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.

More on Security and Development in Niger

Last week I wrote about Niger’s new $2.5 billion, five-year program (“SDS”) for security and development in its northern regions. Yesterday I went up at World Politics Review with a piece that looks more closely at SDS and also discusses past (and hopefully future) efforts at security and development in northern Mali.

There are two additional points worth making here:

First, to amplify what I said in the article, it is unclear where much of SDS’ budget will come from. Niger’s government may hope that profits from uranium and oil will help fund SDS. Yet these industries are themselves partly the cause of dissatisfaction in some communities in Niger. This dissatisfaction has taken the form of strikes at uranium mines and, this week, a strike by fuel truck drivers.

Witnesses in Zinder, where the refinery is located, said there were hundreds of trucks parked around the town in observance of the strike call.

Niger inaugurated the 20,000 barrel-per-day Soraz refinery in November 2011 hoping it would make Niger fuel self-sufficient and bring down prices.

But the refinery, 60 percent owned by Chinese state oil company CNPC and 40 percent by Niger, has been plagued by problems, including violent demonstrations by protesters complaining that fuel remains unaffordable.

Zinder (map) is, of course, in southern Niger, but the Zinder Region is one of six targeted by SDS.* Major uranium mines also lie within the targeted regions. If Niger’s government does not address complaints about working conditions, revenue flows, and other problems in the uranium and oil industries, those complaints may undermine the program’s overall goal of reducing grievances in the north and elsewhere.

The second point is that Niger is not just worried about instability in the far north, but is also concerned about a spillover of violence from neighboring Nigeria, where Boko Haram continues to launch attacks. In advance of an upcoming visit by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to Niger later this month, Nigerien authorities are calling for joint border patrols. Even as Niger keeps one eye on Mali and the north, then, the other watches Nigeria and the south.

*News reports have emphasized the idea of SDS as a program targeting the north, but the program is virtually national in scope. I am still making up my mind about how to characterize its geographical focus. Comments welcome.

Niger: Tuareg Backlash Against China

Tensions are running high between Tuareg communities and the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U), in Azalik, northern Niger. These tensions exacerbate mistrust between the Tuaregs and the central government of Niger. Problems in Azalik count as yet another instance of backlash against China’s presence in Africa. This backlash is not universal. But as China’s economic activities expand in Africa, backlash will occur with greater frequency, making situations like the one in Azalik a potential harbinger of things to come.

The seeds of the current conflict were sown in 2007, when Niger granted uranium production rights to SOMINA, a joint venture of Sino-U and the Nigerien government. Tuareg rebels protested this deal:

The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ)…said in a statement the uranium-rich territories of northern Niger belonged to the Tuareg people.

[...]

“All contracts awarded by Niamey are invalid as long as the indigenous people are not involved and do not benefit from them,” the MNJ said on its Web site http://www.m-n-j.blogspot.com.

“No exploitation (we repeat) will be possible today and less so tomorrow, because these lands have their owners: the indigenous Tuaregs,” the statement said.

Despite this opposition, China and Niger went forward with the project. China loaned $95 million to Niger in 2009 to support SOMINA.

With mining underway, Tuaregs continue to protest the project.

To Tuaregs, the $300 million SOMINA uranium mine at the desert outpost of Azalik, due to begin producing later this year, has come to represent all that is harmful about Chinese investment in Niger.

Last month Nigerien workers – many of whom are Tuareg – denounced in a written statement conditions at SOMINA, claiming it resembled “a Chinese colony.” Nigerien laborers sleep in dorms, separately from Chinese workers. The rooms are located in illegal proximity to open pit uranium mines, and the Nigeriens suffer chronic diarrhea on account of an unsanitary water supply, the document charged. Trouble at the mine has led Azalik to be referred to throughout northern Niger as “Guantanamo.”

Despite poor conditions, the mine offers a coveted chance to work. But further frustrating locals, SOMINA employs hundreds of Chinese nationals and recruits ethnically Hausa workers from the south despite widespread poverty and unemployment among the local Tuaregs.

[...]

Chinese mining executives refuse invitations from local elected officials to discuss improving conditions…
“They say they don’t have to answer to us because they have direct communication with the central government,” adds Mohamed Mamane Illo, a former Tuareg rebel and elected councilor of Ingall.

In some ways, this is a familiar story of communities caught between corporations and governments hungry for the resources on the land where they live. Maybe that is the point. China’s approach toward Africa tries to avoid politics. But any time resources are disputed, politics is present. One could even say that the fundamental political issue across West Africa is control of resources. Interesting also is what happens to national governments as these conflicts proceed – despite the income they may acquire by dealing with corporations, their legitimacy with their own people (although arguably the Nigerien government has none left with the Tuaregs anyway) may take a hit.

So are the hopes that the military junta would achieve better relations with the Tuaregs already fading? If so, that’s a powerful indicator that resource conflicts owe more to the relationships between localities, foreign economic powers, and the political center than they do to the specific group in charge in the center.