Uranium still at the heart of Niger conflict
Following February's military coup in Niger, long-standing grievances over the impacts of the country's uranium mining have re-surfaced. Greenpeace has accused France's Areva of contaminating the environment near its two uranium mines in Niger, thus putting lives in danger.
The new regime has sacked officials working for the mining industry, accusing them of corruption; it has promised to review all uranium permits granted by the previous government.
Tuareg Indigenous groups, among which women are prominent, have condemned the Chinese Nuclear International Uranium Corporation in particular, for exploiting their land and labour.
Niger junta sacks heads of state companies
3 April 2010
NIAMEY - Niger's military junta has sacked 20 top officials working for state-owned companies, including those involved in representing the country's uranium and oil interests, according to the government.
The sacked officials, who were nominated by, and seen as backers of, ousted President Mamadou Tandja, were replaced by a mix of civilians and soldiers in a decision taken during a cabinet meeting late on Thursday.
The move follows a wave of arrests of over a dozen of Tandja's supporters, who were accused of plotting against the military junta. The 14 officials, including several former ministers, were freed on Friday, but will remain under surveillance, a government statement said.
Ahmed Mai Ousmane was named as the new managing director of SOPAMIN, the state-run firm that holds the state's interests in mining operations and is in charge of selling minerals.
SOPAMIN holds a 33.35 percent share in Niger's largest project, the Imouraren uranium mine in northern Niger, which is being developed by French energy giant Areva and will start production in 2013.
Moussa Idrissa was named as the new managing director of SONIDEP, the state-run company that controls all imports of fuel into the land-locked West African nation.
SOPAMIN and SONIDEP's former heads were among the officials from Tandja's regime arrested by the junta over the last week, accused of plotting against it.
The arrests came as the authorities also instigated broader efforts to clean up politics and business in Niger. Investigations are being carried out into decisions and deals -made under Tandja's watch.
"Impunity will no longer be accepted. The results of these investigations will be transferred to the competent authorities and will be dealt with," Interior Minister Cisse Ousmane said.
The anti-graft drive has won plaudits in Niger as analysts say corruption has spiked as a flurry of mining deals were signed under Tandja. But diplomats are concerned that any such campaign could lead to delays in a return to civilian rule.
Greenpeace slams Areva over radioactive contamination
29 March 2010
The pressure group, Greenpeace, has accused France's Areva of contaminating the environment near its two uranium mines in Niger, putting lives in danger. Half of Areva's uranium comes from Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries. French nuclear group Areva is not paying enough attention to the health of workers and inhabitants around its two uranium mines in Niger, Greenpeace said on Monday. The environmental lobby group called in a report for an independent radiation study to be conducted around the two mine sites at Arlit and Akokan in the country's northwest and for the area to be decontaminated.
"The people of Arlit and Akokan continue to be surrounded by poisoned air, contaminated soil and polluted water," Greenpeace said. "With each day that passes, Nigeriens are exposed to radiation, illness and poverty - while Areva makes billions from their natural resources," it said. Half of Areva's uranium comes from Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries, despite being the world's third uranium producer, where the company has been mining since the late 1960s. Areva, the world-leader in nuclear energy and Niger's leading employer, has also signed a deal to start tapping a third mine in the desert nation from 2013 or 2014.
"Greenpeace is calling for an independent study around the mines and towns of Arlit and Akokan, followed by a thorough clean up and decontamination (...) Areva must start to act like the responsible company that it claims to be," it said. Greenpeace carried out soil, water and air tests in Arlit and Akokan last November, which were
studied in collaboration with the France-based Research and Independent Information on Radioactivity Commission (CRIIRAD) and Niger's Network of Organisations for Transparency and Budgetary Analysis (ROTAB). The research, which Greenpeace said was not exhaustive, showed abnormal concentrations of uranium in the soil, as well as of radon, a radioactive natural gas in air.
