Niger: The resource politics of a post-colonial revolt
Françafrique, the opaque independence deal that supplied Africa’s resources to France, is being dismantled one coup at a time. Is Yevgeny Prigozhin the new master behind every puppet putschist?
Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, grapples with a complex web of challenges that shape its present and future. The nation is at a critical juncture due to its history of French colonialism and coups, as well as the exploitation of its uranium resources.
Coups in Africa
Coups are not uncommon in Africa but are not limited to it. A study reveals that between 1950-2018, out of 486 coup attempts globally where 106 of them were successful, Africa’s share was about 44% in both cases. Of the 54 countries on the continent, 45 have had at least one coup attempt since 1950. Jonathan Powell, one of the study’s authors, told the VOA, “Coups have become increasingly limited to the poorest countries in the world, and the recent wave of coups fits into that.” He added that while most of Africa no longer sees coups as a threat, the Sahel region, which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Sudan, still experiences many of the most common factors that lead to coups.
Since 1990, 21 of the 27 coups in sub-Saharan Africa have occurred in Francophone states. But according to the same source, four countries that have seen the most coup attempts since 1952 were under British rule: Nigeria (8), Ghana (10), Sierra Leone (10), with Sudan (17) topping the list.
Niger coup and population dynamics
Niger came into the spotlight on the July 26, when Republican Guard soldiers claimed to have overthrown Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, on state television. The junta announced two days later that Abdourahmane Tiani, the head of Niger’s Presidential guard, would be the new head of state. Some of the reasons given for the coup were the deteriorating security situation and poor economic and social governance. However, an investigation into the diversion of $125 million, nearly half the defence budget to private contractors linked to the top brass in the military during the entire tenure of the previous administration, according to Africa Confidential, may well be the reason the generals moved against President Mohamed Bazoum.
This was the fifth successful coup in the country since independence. Coup supporters took to the streets, waving Russian flags and burning French ones, apparently less out of love for Russia and more an expression of historical dissatisfaction with France’s exploitative policies in the country and the region. Some supporters attacked the French Embassy. Significantly, though both the USA and France have military forces in the country, there were no signs of anyone burning the US flag. Given the current dynamics, it is difficult to tell whether the demonstrations were spontaneous or mobilised by coup leaders.
Niger has a population of 25,396,840 (2023 est.). Hausa (53.1%), and Zarma/Songhai (21.2%), are the two major ethnic groups. The junta leader is from the Hausa (also a major group in neighbouring Nigeria); while President Bazoum comes from the Arab minority, which makes up about 0.4%. The country borders seven countries, four of which have good relations with Russia (Algeria); or have fallen under Russian influence recently (Mali and Burkina Faso). The Kremlin-linked Wagner Group also operates in Libya. Chad is unstable. The only two stable countries are Nigeria, with whom it has historical, ethnic and cultural relations, and Benin.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemnation of the coup and subsequent one-week ultimatum has, in the face of the coup leaders’ refusal to back down – and the Community’s reluctance to send in troops, more recently morphed into a more nuanced engagement. While ECOWAS imposed stiff sanctions, the ultimatum has come and gone without military action. The Nigerian Senate voted against the use of force, and Nigerian states that border the country have advised against the use of force. Niger also hosts about 250,000 refugees, 73% of whom are Nigerians who fled extremist violence there. ECOWAS in its 2nd extraordinary summit ordered the deployment of the ECOWAS standby force to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger, underscoring its continued commitment to the restoration of constitutional order through peaceful means. Algeria, which shares a long border with Niger and Chad, also opposes the use of force.
ECOWAS’ strong stand against Niger is unusual. It did not previously threaten Mali and Burkina Faso with military action. Neither ECOWAS itself nor the African Union sanctioned Chad when the President’s son took power unconstitutionally, an especially notable omission given the current AU Commission chairperson’s links with the ancien regime in Djamena. The military threat against Niger has rallied the military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso to its side. Wagner is also interested in helping the junta in Niamey. Wary of the military threat, Niger has taken precautions and closed its airspace. The junta formed a new 21-member government led by Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, an AfDB economist. Two-thirds of the members are civilians.
