Islamists now dominate northern Mali. Tuareg tribesmen in neighboring Niger fear the conflict could spill over into their country which has already experienced two armed uprisings.
The soil is heavy and muddy. It clings to the hoe with which Mohammed Kouda is trying to loosen the ground. Kouda and his brother have come to clean up what's left of their garden after a severe flood devastated it. The two are members of the Tuareg tribe and live in the village of Iferouane, in the Air mountains in northern Niger. If it starts raining again, Kouda is afraid that his entire crops could be destroyed. It wouldn't be the first time. Climate change has resulted in droughts alternating with floods.
It was not an easy decision for Mohamed Kouda to start life as a farmer. The 40-year-old fought in both Tuareg rebellions in Niger. After a cease-fire in 2009, he gave up his gun. The government had promised him and 4,000 more Tuareg rebels a future in peace. But that was an empty promise, Kouda says today. All he has is his garden, but at least that's something. "90 percent of the former fighters have nothing. We will survive somehow but it's not easy," he says.
Afraid of the conflict next door
Despite his dissatisfaction, Kouda no longer believes that armed uprisings are the answer. They change nothing, he says, but each time the population pays a high price. But now he fears that people in Niger could once again rebel. "This is a real danger because Niger is surrounded by politically unstable countries." Kouda lists them: Libya in the north, Mali in the west, Nigeria in the south with the Boko Haram sect.. "Of course this has an impact on the situation here," he says. Since the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in the region, weapons have been circulating and are easy to come by.
"The government of Niger must take this threat seriously," Kouda warns, adding: "There are many young men here who have no work but know how to use a gun. The government has so far not done anything for them."
Enlighten rather than incite
A few days later Kouda, and many other residents of Iferouane, are in the village square where a mix of traditional and modern music blasts from speakers set up on the dusty ground.
The Nigerian NGO "HED Tamat" has invited them to a special "Forum for Peace and Development." The abbreviation HED stands for "Homme Environment Developpement" (man, environment, development)
HED Tamat has organized such forums in eleven locations in the Tuareg region of northern Niger. " We got the idea for these peace forums because we do not want a repeat of the Tuareg rebellions, like the one in Niger in 2007," says Mano Aghali, who runs the aid organization. Money also comes from the non governmental organization Care Germany/Luxembourg and from the German Foreign Ministry.
"We want these gatherings to help prevent another rebellion," Aghali says.
Islamists' empty promises
Aghali was here during the 1990s when the uprisings of the nomadic people began. He was part of their political wing.
Later, he studied economics, went into politics and sat in parliament for a few years. When the Tuaregs in Mali and Niger took up arms again in 2007, Aghali was no longer with them. Today he believes in political rather than military solutions.
Also present at the peace forum in Iferouane is Rhizza Ag Boula. He fought in both the previous rebellions in Niger. Today he is an adviser to President Mahamadou Issoufou. Rhizza warns the young men of the village against the Islamists in neighoring Mali. "Steer clear of them. Even if they tempt you with money - in the end they will force you to join them." The audience listens attentively. Former rebel Mohammed Kouda and many of his fellow fighters understood the message long ago. They want to at all costs to avoid another war in Niger.