"Radioactive scrap metal" from the mines was also available at local markets, according to the report. The tests were carried out around the mines as well as in mining villages, located several kilometres (miles) away and home to 80,000 people. "In four of the five water samples that Greenpeace collected in the Arlit region, the uranium concentration was above the World Health Organisation recommended limit for drinking water," the report stated.
Often slammed by Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups, Areva said in January it would before the end of the year carry out a general inspection of its Niger sites to ensure the population was not exposed to radioactivity. "That move should resolve definitely the problem and ensure that members of the public are free from radioactive exposure," Areva spokeswoman, Patricia Marie, told AFP. Areva promised to shed light on the situation after Greenpeace's November visit identified "high levels of radiation on Akokan streets."
China mining company causes unrest in Niger
Christian Science Monitor
29 March 2010
As resource-hungry China expands its mining operations in Niger, Tuareg rebels say China enriched a corrupt government at the expense of locals.
Agadez, Niger - The sun-wizened Tuareg women of Azalik have declared war on China.
Like their ancestors, they once eked out a living selling dried salts from an ancestral well. Everything changed last year, when the government leased their land to the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U) for uranium exploration. Left with no livelihood and no compensation, a hundred women gathered to launch stones at mining machinery.
"Now it is eternal war," says Tinatina Salah, their 50-year-old leader, who still seeks compensation for the loss of her salt.
Her land contains one of the world's largest uranium deposits, and Niger was the world's sixth-largest uranium producer in 2008. As resource-hungry China expands its holdings here, local groups and Tuareg-led political opposition are voicing concerns over Chinese investment in the Saharan state's graft-ridden mining industry.
Nigerien authorities led by President Mamadou Tandja, deposed last month in a military coup, awarded a fresh round of exploration and operating permits to foreign companies starting in 2007, for uranium, gold, silver, and oil in the desert of northern Niger.
Despite billions of dollars pouring into the country, however, Tuareg rebels accuse Mr. Tandja's administration and mining companies of neglecting development in the north, which is a Tuareg stronghold. The largely Tuareg rebel organization Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ), which fought Niger troops and sabotaged Chinese mining operations up until last year, wants local people to have greater control over resources.
All that is harmful about Chinese investment
An economic boom is fueling China's fresh push for mining contracts in Africa. But Chinese state-owned companies' efforts in Africa have been marred by strikes, substandard conditions, and, in some cases, fighting with locals.
Tuaregs are particularly irked with Chinese investments in uranium and oil. To Tuaregs, the $300 million SOMINA uranium mine at the desert outpost of Azalik, due to begin producing later this year, has come to represent all that is harmful about Chinese investment in Niger.
Last month Nigerien workers - many of whom are Tuareg - denounced in a written statement the conditions at SOMINA, claiming it resembled "a Chinese colony." Nigerien laborers sleep in dorms, separately from Chinese workers. The rooms are located in illegal proximity to open pit uranium mines, and the Nigeriens suffer chronic diarrhea on account of an unsanitary water supply, the document charged. Trouble at the mine has led Azalik to be referred to throughout northern Niger as "Guantanamo."
Despite poor conditions, the mine offers a coveted chance to work. But further frustrating locals, SOMINA employs hundreds of Chinese nationals and recruits ethnically Hausa workers from the south despite widespread poverty and unemployment among the local Tuaregs.
"[Sino-U] brings in a lot of Chinese to do jobs that Nigeriens could easily do or be trained to do," said one mining official who is prospecting land adjacent to Azalik. He requested anonymity.
The office of Souleymane Mamadou Abba, minister of mines and energy, declined an interview request. Few jobs for locals, and low wages
What work is available for Tuaregs is hazardous and poorly paid, according to Ali Idrissa, president of the coalition of nongovernmental groups ROTAB, which recently completed a study on mining conditions in the north. Hard, manual labor like digging holes and transporting bricks under the glaring sun is reserved for Nigerien workers, while bureaucratic and engineering jobs are given to Chinese workers. A Nigerien engineer's salary at the Chinese-run mine at Azalik is about $350 a month, compared with $2,000 a month at France's Areva.
