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:
- 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.