The Libyan leader has turned for additional firepower to the Tuareg berber people, who have a history of relations with Tripoli -- and their own longstanding conflict with the Niger government.
AGADEZ - "We're here, and everything's fine. They gave us weapons in Tripoli, and for now we have to stick to Sabaha (in southern Libya). But we'll be on the frontlines soon….Long live Gaddafi!"
Reached from Agadez, in northern Niger, Suleiman's laughter is lost in the static of the cell phone. Communication is cut off somewhere in the Sahara desert, a thousand kilometers away from the Aïr mountains of Niger where Suleiman was born.
The northern mountain range remains the stronghold of the rebellion of the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people, who have fought on and off against the authorities in the capital of Niamey.
That Tuaregs from Niger have been recruited as mercenaries for the Libyan regime is Agadez's worst kept secret. But it is hard to meet a volunteer who'll speak openly about it -- and impossible to know just how many have taken Muammar Gaddafi's side since the beginning of the Libyan crisis.
"There are hundreds of them," estimates a former rebel leader in Agadez. "They leave in caravans. The ride is long but easy. We avoid Nigerien army checkpoints, and once in Libya, we're at home. We've always been welcome there."
The desert is unconquerable. North of a line going from the Malian border to Libya, passing through Tahoua, Agadez and Dirkou, the Tuaregs know the dirt roads that lead up into Algeria and Libya better than anyone else. These roads see all sorts of traffic: arms and drugs, goods and African migrants heading to Europe. For years, these roads have been leading them to Libya, a land of asylum and a sanctuary for generations of Tuareg rebels since the 1960s. It is a land of financial and personal integration for the luckiest, of thankless seasonal labor for others. For a Tuareg community that doesn't feel welcome in its own country, one of the poorest in the world, Libya is a gold mine.
"Unemployment, idleness, destitution and political frustration, added to the feeling that they are in debt to Gaddafi… All the ingredients are there to make the Tuaregs fight by his side. Gaddafi doesn't need equipment or money, he needs men," says Issuf Maha, 46, a former official of the Nigerien Patriotic Front (NPF) rebel group.
Nigerien Tuaregs in Libya, with full access to Gaddafi's inner circle, have activated networks. "Rhissa Boula and Aghali Alambo (two former rebel leaders) contacted a number of people," Maha adds. One young man, Houcene, hasn't made up his mind about going to Tripoli. "A friend called me," he says. "They promised up to $100 a day. It's tempting, but I don't really want to fight for a foreign country, even if it's Libya." One of his friends went. "He left with about 60 others from the Tahoua region. Once in Tripoli, thanks to the old commanders' connections, Libya gave them weapons. They formed small units and now they're in Benghazi (the opposition stronghold) to take the city."
Gaddafi has often used battalions of Tuaregs, picking these rugged warriors from tribes living in Southern Libya but mostly in the Tuareg communities of Mali and Niger, the largest, "about 1.5 million people for a population 11 million," according to a Nigerien general. Integrated in the ranks of the Islamic Legion, these men fought in Lebanon, despite not speaking Arabic, and in Chad in the 1980's. Many then stayed in Libya. Some worked their way up to the top of the Libyan military ranks, unheard of in their native Niger, where Tuaregs are under-represented in government bodies. One of Gaddafi's closest advisors is a Tuareg and two Southern shabiyats (districts), Ghat and Wadi al Hayaa are run by Tuaregs.
In Agadez, many dream of such promotions. "If we want security in the North of the country, we have to integrate Tuaregs in the army. They know the region better than anyone else. But the army sees us as thugs," regrets Mohamed Anako.
Still, Agadez has been precariously calm since a verbal peace agreement quickly put together in the Libyan port city of Syrte in April 2009, under Gaddafi's supervision, which put an end to a two-year Tuareg uprising in Niger. "It was just a tacit agreement to start the peace process," says Aklou Sidi Sidi. Niamey only partly recognized the protocol. "Gaddafi paid for everything but as usual, he just gave suitcases full of dollars to rebel leaders," says Maha.
With the Libyan money, the 3,000 or so identified rebels were demobilized and disarmed. In exchange, Niamey called a general amnesty, freed prisoners and lifted the state of exception installed in Agadez and the surrounding region. But no economic or social measures were taken. "They should have integrated former rebels, given young people jobs, but they never followed up," says the region's governor, Colonel Yaye Garba, a Zarma appointed in Agadez by the military junta.
The makeshift peace agreement has frustrated 35-year-old Houcene. He's among those low-ranking rebels who only got a little money for their demobilization after two years of guerilla in the bush. "Former leaders took the lion's share. They drive around Niamey in fancy SUVs, live in big villas," he says. Some haven't even been back to Agadez, afraid to face their former brothers in arms. Especially since the money paid was less then what Libya had promised. "Gaddafi promised $20 million and only paid four million," says Issouf Maha. Houcene, who's been unemployed since he gave up his weapons, says there's no place left to turn. "We were betrayed by everyone: Niamey, Tripoli and our own leaders."
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