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.