Niger, Areva, China, Imouraren, and SDS

I’ve been following the launch of the Nigerien government’s $2.5 billion, five-year “Strategy for Development and Security” (SDS). As part of that story I’ve been wondering how the program, which partly aims to address political and economic grievances in the northern part of Niger, will interact with private firms that work in resource extraction, namely in uranium mining and oil drilling. On the one hand, the funding sources for SDS remain partly unclear, and the government may hope to use revenues from resource extraction to fund the program. On the other hand, some firms have themselves been the targets of popular anger and protests, meaning SDS’ administrators could face choices about whether to push for reforms or find alternative ways to reduce anger.

One part of the story that I originally missed is that the Nigerien government has begun voicing some dissatisfaction with French-owned uranium mining giant Areva. Reuters:

Niger warned French nuclear giant Areva on [October 11] against any further delays to its Imouraren uranium mining project, saying it could not support a company that is unable to meet its commitments.

The mine is meant to boost Niger’s uranium output by 5,000 and make it the world’s second-largest exporter of the nuclear fuel, but the planned startup of production was delayed to 2013 or 2014 from 2012 after seven Areva workers were kidnapped in Niger’s north two years ago.

Construction work has also been hampered by labour disputes that triggered strikes earlier this year.

[...]

[Mines Minister Omar Hamidou Tchiana] did not specify what action Niger might take against Areva if it failed to live up to the government’s expectations.

Areva’s official webpage for Imouraren is here, and a map of its location is here.

Much is at stake. Al Qarra (French) wrote yesterday,

Last week, rumors mentioned the resale of Areva’s stake to a Chinese enterprise, behind the back of Nigerien authorities. Despite the French firm’s denial, the Nigerien government seized this opportunity to denounce the firm’s practices. In the authorities’ sights: the economic benefits of the Imouraren site. The government desires more of the benefits for the population, at the same time that it demands that production begins earlier.

The rumors about a sale to a Chinese firm are apparently true. China Daily reported on October 26 that Areva, which currently has a 57% stake in Imouraren (with the Nigerien government holding a 43% stake), is “expected to reach agreement soon on the sale of a 13 percent stake in [Imouraren] to China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co Ltd.”

We will see whether the sale goes through, and whether the Nigerien government is able to pressure its fellow stakeholders into opening the mine sooner and re-configuring how its profits are shared out. And then we will see what consequences all of this has for SDS and for political stability in the north. In any case the struggles surrounding Imouraren are a reminder of the complicated intersections between resource extraction and politics in Niger.

Labor Strikes in Northern Niger

On Wednesday, workers at the Areva-owned Imouraren uranium mine project in northern Niger began a week-long strike. Imouraren (company website) is under construction, and is scheduled to begin production in 2014.

Workers’ grievances (French) concern their conditions; they complain of twelve-hour workdays and schedules that deprive them of sleep. Workers say the conditions at Imouraren are worse than at other Areva mines. Other issues include vacation policies.

During the strike, workers have traveled back to the cities or Agadez and Arlit, where their families live.

Reuters reported yesterday that the uranium workers’ union is threatening to expand the strike to encompass all Areva mines in northern Niger.

“If the strike continues at Imouraren, we will have to mobilise all workers of the mining companies. We’ll stop working until there is a solution for the Imouraren workers,” said Inoua Neino, Secretary General of the Syntramines union.

Niger produces about 4,000 tonnes of uranium per year from mines operated by Areva. China National Nuclear Corporation also has a uranium mining project in the country with output of 700 tonnes per year.

Labor issues like these have real importance for local and national politics. Uranium and, more recently, oil, have sometimes seemed to hold out to Niger a pathway out of poverty. But on the ground, relations between workers, multinational corporations, government, and local communities are often quite shaky, pointing to underlying issues about who, in the rush for such resources, gets what.