It is known as the 'uranium highway,' a network of major roads connecting the Niger's primary urban mining centres such as Arlit, Agadez and Niamey. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the north-south highway acts as the primary vein facilitating carriage of liquidated uranium resources. The network itself forms part of the Trans-Sahara route, an ancient system used since time immemorial by inhabitants of the 'Tinariwen' - or Desert of Many, as the Sahara was known to its native sons and daughters, including the Hausa and Tuareg.
Despite the nip and tuck of territories by former colonialists, conveniently stitching together concessional nation-states (the better to divide, conquer and exploit), the Trans-Sahara route continued to survive by innovatively moving around border closures. Central to this route is the landlocked Niger, the bridge between North and sub-Saharan Africa, a land bordered by seven countries.
The Sahara, spanning 11 countries, composes 80 per cent of the Niger's land mass - a country generally characterised by poverty, famine, droughts and dictatorships. Over 60 per cent of the population live on the poverty belt, deprived of access to food, water and waste sanitation, infrastructure and education. Life expectancy is pegged at 43 years, and most citizens, including 71 percent of females, are illiterate - just three per cent of the state budget is redistributed toward education. Instead, at the turn of the millennium, over 50 per cent of development finance was used to service odious debt. Debt cancellation, following Niger's qualification in 2000 for the IMF's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, required mass privatisation of the Niger's state- owned enterprises and provided partial relief. Nonetheless, in 2004, IMF directors would conclude that the country's debt burden remained high in spite of 'structural adjustment' medicine.
The Niger, exporting 7.7 per cent of the world's uranium, consistently ranks in the top five alongside Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, and produces on par with Russia. The town of Arlit alone largely supplies the country's former colonial landlord, France, with the uranium required to power up the latter's nuclear programme and power stations - generating almost 80 per cent of France's electricity via an estimated 59 nuclear plants.
Uranium was initially discovered in Niger in 1957 by the Bureau Minier de la France d'Outre-Mer, one year prior to the creation of Republic of the Niger. This followed in the footsteps of extensive surveys conducted by France's Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA), which started in 1956 and resulted in several discoveries on the eve of independence in 1960. France's successful decolonisation in Africa was realised through secretive military and resource agreements and special monetary zones. These agreements interlocked the interests of France with those of handpicked 'native governors,' such as Gabon and Togo's Gnassingbé Eyadéma and Omar Bongo - both lifetime leaders from selective political liberation until death - and Cote d'Ivoire's Felix HouphouÃƒ«t-Boigny. As a result, France was not only granted preferential priority access to strategic resources, but the presence of French military bases in former colonies was legitimised, simultaneously sustaining the rule of dictators while keeping them in line. From the 1960s onwards, 27 agreements were signed by former colonies, including the Niger.
French interests on the continent were realised through France's postcolonial Africa policy, known as Françafrique, extending to the diplomatic and political echelons of the Elysée from the days of de Gaulle. The policy comprised corporate and intelligence lobbies, multinationals intimately connected to the State such as Elf and Areva, French-backed dictators, and shadow networks named in honour of its masterminds such as Jacques Foccart, de Gaulle's chief Africa advisor who was called out of retirement at age 81 by French President Jacque Chirac to resume activities. Chirac himself would declare in the early 1990s that the continent 'was not yet ready for democracy.' When asked to describe the role of Françafrique's Foccart, de Gaulle's Deputy Prime Minister Louis Joxe declared, 'Nurse-maiding presidents and making sure that African civil servants are paid at the end of the month.'
Uranium deposits, found in the Congo, Gabon and the Niger, have enabled France to circumvent flammable geopolitical landmines associated with uranium mined in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, regions that were perceived as leaning towards, or managed by, the US - France's rival in Africa and globally.
Resource-hungry China, with a rapidly expanding footprint in Africa - extending over US$24 billion in loans since 2003, chiefly backed by resources - is also considered a threat to French interests. Presently, France maintains 10,000 specialised soldiers on the continent, many of them based in Libreville, Gabon, also known as 'Foccartland.' From 1997 to 2002, France militarily intervened 36 times; 24 of these incidents were conducted outside the umbrella of the UN. The Françafrique policy has continued under Nicholas Sarkozy, with French soldiers still intervening in domestic disputes.
Since the days of flag independence, the Niger's Diori Hamani and his political party, the Parti Progressiste Nigérien (PPP), indirectly handpicked by France, ruled the country aided by various covert and overt interventions beginning in 1963. Thanks to a secretive defence agreement, French soldiers based in Niamey collaborated with Hamani to obliterate and exile the opposition, such as Union Nigerienne Democratique. Hamani ran unopposed in 1965 and 1970, but made the fatal error of requesting the removal of French troops in the early 1970s. France duly removed the troops. Not surprisingly, thereafter a military coup brought Colonel Seyni Kountche to power. In 1987 Kountche was killed and succeeded by Colonel Ali Saibou.
Fast-forward to the Niger's electoral authoritarianism under dictator Tandja Mamadou. Currently, the Niger's 12,000 armed forces are guided by 15 French military advisors, with Nigerien personnel largely trained, armed and financed by France, protecting five critical defence zones - namely geostrategic routes and mines. The Niger's two key mines are controlled by Areva, the world's leading nuclear entity, controlled by the Elysée via the company's majority shareholder, France's state-owned CEA.
