Niger’s Mine War (Le Monde diplomatique)

Anna Bednik from: Le Monde diplomatique / July 6, 2008

The Nigerien Movement for Justice (NMJ) (1), which is mostly a Tuareg organisation, warned in a recent press release: “If armed struggle is the only way to make ourselves heard, then that is the way forward.” Twelve years after the 24 April 1995 peace accord that ended the first Tuareg rebellion, the NMJ took up arms against the government. The fighting that broke out in the central region of Agadez in February 2007 has now spread to the Lake Chad region in southeast Niger.

The NMJ is composed mostly of former rebels, though its ranks were boosted in 2007 by army defectors and some local officials. It has recently increased the number of attacks on the Niger military and demands that the 1995 accords be implemented, including an agreement on decentralisation. The NMJ wants the transfer of 50% of mining revenues to local communities, priority employment of local populations in mining, an end to the massive sales of mining permits for raw materials and of prospecting in traditional cattle-breeding areas. In July 2007 tensions rose when the NMJ kidnapped an executive from the Chinese company Sino-Uranium and called on all foreign governments to evacuate any of their nationals in Niger “for prospecting or mining purposes”.

Niger is the world’s third largest uranium exporter. Annual production is estimated at 3,300 tonnes, 48% of export revenues. In 2003 uranium prices started to rise again after 20 years of relative stability. The global increase in demand for electricity and the momentum to reduce greenhouse gases have given nuclear energy a sound future (2).


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) forecasts at least a 20% increase in nuclear power plants by 2030 (83% according to high-growth projections). According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), besides 34 nuclear power plants currently under construction, 93 more are in the planning stage in China, India, Japan and Russia. The increased demand for nuclear fuel, as well as prospects of exhausting secondary resources (notably reconverted military uranium) has escalated prospecting and mining. Niger is rich in uranium. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world – 174th out of 177 on the human development scale and regularly faces serious food shortages. The government sees the renewed interest in nuclear fuel as an unprecedented opportunity for the “struggle for economic and social development”.

Mining future

To increase Niger’s mining revenue, President Mamadou Tandja has decided to diversify his partners. Two Franco-Nigerien companies currently extract uranium and the French company Areva NC (3) has a majority stake in both: the Société des mines de l’Air (through Somair, 63.4%) and Compagnie minière d’Akouta (through Cominak, 34%). On 26 June and 25 July 2007, Areva’s security chief, former French army colonel Gilles de Namur, and the head of Areva’s operations in Niger, Dominique Pin, were expelled from the country, accused of supporting the NMJ (4). But in January 2008 relations between France and Niger were smoothed over and Areva’s mining rights to the massive Imouraren deposits, which will be one of the largest uranium mines in the world, were confirmed – but with a 50% price rise in the price of uranium to Areva.

Although Areva’s mining future is assured, Niger continues to sell part of its production directly on the market (300 tonnes in 2007), and the French monopoly in Niger is over. In November 2007, Sino-Uranium (China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation), a subsidiary of the state enterprise China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), which has been exploring the large Tegguida deposit in Niger since 2006, was granted permission to mine the Azelik deposit. Further exploration permits have been granted to some 20 “lesser” companies from Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and Britain.

Mining concessions, granted or under negotiation, extend over 90,000 sq km from the west of the Air mountains in the region of Agadez, between the Algerian border and the Tiguidit cliffs. The indigenous populations in the north (at least 300,000, mostly Tuareg) were not consulted when their ancestral lands were leased to foreign companies. Inhabitants of Tegguida-n-Tessoum (to the west of Agadez) were told to evacuate an area of 2,500 sq km granted to Sino-Uranium. Niger Uranium Ltd, which has begun prospecting in In-Gall and Ighazer, has forbidden herders to use the cattle wells. Exploration activities by Areva around Imouraren have caused cattle to flee, making herding impossible.
Indigenous occupations include salt manufacturing, oasis agriculture and transhumance herding, and the complex equilibrium in these is seriously threatened. The future mining zone includes the principal nomadic areas and the richest pastures of the plain of Ighazer (5), the area to which tens of thousands of herdsmen bring their cattle for their annual cure salée (salt cure) festival, which ensures the animals’ mineral requirements.

Two new mines are due to start production in 2010 (Azelik) and 2012 (Imouraren), increasing fears after a report on the radioactive and health situation of the mining towns Arlit and Akokan. The study was carried out between 2003 and 2005 by the French Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité (CRIIRAD) (commission for independent research and information on radioactivity) and an association of lawyers, Sherpa, at the request of a local NGO, Aghir In Man.
The water problem

According to CRIIRAD, the drinking water for 86,000 people has radioactivity levels above international standards. Radioactive waste has been stored out in the open for decades. Scrap iron from the plant is sold in the market and used for construction materials or to make kitchen utensils. In May 2007 CRIIRAD informed the management of Areva and the Niger National Centre for Radiation Protection of the presence of extraction residue in the public domain, as well as gamma radiation up to 100 times above average. It is difficult to evaluate the long-term health risk without a real scientific assessment (6).

