Niger: A Quick Look at “Uraniumgate”

In Niger, a complex potential scandal involving uranium sales is unfolding. It is so serious as to have prompted a parliamentary inquiry (French), which began on March 27 and will run for forty-five days.

Here is some of the backstory: In 2011, Hassoumi Massaoudou, then-chief of staff to Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, authorized “a bank transfer…for $320 million from an account belonging to state miner Sopamin to an account controlled by an offshore company called Optima Energy.”

Currently, Massaoudou is Niger’s current finance minister. At a press conference in February, he argued that “his involvement in a series of transactions involving the uranium rights, ending in its sale by Sopamin to French state-owned nuclear company Areva, ultimately earned the state a profit.” You can listen to the press conference here (French), where Massaoudou says that at Areva’s suggestion he engaged in “trading” to make a profit for Niger “for free.” He also says that the gains were deposited in the treasury and spent on expenses, “notably vehicles for the presidential guard.”

Documents showing the transfer first appeared in February in the Nigerien newspaper Le Courrier. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the full newspaper report online; the closest I’ve come is a photograph I found of the print edition, and even that appears to show only part of the article. (If anyone has access to a photograph of the entire story and accompanying documents, please email them to me.) One document (French), signed by Sopamin’s director at the time, may contradict Massaoudou’s account by showing that the transfer was not connected to trading but to uranium sales.

So to make things a bit clearer, here are some of the key players:

  • Massaoudou
  • Issoufou
  • Sopamin (La Société du patrimoine des mines du Niger, which might be translated as “Niger Mines Assets Firm”), a state-run company with stakes in major uranium and gold mines
  • Sopamin’s former director Hamma Hamadou
  • Sopamin’s current director Hama Zada
  • Optima Energy, a Lebanese firm based in Dubai (but perhaps a branch of a Swiss firm)
  • Areva, a French state-owned firm that operates two major uranium mines in northern Niger
  • Energo Alyans, a Russian distribution company

Jeune Afrique (French), which has reviewed the documents in question, provides a chronology and gives the prices at each step:

  • Areva’s sale to Energo Alyans: $220 million
  • Energo Alyans’ sale to Optima: $302 million on 24 November 2011
  • Optima’s sale to Sopamin: $319.8 million on 25 November 2011
  • Sopamin’s sale to Areva: $320.65 million

As even this quick look shows, the situation is highly complex. The inquiry could prove explosive for Niger, France, and various firms.

Senegal, Niger, and West African Democracy

I’m up to Global Observatory today with a post discussing two legal battles I have blogged about separately here – the trial of Hama Amadou in Niger, and the proceedings against Khalifa Sall in Senegal. My post at GO compares the two situations and assesses the implications for democracy in West Africa.

Niger: Opposition Leader Hama Amadou Sentenced in Absentia

Hama Amadou is a Nigerien politician who placed third in the first round of the 2011 presidential elections. In the second round, he supported Mahamadou Issoufou, who went on to win the election and who is Niger’s current president. After the election, Amadou became president of Niger’s National Assembly. In 2013, he and Issoufou fell out. In summer 2014, Amadou and a number of his associates were accused of involvement in trafficking babies from Nigeria. Amid the allegations, Amadou fled the country (and was replaced as National Assembly president), returning only in late 2015 to campaign for the 2016 presidential elections. He spent the campaign under arrest, and was crushed in the official final results, losing to Issoufou 7% to 92%. Amadou was evacuated to France for medical reasons in March 2016, and he remains there in exile.

All this is background to the one-year prison sentence given to Amadou, in absentia, by the Appeals Court in the capital Niamey on March 13. It seems highly unlikely that Amadou will return to Niger any time soon, and so it seems that the sentence is intended to deter him from returning or from attempting to resuscitate his political career.

With the major caveat that I haven’t seen any of the evidence presented at the trial, I must say that the charges have always appeared bogus and political to me. Why would a prominent politician traffic in stolen babies? Profound moral corruption at high levels is of course not unknown, but it stretches credibility to think that Amadou, in the midst of a huge political fight with Issoufou, would have taken a massive professional risk.

The trial took one day (French), and many defendants received five-year sentences. The lawyers for the defendants complained that proper legal procedures were not being followed, and they boycotted (French) the proceedings. You can read an interview with one of Amadou’s lawyers here (French).

If the charges are indeed bogus, that would be a sign to me of growing authoritarianism in Niger.

 

State(s) of Emergency in Niger

On March 3, Niger’s government declared a state of emergency (French) in two of its seven regions while maintaining a state of emergency in a third.