With a presence in 43 countries, extending to every aspect in the commodity chain from extraction to enrichment, propulsion, recycling and dismantling, and âÂ‚Â¬13,16 billion in sales revenue, Areva's powerful mobile economy dwarfs that of many 'developing nations.' The Niger's mines (underground and open pit mines) are operated by Areva subsidiaries COMINAK and SOMAIR, accounting for 75-90 per cent of the country's export earnings. A contract between Areva and Mamadou's government, signed in January 2009, to exploit Imouraren's uranium reserves, is estimated to produce 5,000 tons per annum, with a life of 40 years. Production is slated to begin in 2012, with an investment of âÂ‚Â¬1.2 billion. COMINAK and SOMAIRE currently produce almost 5,000 tons. 'The subject of uranium and the agreements that are linked with uranium are highly strategic in nature, placed at the level of relations between states,' stated Publish What You Pay's (PWYP) National Coordinator Idriss Ali. 'These agreements took the form of a neo-colonial framework that led to the signing of mining agreements establishing the functioning of the SOMAIR (1968) and the COMINAK (1975), which are nothing other than a bias contract, making available the uranium in Niger to France. Under these conditions, the choice is of the buyers of the product; setting its price in the international market is the prerogative of the former colonial power,' he stated.
Since 2007, the Niger government, in an attempt to diversify the uranium industry, awarded 122 exploration licences to multinationals from France, in addition to companies from the US, South Africa, China, Canada and Australia. China's state-owned uranium firm, SINO-U, will invest US$300 million to exploit deposits at the Somina mine, near Agadez, producing 700 tons per annum from 2010. Meanwhile, the US's Exelon Corporation signed agreements with the government to access 300 tons each year for a period of 10 years. But the government has also further diversified the type of commodities exploited, including oil (the subject of a US$5 billion deal with China's National Petroleum Corporation) and gold (already the third largest primary commodity exported, accounting for 13 per cent of resource rent). But France remains both the single largest source of investment and the primary force effecting geostrategic control over, and exploiting, the Niger's uranium resources.
According to Areva, by 2006, the company had reached the threshold of 100,000 tons of extracted uranium. The Niger government received 300 billion CFA francs of a total 2,300 billion CFA francs in sales revenue. Mining activities, largely centred on uranium, generate between 2.4 per cent and 4 per cent of the Niger's GDP. Areva also remains the largest employer in the country, following the government, with 1,850 people on the direct payroll and more than 4,000 indirect jobs through subcontractors and general supply services. 'Our sustainable investments in water and health represent a contribution of more than 3 million CFA francs annually,' stated the company.
Yet it is precisely Areva's environmental investment claims that have resulted in the country being up in arms, especially on the subject of the use of non-renewable water sources for COMINAK's underground mine and the leakages of radioactive matter, including the contamination of water, air and soil; the use of lethal radioactive scrap metal for sale in markets; radioactive ore used to build roads; and dumped radioactive tailings (pulverised uranium rock). 'When we visited the Niger, we were told by officials, 'Here in Niger, you are in France.' If there is a problem in Niger, the problem goes back to France, to Areva,' said Bruno Chareyron, a physicist and laboratory manager with French NGO CRIIRAD (the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radioactivity), who produced a damning report.
CRIIRAD's reports documented various findings, including 20 million tons of carcinogenic radioactive tailings stored in open air; radioactive materials from the company disposed of and sold in markets through scrap merchants; discharge of toxic gasses from COMINAK's mines as well as exploitation of finite water sources underground; contamination of water sources; and violation of international radioprotection standards, among others.
'When we released the results to the press, Areva organised a press trip to the Niger and paid for a plane to take a team of 30 journalists to the country - but there was no Geiger counter, no real or tangible way to discern the levels of radiation. They could have been standing on radioactive rocks built into the street and not known differently,' said Chareyron. He also revealed that a laboratory contracted by the multinational to monitor radiation disproved the company's claims. Areva claimed that the Niger government was solely responsible for regulation systems.
Meanwhile, the government of the Niger itself appears to exhibit the same lack of concern as the corporation. The country's official institution monitoring ionising radiation, the National Centre for Radiation Protection (CNRP), when inspected by CRIIRAD was found to be idle. Explained CRIIRAD's Chareyron, 'CNRP could not carry out analysis due to the fact that their only Gamma spectrometer was broken - a wire had been out of place since the machine was initially delivered to them.' But citizens in the Niger have not been idle. The Niger Movement for Justice, active since 2007, led by a former official from the Niger Armed Forces, has demanded a greater share of uranium revenue, protection from ecological degradation and access to constitutional rights such as water and waste sanitation, education and electricity. The government has dismissed the armed civil society movement as anti-democratic 'drug smugglers.'
It goes without saying that the Niger cannot actually access any of the uranium mined within its borders: 100 per cent of electricity (225 million kWh) is derived from fossil fuels and imported largely from neighbouring Nigeria. France, though, is well aware of the situation. 'Until now, it is impossible for French citizens and civil society to obtain the content of such 'secret agreements' concerning access and control of resources - it is confidential,' stated Sebastian Alzerreca of Survie, a French-based NGO. But, he cautioned, 'If diplomacy fails, they can still send the gunman in.' No doubt, the uranium highway will come in handy.
Khadija Sharife is a freelance journalist and writer. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) and a researcher with the Tax Justice Network.