Sherpa highlights the increase in serious respiratory and lung diseases systematically concealed from patients in the two hospitals built and managed by Somair and Cominak.
The mining companies are the second largest employer after the state, and many companies benefit from their vast requirements in supplies. However, southerners (Hausa and Djerma ethnic groups) fill the key positions. Being both better educated and better represented politically, they also get the key contracts. The local Tuareg population has little education and lives by traditional means on the fringes of the mining economy. Shortly after the Arlit mine was opened (1973-1974), drought reduced the Tuareg’s livestock by 75%, forcing many to flee to the cities or migrate to Algeria or Libya. At the end of the 1980s some 20,000 returned, lured by the new political climate under Colonel Ali Saibou who finally ended General Seyni Kountché’s 13 years of “special regime”. But Niger was in an economic crisis and the aid promised to the returning Tuareg never materialised. Disillusionment grew and in May 1990 fighting broke out in Tchintabaradene, and was brutally put down (7).

Tuareg dissatisfaction built up further leading to the first rebellion in October 1991. The peace accords of 1995 included – on paper at least – the rehabilitation of the former rebels, measures to promote the development of the north and a decentralisation process that would give local authorities a share of the mining revenue. Twelve years later, decentralisation remains incomplete, and the transfer of 15% of the mining revenues – finally settled in 2006 – has yet to take effect. Worse still, new mining permits have been granted without any compensation to local communities. “We Tuareg count for nothing in a government’s economic concerns,” said Issouf ag Maha, the elected mayor of Tchirozerine, now exiled in France. “All we want is for the Niger government and the mining companies to take into account the fact that we live on those lands.”
State of exception

In August 2007 a “state of exception” (an emergency) was decreed in the Agadez region. Since then, human rights organisations have counted more than 100 arrests, as well as 70 summary executions of civilians by the Niger Armed Forces (NAF) in retaliation for attacks by NMJ. There are rumours of torture, rape, pillage and the massacre of cattle – the sole source of revenue for most inhabitants. When the NAF advance, they use civilians as human shields to protect them from land mines. These abuses have led to massive population movements. According to the head of a small local NGO, “In Iferouane everyone has fled, only the army remains.” Most NGOs have had to abandon their work. Fear of reprisals and mined roads make it difficult to obtain supplies. Prices are soaring and the outlook for the tourist season, once a source of revenue, looks bleak.
Mediation attempts by Libya, Burkina Faso and the African Union have not produced results. Mamadou Tandja refuses to negotiate with the rebels, whom he calls “bandits and drug traffickers”. The conflict zone is closed to journalists (8). The government claims it is free to dispose of its natural resources as it wishes and claims that the origin of the crisis lies in the nation’s strategic importance. In April 2008 the Nigerien National Assembly asked the government to “take all measures for a peaceful and lasting settlement to the conflict” that constitutes a “serious threat to Niger’s stability”. To date none have been taken.

(1) NMJ press release (in French), 29 April 2008.

(2) IEA, World Energy Outlook 2007 edition, China and India insights. Although the share of nuclear energy in world electricity production should remain stable at between 13 and 16%, nuclear capacity is set to increase in absolute terms.

(3) Compagnie générale des matières nucléaires (Cogema) before it was integrated in Areva group’s nuclear division in 2001.

(4) Areva came under suspicion when a captain from the National Intervention and Security Forces, previously in charge of security for Areva (who received nearly $133,000 from the company), defected to the NMJ in July 2007.

(5) Given the vast water requirements for the future mines, the non-renewable supply in the Agadez aquifer, which provides water to the Ighazer valley, will probably run out within 40 years.

(6) In 2004 Areva commissioned an environmental audit from the Institut de Radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (IRSN) (institute of radiation protection and nuclear safety). CRIIRAD claims that its conclusions were played down. A clinical audit was also carried out at Areva’s request in 2005. Neither study evaluates the long-term health risks to the local population.

(7) According to government sources 70 people died, international organisations claim approximately 600 deaths, while the Tuareg claim more than 1,000. See Mano ag Dayak, Michael Stührenberg, Jérôme Strazzulla, Touareg, la tragédie, Lattès, 1992.

(8) Moussa Kakka, the Radio France International correspondent, has been in prison since 26 September 2007 accused of complicity with the rebels. Ibraihim Manzo Diallo, director of the review Air Info, and three French journalists, Pierre Creisson, Thomas Dandois, and François Bergeron were also detained for periods ranging from one to four months.

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