Niger and the broader Sahel... simply because it will generalize the conflict,” he said.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis