Niger: Uranium vs extreme poverty | Sunday Observer
Neighbouring states warn against Western intervention:

Niger: Uranium vs extreme poverty

6 August, 2023

Why are civilian protesters backing the recent military coup in Niger, Africa’s poorest country, waving Russian flags and chanting slogans calling for support from the notorious Russian-backed Wagner mercenary force? Western news media covering the events in the capital, Niamey, were quick to report this, sending jitters in Western capitals.

But when former colonial power France as well as the West-leaning ECOWAS regional alliance of western African states all threatened intervention to reverse the coup, Niger’s two immediate neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso, quickly sided with the new regime in Niger’s capital of Niamey. It is noteworthy that both Mali and Burkina Faso have recently ensconced military regimes.

Both these regimes have just expelled largely French, Western-led ‘peace-keeping’ forces that were supposedly ‘helping’ to suppress Islamist fundamentalist insurgents active in their barren northern regions along the edge of the Sahara desert.

The West is worried. After all, sickeningly impoverished as it is, Niger, whose northern half comprises a chunk of the giant Sahara Desert, is a major supplier of uranium to the West, especially nuclear energy-dependent Europe. This long-time, crucial, resource dependency had prompted the super-rich West to shower economic aid on that immensely under-developed country.

One of the world’s largest producers of uranium ore, Niger, a former French colony located north of former British colony Nigeria, has remained as impoverished as when the French grudgingly granted them freedom in 1960. Neo-colonial economic control remained.

Uranium mining is controlled by a French-based mining company in which France’s State-owned energy producing corporation has the majority shares. The Nigerien (‘Nigerien’ as opposed to ‘Nigerian’ of former British colony, Nigeria) Government has a minority holding.

Worse, the French originally withdrew from its colony only after entrenching a financially highly favourable deal in its uranium mining ventures located in the desert-ridden northern Agadez Province. To date, Niger receives only a pittance as its income share of the ore extraction and exports while the European-based energy corporates rake in the bulk of profits along with the ore itself as vitally needed fuel for Europe’s energy.

France, which imports up to 80 percent of its uranium from its former colony, also re-exports the ore to its European neighbours to fuel their nuclear energy plants.

Global sanctions

Following the outbreak of war over Ukraine, NATO’s sanctions against invader Russia has resulted in the loss of cheap Russian gas supplies to Europe. The global sanctions imposed by NATO against Russia have also caused a rise in petroleum prices. All this has created a greater dependency on the West’s nuclear energy production and rendered Niger’s uranium supply of even greater strategic value.

But it is only when a coup occurs in Niamey that the West wakes up to the importance of a country that has been kept in extreme poverty despite its globally valued product.

Niger is the world’s seventh-ranking producer of uranium, producing over 3,000 tonnes of uranium a year, according to development news agency IRIN. More importantly, due to its late discovery in the 1950s (found by a French company) and limited extraction, Niger today has the largest single estimated reserves of the mineral.

With the world, especially the energy-hungry industrial powers, moving away from depleting reserves of fossil fuels, nuclear energy is now seen as the principal energy source of the immediate future principally through Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Already, in the recent few years world prices of uranium have nearly doubled.

None of these developments has been of any help to Niger, once the seat of a centuries-old great tribal empire covering a quarter of Saharan and sub-Saharan western Africa in the medieval era before the European invasions.

It is only today that the glory of these medieval empires of the supposedly “darkest Africa” are being highlighted. ‘Niger’ is the colonially-imposed modern name of this country that remains a hapless victim of post-colonial economic plunder.

In the pre-colonial era (before the 19th century), the Niger region was the centre of a vast empire of the Songhai tribal confederation. This empire lasted for at least 400 years, if not longer in smaller regions and was parallel to the equally large and richer Mali and Ghana empires further to the west in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By the 19th century, however, the industrially and technologically more powerful European powers were invading and colonising the great continent to their immediate south. The “Scramble for Africa” as the Europeans themselves so cynically described their colonial aggression came to a climax in the 1880s with, perhaps, the most cynical and unscrupulous exercise of all – the infamous ‘Berlin Conference’ convened by German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark.

Thirteen major European colonial powers along with the United States (which benefited most from West African slavery) met in a series of diplomatic meetings in Berlin in 1884–1885 that ended with multilateral deals among these powers on their respective shares of not only African territory but also shares of different African products, including industrially vital mineral deposits and other natural resources.