The new state of emergency affects Tillabéri and Tahoua, two western regions on the border with Mali. Specifically, the state of emergency includes the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala et Banibongou in Tillabéri and the departments of Tassara et Tillia in Tahoua. The declaration responds to recent attacks, including one in October that I covered here on the blog, as well as the recent killing of sixteen soldiers in an attack on a military patrol in Ouallam (French) and the recent killing of five gendarmes in Bankilaré. That last incident occurred after the state of emergency was declared.

The Nigerien government also maintained the state of emergency in Diffa, in the far southeastern part of the country near the borders with Nigeria and Chad. The government explained that “despite the relative respite observed in the Diffa region,” it wanted to keep exceptional security measures in place. Diffa has been the site of numerous attacks by the Boko Haram sect since 2015. The state of emergency in Diffa dates to February 2015.

As the cliché goes, Niger is in a “bad neighborhood” and its border zones are vulnerable to multiple sources of violence, whether emanating from Nigeria, Mali, or Libya. The northern Agadez region is not under a state of emergency, but the region (and the city of Agadez) face their own problems amid a new anti-smuggling crackdown. Going forward, then, there will be questions about what the states of emergency allow the Nigerien government to achieve in terms of security, or whether further security challenges are coming.

The Attack on Tazalit, Niger and an Insight into Nigerien Perspectives on Northern Mali

On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:

The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.

This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.

The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.

Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”

Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):

This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.

The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).

It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.

Niger Telecom Merger

Last week, Niger’s government announced that it would merge two state-owned telecommunications companies – “Sonitel, which operates landlines, and Sahelcom, a mobile operator” – to form one company, Niger Telecom. Sahelcom currently competes with Bharti Airtel (an Indian company), Orange (a French company), and Moov (a subsidiary of Atlantique, which is itself a subsidiary of Emirati-owned Etisalat).* The merger of Sonitel and Sahelcom has been in the works for at least a year, and is part of a longer story involving the failed privatization of Sonitel (including a failed sale to a Libyan company in 2011).

A few more details about the merger can be found in the official readout (French) of last week’s cabinet meeting in Niger. Perhaps most importantly, the Ministry of Communication envisions that the merger will “assure optimal and rational management of the resources of the two companies” and “make the national public operator more attractive.”

Needless to say, there have been waves upon waves of privatization of state-run companies in Africa in the past thirty-five years and more. It will be interesting to see whether Niger can meet its goal of making state-owned telecoms more efficient and competitive. That will be an uphill climb, though: Jeune Afrique (French) says that both Sonitel and Sahelcom are deeply in the red, and that Sahelcom lags far behind its competitors in terms of subscribers. Out of 7 million mobile subscribers in Niger, Jeune Afrique gives the following breakdown of market share:

  • Sahelcom: 347,000 subscribers
  • Bharti Airtel: 3.5 million subscribes or 58.62% market share
  • Orange: 1.67 million subscribers or 27.5% market share
  • Maroc Telecom/Moov: 604,499 subscribers or 9.96% or market share.

Sahelcom/Niger Telecom will have a lot of catching up to do.

*If I have my facts straight, it seems that Moov Niger was set up (French) by Maroc Telecom (Morocco), in which Etisalat acquired a majority stake in May 2014.

 

University Strikes and Protests in Niger and Chad

This month, universities have seen strikes and protests in two Sahelian countries, Niger and Chad. The core issue is financial: instructors in Niger have not received their salaries and research premiums, and students in Chad have not received their academic stipends. Particularly in Chad, the protests suggest broader popular anger at new austerity measures (French) – not enough anger to threaten the regime, but enough to show that many Chadians are already unhappy with austerity.

In Niger (French), instructors at public universities have declared several strikes during September, disrupting the start of the new school year. The instructors say they are owed several months of back pay and research stipends. The strikes are led by the National Syndicate of Instructors and Researchers. For their part, Nigerien university students are protesting what they say are poor study conditions and unpaid stipends. Niger’s Ministry of Higher Education has said (French) that the instructors and researchers have been paid, but their continued strike suggests otherwise. The instructors renewed their strike (French) on September 26.

In Chad (French), “anger is rumbling among students,” who have been protesting this week in the capital, N’Djamena, over unpaid stipends. On September 27, the Ministry of the Interior forbid further protests, and several dozen students have been arrested and questioned. Another student rally on September 28 was dispersed by the security forces.

Assuming that the strikers and protesters are correct about unpaid salaries and stipends, I sympathize with their demands. Striking and protesting may be the only way to get the money they were promised, and so in that sense they are right to strike. One negative outcome, of course, is that strikes and protests can severely disrupt the academic calendar and can have a powerful cumulative effect on students’ overall university experiences, especially in terms of time to degree (that has been a big problem in Nigeria as well). When governments meet such strikes with either denial or repression, they are tacitly agreeing to prolong the cycle of strikes and in so doing to prolong time to degree for many students.