A confiscated, perverted sovereignty
At independence, former France’s colonies in Africa were forced to sign humiliating agreements which effectively tied independence to continued economic and political dependence on France. Those agreements reserved strategic resources like hydrocarbons, uranium, and other minerals for France. Additionally, France gained privileged access to African markets, ensuring its companies had priority for exports and were exempt from customs duties. Prime Minister Michel Debré underlined those policies on July 15, 1960, addressing the future President of the Gabonese State: “Independence is granted on condition that the State undertakes, once independent, to respect the cooperation agreements signed previously. Two systems come into effect simultaneously: independence and cooperation agreements. One does not go without the other.”
In 2021, Niger provided the European Union with nearly 25 percent of its uranium supplies, which produced electricity for millions of households. Yet 75% of electricity to Niger comes from Nigeria and has been cut off following ECOWAS sanctions, plunging villages and towns into blackouts, including the presidential palace. Its electricity production for 2021 was 0.45 billion kilowatt-hours, while the world average in 2021 based on 190 countries was 143.51 billion kilowatt-hours.
Africans in the French post-colony have been critical, but historically silent, of France’s presence and influence, rooted in strong perceptions that colonialist practices and paternalistic attitudes never really ended. From right to ‘centre-left’, from Nicholas Sarkozy to Emmanuel Macron, the barely concealed contempt for their former African possessions is these days only matched by the panicked response of France’s authorities against rising pauper immigration.
The silence around FrançAfrique, “a Janus-faced entity… the ultimate symbol of a confiscated, perverted sovereignty”, to quote Senegalese author, Boris Boubabcar Diop, is the result of the long-standing collaboration between the Elysée Palace and the ‘assimilated’ African elite, the latter still holding onto the illusion that their loyalty will somehow translate into social acceptance at the metropolitan centre. Nonetheless, it was the deal these elites signed at independence that has kept a steady supply of cheap raw materials – extracted almost at slace wages – to France’s industrial centres, thus ensuring that French workers remain in work, the French industrial machine keeps turning, and, as former French president, the late Jacques Chirac once remarked, France remains a first, rather than a third world, power.
Native losses = Metropolitan profits
In 2010, the two Orano (née Areva) subsidiaries extracted a total of 114,346 tons of uranium ore from Niger, representing an export value of 2,300 billion CFA francs (more than 3.5 billion euros). Of this sum, Niger would have received only 300 billion CFA francs (about 459 million euros), or 13% of the exported value. In 2012, Areva received tax exemptions worth €320 million. Although mining made up 70.8% of Niger’s exports in 2010, it contributed only 5.8% of the country’s gross domestic product.
In the first quarter of 2013 alone, Areva generated consolidated revenues of 2.279 billion euros, more than Niger’s total annual budget (around 2 billion euros). In the 3rd quarter of 2013, its turnover amounted to 6.8 billion euros, up in 2012, and its order book reached 42 billion euros (i.e., 21 years of Niger’s budget). In 2012, the group’s total turnover exceeded 9 billion euros, and its mining activities generated 1.36 billion euros. Niger, where more than 60% of the population make less than $1 per day, is ranked 189/191 in the 2022 UN Human Development Index.
The resource curse
Though about two-thirds of the world’s uranium production comes from Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia. Niger is the world’s 7th biggest uranium producer (5 % of global production) and possesses Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores. France, the country’s former colonial ruler, imports Nigerien uranium, which powers the French civil nuclear industry. Orano the multinational 90% owned by the French state, operates several mines in the country.
According to WNA Niger has two significant uranium mines close to the twin mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, 900 km northeast of the capital Niamey (more than 1200 km by road) on the southern border of the Sahara. Uranium in Niger was discovered in 1957 by French researchers; Niger’s first commercial uranium mine began operating in 1971.