The actual implementation of these diplomatic deals on the ground in Africa was, of course, a racist bloodbath and an orgy of plunder of resources and exploitation of people, as the world is now beginning to learn – from the Africans themselves, not the colonial plunderers. Niger has its own bitter memories of the French colonial ‘missions’, as the invading military expeditions were euphemistically named – a history of massacres, political manipulations, displacements of whole populations, and destruction and theft of cultural treasures among other depredations. Most European colonising enterprises chose to call their endeavours as that of ‘civilising’ African society. Like its neighbouring states of Burkina Faso, Chad and Central African Republic (CAR), Niger remains trapped in poverty. The UN Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI) rates Niger the poorest country in the world, where average life expectancy is just 45 years. In Niger, 71 percent of adults cannot read, and 60 percent of the population lives on less than US$ 1 a day, which is even below the poverty line threshold of US$ 1.25.

This, in a country rich in one of the world’s most valuable minerals.

The French, along with the Western powers, have made sure that the Nigeriens, like the neighbouring States, remained unstable, thanks to the festering internal ethnic rivalries and cross-border ethnic loyalties and interventions, all of which are the outcome of artificial colonial territorial demarcations throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Colonial powers

It is with the greatest of difficulty that the State Governments left behind by the colonial powers manage all these divisive and socio-economically debilitating internal complexities. Colonial impoverishment has not helped, sapping the energy and goodwill needed to overcome these internal divisions. Into these maelstroms of internal strife there now intervenes new geopolitical actors, alongside the old colonial powers.

The French Foreign Legion, itself a kind of State-sponsored paramilitary force largely deployed overseas by Paris, has long been active in much of former French colonial Africa, helping prop up Western-friendly regimes that try to manage the colonially created internal divisions and impoverishment.

More recently, China has rushed into Africa with financial investments and aid to develop infrastructure across the entire Continent. Indian business had earlier begun minor forays but their lack of capital enabled the Chinese to easily displace them.

Tribal communities

And most recently, Russia has sent in the mercenary Wagner Group which, today, has its footprint stretching from Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard to the Atlantic. Wagner is most active in the CAR, Libya, Mali, and Sudan, according to the US Council on Foreign Relations. Wagner is also known to have a business presence in some smaller central African States.

Various tribal communities currently divided into minorities in different States due to the arbitrary colonial territorial state demarcations are today struggling as neglected minorities. The Saharan Tuaregs, once making up a proud tribal confederation in a carefully evolved indigenous, uniquely non-territorial, political structure that flourished on Saharan trade for centuries, if not millennia, are one such people.

Today, Africa is hosting diverse Western-led or UN-led military ‘peace-keeping’ forces in several African states, especially in West Africa, to help deal with such border-related demographic tensions and conflicts. Military coups are almost routine in many of these states. The recent coup in Niger is its fifth since its freedom from France. Both Mali and Burkina Faso recently expelled Western-backed peace-keeping forces complaining that those forces were unhelpful in building political understanding between the social groups (tribes) in conflict. Like Niger, both these countries are rich in high-demand minerals like manganese and gold.

Until it was displaced by the coup, Niger’s West- leaning Government had kept out the Wagner Group. At present the United States has a large military drone airbase in northern Niger.

Last week, both France and the US ordered partial evacuation of their nationals while the estimated 1,500 US drone base personnel have been restricted to the base. As often happens in upheavals in former French colonial Africa, the French embassy in Niamey came under a civilian mob attack. France has announced a freeze in arms supplies to the Nigerien military. Little is still known about the make-up of the coup leadership – other than the ironic fact that the coup was initiated by the deposed President’s own guard force.

There is speculation that they are influenced by the Wagner Group. What seems obvious, however, is the popular disillusionment with Niamey’s current dependence on the West which has not brought any dividends to the population.

Some Nigeriens have publicly expressed hope that the Wagner Group might be a new option for international solidarity. The military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso have publicly expressed friendship with Russia.

The big question is whether the West will allow Niger to choose its own new allies – whether Russian or Chinese – in its search for national development. With a billion-dollar drone airbase run by Washington and the EU dependent on Nigerien uranium, the likelihood is that the West will manoeuvre to keep this poor nation in its firm neocolonial grip.