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.

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.

AQIM Negotiates for Remaining Four Areva Hostages

Amidst rumors and anonymous sources, I often have trouble piecing together what’s going with hostage transactions involving Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but this post is an attempt to do so. In September 2010, AQIM claimed the kidnapping of seven people in northern Niger – five French nationals, one Togolese, and one Malagasy – who worked for Areva, a French mining company. In February, AQIM released a French woman and her two African comrades, reportedly for a ransom. The four remaining French citizens remain in AQIM’s grasp, probably in northern Mali. Negotiations are going on now to free them. Before talking about the present, though, here’s a little background:

Hostage negotiations with AQIM often proceed through local – ie, Malian and Nigerien, negotiators – and this case is no different. Sources close to these persons sometimes talk to the international press, giving us a partial, but still murky, view of what goes on. Regarding the release in February, AFP (previous link) has only this:

A source said a ransom had been paid but declined to disclose the amount.

“We were able to convince the abductors that the release is not (Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s) business, but theirs,” said the source, close to Malian and Nigerien mediators involved in negotiations for the trio’s release.

Ennahar, relying on the views of Algerian expert Mohamed Mokeddem, give us a little more speculation about the negotiations process. Mokeddem says that AQIM leaders released the first three hostages to improve their bargaining position (by offering up “less valuable” prisoners, they increase the value of the remaining hostages and prolong the negotiations process, is how I think this logic runs). He adds that the attempted armed rescue of two Frenchmen kidnapped in a different incident in Niger in January has also changed the calculus on both sides, giving AQIM more reasons to negotiate and giving France an incentive to resolve the problem smoothly, and well in advance of the 2012 elections. Just to emphasize, all this is mostly speculative and I cannot vouch for its accuracy. It’s just one expert’s view.

That brings us to the present. We are getting two key pieces of information: first, the amount AQIM is allegedly demanding and second, the fact that someone is leaking this amount to the international press. AFP:

“The kidnappers are demanding at least 90 million euros (128 million dollars) to release the four French hostages still being held,” said the Niger source close to talks taking place in northern Mali.

“They also want the release of AQIM prisoners taken in several countries, including France,” the source said.

“I can tell you that everyone is mobilised to obtain the release of the hostages,” the source added.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has already publicly refused.

“We do not negotiate on these terms,” said Juppe, who was attending a regular meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels.

The kidnappers made the demand within the past few days, a Nigerien military intelligence source said. A source close to the French nuclear group Areva confirmed the ransom demand.

French government sources declined to confirm whether the government had received a ransom demand. One source said any such demand would be “ridiculously extravagant.”

I would think that public discussion of private negotiations complicates the bargaining process even further. There are many actors involved already: the governments of France, Niger, and Mali; local mediators; Areva; and lastly AQIM. Now the international press will play some role as well, acting as a conduit for both official statements and unofficial rumors.

Whether that strengthens one side or undermines negotiations I can’t say, though my suspicion is that since negotiations have come this far (securing the release of three hostages, and getting deep into discussions regarding the other four), they will probably continue, and could well result in a ransom payment for the remaining captives. One motive for the leak, indeed, may be that the final payment (whose amount will likely never be confirmed) will be much lower, allowing those who pay to say that they negotiated hard and gave AQIM much less than what it wanted. The leak makes AQIM look foolish – not only evil, but unrealistic as well. That could help move negotiations to more realistic numbers.

However, anything is possible and I’m likely foolish for making predictions based on anonymous sources: after all, we could see another French rescue attempt or a breakdown in negotiations. I’ll have more as this story develops.