In 2021 Niger produced 2248 tU (tons of raw uranium), and cumulative production was about 150,000 tU by the end of 2019. The concentrates are trucked 1600 km to Parakou in Benin, then railed 400 km to the port at Cotonou. They are exported for conversion, mostly to Comurhex in France. Over the past ten years, the 88,200 tonnes of uranium ore imported into France came mainly from three countries: Kazakhstan (27%), Niger (20%), and Uzbekistan (19%).
The Niger government sought a revised deal based on the 2006 mining law, which raised royalty taxes from 5.5% in the 10-year license to between 12% and 15%, depending on profits. Niger’s struggle to secure greater benefits from its uranium was described by Oxfam in 2014 as a “fascinating David vs. Goliath struggle playing out in Niger – the poorest country in the world pitted against the French multinational uranium conglomerate, Areva.” It added: “Though it’s not getting much attention globally, the outcome could have important implications for other poor countries that are trying to get better deals for the minerals and oil dug out of their lands.”
The mines resumed operation at the end of January 2014 under the terms of a government decree. The deal stipulated for the first time that the firms’ boards would include Nigerien managing directors.
A radioactive legacy
Though the Orano website boasts that it is the world leader in nuclear reactor waste recycling worldwide, environmental watchdogs in Niger and abroad report that dangerous levels of radioactive waste were left among the local populations living near the mines. According to a French-based Independent Research Commission (CRIIRAD) on radioactivity, Niger’s northern town of Arlit has been left wallowing in 20 million tonnes of radioactive waste after a uranium mine run by Orano closed down. “The waste produces [the] radioactive gas radon. The strong wind of the desert spreads radioactive dust, which is then inhaled by the surrounding population,” said CRIIRAD’s scientist, Bruno Chareyron. Soil and underground water have also been contaminated. The 100,000 people in the area have no alternative but to drink that water. The report added that exposure to such dangerously high radiation levels can lead to birth defects, cancer, and several other disorders. Journalists who visited the mining sites recently spoke about the abject poverty of the population, patients complaining about radiation effects and lack of basic health facilities. They were struck by a very large cemetery and thus titled their documentary “Graveyards of Uranium.”
When Orano closed its Cominak mine that was exhausted in 2021, it dismantled all infrastructure including workers’ houses. To show it has not guilty of any wrongdoing it took a group of journalists to visit the mine.
Holistic solutions and partnerships
Problems in the Sahel, including extremism, result from a lack of improvement in people’s livelihoods since independence. This is due to elites, military or civilian, detached from the people and exploitative colonialist policies. Military interventions should be part of a holistic package that includes improving the economy. It is not just about protecting democracy; rulers come to power through elections. Indeed, elections are significant, but some elected leaders act like a junta in civilian clothes. There are issues with credible elections, manipulating the constitution for personal interests, and some are very corrupt. Elected leaders must be held accountable to live up to democratic values.
The French and other Western countries have to rethink their Africa policies. Otherwise, they create golden opportunities for Russia and its mercenary Wagner group to step in. The military juntas use this opportunity to establish legitimacy among their populations by projecting themselves as anti-French. Africa needs real mutually beneficial partnerships, infrastructure development, and help with industrialization so that African countries can add value to their exports. This is not the donor-recipient template that focuses on fighting terrorism. As an FP article states, “Washington spends a fair amount on military assistance in friendly African countries, but this is mostly about protecting U.S. interests, such as the so-called war on terror.”
It is difficult to know how long the Niger coup will last or if ECOWAS will intervene militarily. It is difficult to know if the democratically elected government will get back or if the country has to move through a new road map for the transition to democracy. But the country has all the ingredients necessary for another coup. Military juntas cannot solve complex societal problems, and they should focus on the profession they are good at and leave governance to civilians.