Home World Analysis | The coup in Niger puts spotlight on nation’s uranium

Analysis | The coup in Niger puts spotlight on nation’s uranium

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Analysis | The coup in Niger puts spotlight on nation’s uranium

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Tensions are building in Niger just days after a military junta ousted its democratically elected government. A coalition of West African states issued an ultimatum Sunday to Niger’s putschists, threatening military intervention if deposed President Mohamed Bazoum is not returned to power by Aug. 6. Members of the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), suspended relations with Niger and shut their land and air borders with the country. While ECOWAS meekly stood by in recent years as juntas supplanted civilian leaders in Burkina Faso and Mali, the crisis in Niger may mark a different phase in regional politics.

“This is where the junta in Niamey may have miscalculated. They may have assumed a weak ECOWAS response just like in Mali and Burkina Faso,” Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told the Financial Times. “But ECOWAS has drawn a line in the sand. Defense planners have been tasked to plan an intervention — it’s not bluff.”

Upping the ante, the Malian and Burkinabe regimes put out their own joint statement Monday, warning that an ECOWAS intervention in Niger could prompt a military response from their states. Western powers, chiefly France and the United States, are being more circumspect, keen not to fan the flames of anti-Western feeling that surged around the coups in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali. The Biden administration is so far unwilling to label what happened in Niger formally as a “coup,” as that determination would trigger immediate blocks on the security aid that Washington provides a country seen as a bulwark both against Islamist extremist threats and encroaching Russian influence in the region.

The coup-plotting generals seemed to be digging in their heels, though it’s far from clear whether all of Niger’s military apparatus is fully behind the putsch. Over the weekend, their supporters demonstrated in front of the French Embassy in the capital, Niamey, threw stones at the compound and attempted to set it on fire before being dispersed by security forces. Some waved Russian flags or bore signs celebrating Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The West saw Niger as a democratic bulwark. Then, a coup happened.

Amid escalating anti-French rhetoric, the junta allegedly said that it was suspending exports of uranium to France. The radioactive ore is impoverished Niger’s main export and has, over the years, brought the country into the global spotlight — most notoriously in 2003, when dodgy intelligence about a possible Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of Nigerien “yellowcake” uranium formed part of the American case to launch the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq.

Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, possesses Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores, and is one of the main exporters of uranium to Europe. France, the country’s former colonial ruler, is a major importer of Nigerien uranium, which helps power the massive French civil nuclear industry.

On Monday, a statement from France’s Foreign Ministry indicated that a falloff in uranium from Niger would have minimal impact, because “our supplies are extremely diversified.” The ministry said Tuesday it would evacuate French and other European nationals from the country.

But some analysts suggest the impasse may have a kind of snowball effect, forcing European governments to reconsider further punitive action against Russia, one of the world’s biggest exporters of uranium. “It could have consequences at the EU level. Uranium — and nuclear power in general — is still not subject to sanctions,” Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, an energy expert at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, told Politico. “If the situation in Niger gets worse, this would certainly complicate the adoption of sanctions on Russian uranium in the short term.”

Orano, a French state-backed nuclear energy company, has major stakes in three uranium mines in Niger, though only one is in operation. Located far to the north of Niamey, closer to the dusty border with Algeria, the mines have been more vulnerable to Islamist militants than coup-plotting militants. A colonial expedition in search of copper in the late 1950s turned up the uranium, and Orano, formerly known as Areva, has operated in the country for the better part of half a century.

General declares himself Niger’s leader, citing ‘insecurity’ as reason for coup

In a part of the world deeply sensitive to the French colonial legacy, the extraction of uranium can be a smoldering issue. Environmental watchdogs have documented over the years incidents of negligence and abuse, in which dangerous levels of radioactive waste were left among the local populations living near the mines. Earlier this year, France-based investigators found that 20 million tons of waste left near a recently depleted mine was spreading a potentially lethal radioactive gas known as radon, contaminating groundwater and endangering over 100,000 people living in adjacent communities.

A decade ago, the Nigerien government engaged in protracted negotiations with Orano over a new contract, angry over the cut in royalties afforded to Niger by the French company. Oxfam, an international advocacy group, highlighted the clash at the time between one of the world’s poorest countries and Orano as a “David vs. Goliath” struggle. The dealings were also shrouded in allegations of corruption in the years thereafter.

Now, given the uncertainty of the moment, new questions surround Niger’s uranium industry. What will happen to France’s interests? Will other countries — chiefly, Russia — find opportunistic accommodation with the junta and finagle concessions in natural resources? Before the coup, Niger was already exploring options for energy investment, including the cultivation of a new uranium mine, with China.

But given the enduring presence of French companies in Burkina Faso and Mali, no matter the anti-Paris disposition of the juntas there, there may be little change to the current status quo. “In most of Niger’s coups d’état, the uranium sector was never fundamentally in question,” Emmanuel Grégoire, director emeritus of research at the Research Institute for Development, a French government agency, told Le Monde. After the 1974 coup, which overthrew the country’s first post-colonial government, Grégoire said that “negotiations took place because the French had imposed contracts that were financially detrimental to the Nigeriens, but there was never any question of kicking them out.”

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