Chinese companies are "exploiting" the local Tuareg population in areas like Azelik, according to Mr. Idrissa. "Their land is expropriated and given to the Chinese in order to mine riches. And in return, [Tuareg workers'] jobs don't even provide the minimum they need to support their families," he says.
Meanwhile, Chinese mining executives refuse invitations from local elected officials to discuss improving conditions. "The [Chinese] company at Azalik does not even respect the region's local elected officials," Idrissa says. "They won't even receive them."
"They say they don't have to answer to us because they have direct communication with the central government," adds Mohamed Mamane Illo, a former Tuareg rebel and elected councilor of Ingall.
In addition to those at the uranium mine at Azalik, complaints are piling up against a $5 billion deal struck last year by state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to pump oil from the Agadem block in exchange for building the country its first oil refinery at Zinder. CNPC paid a $272 million signing bonus to the administration of Tandja, who had appointed his own son Ousmane as commercial attaché to the Nigerien Embassy in Hong Kong, a move NGOs say helped Chinese companies curry favor with the African ex-president.
Niger coup: Good for Tuareg rebels, bad for uranium investors
The military junta announced it will audit all uranium exploration permits awarded before last month's Niger coup. Evidence has emerged that the permits enriched the ousted president and devastated the Tuareg population.
By Hannah Armstrong, Correspondent
23 March 2010
Agadez, Niger --- The military junta that ousted Niger's president raised transparency expectations and sent stocks sliding over the weekend with the announcement that it would audit all uranium and gold contracts. The announcement came just days after a coalition of pressure groups petitioned the junta to renegotiate mining contracts awarded under ousted President Mamadou Tandja.
The world's third-largest uranium deposit lies in northern Niger, the poorest zone in what the UN calls the world's poorest country. With more governments backing clean, uranium-fueled nuclear energy to replace coal-burning power, foreign investors from China, Australia, South Africa, America, and Canada have flocked to the landlocked Saharan state.
Niger's authorities have awarded at least 50 uranium exploration permits in the two years since government officials busted a 40-year mining monopoly held by France's Areva SA, according to mining officials. But government watchdogs say these opaque contracts illegally enriched Mr. Tandja and his family, even while food shortages plagued the Saharan state.
Until recently, little has been known about expanded uranium prospecting in northern Niger, which has become a flashpoint between insurgent Tuaregs and the southern-based government over mining rights. In the chaos surrounding the 2007 armed Tuareg rebellion, Tandja's administration implemented a media blackout in the northern zone, banning foreign journalists, censoring local reporting on uranium and the northern rebellion, and even suspending Radio France Internationale broadcasts for one month on accusations of sympathizing with rebels.
As Tandja's ouster in February allows light to be shed on the cloistered northern region, new details of corruption and devastation inflicted on mainly Tuareg civilian populations are emerging.
Land mines and radioactive contamination
The seeding of land mines throughout the Air Mountains - which the armed forces and rebels on each other - has rendered villages such as Iferouane and Elmeki uninhabitable. The entire seminomadic population of Elmeki (an estimated 600-1,000 families) was forced to flee to Agadez, according to Igor Rugengeka, a Burundian coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Agadez.
A once-thriving tourism industry that sustained local businesses and artisans is now decimated in the Saharan caravan capital Agadez, reduced to little more than a stopover for African migrants and internal refugees heading north toward Libya and, for a lucky few, Europe. On average, 2,000 refugees a month pass through Agadez, driving up food prices and unemployment, according to Mr. Rugengeka.
Meanwhile, scientists documented dangerous levels of radioactive contamination still present in water and dirt in a survey of uranium mining villages Arlit and Akokan conducted by Greenpeace International and France's CRIIRAD, an independent watchdog group. A full report of findings is due later this month.
Seeking benefits for local populations
Disputes over uranium have fanned tensions between Tuareg rebels and authorities since the early 1990s. Nevertheless, hopes are now running high that the ouster of Tandja will pave the way for a binding resolution, ideally one that will reinvest uranium profits into northern economic development.
Tuareg rebel leaders are at present gathered in the capital Niamey, where splintered rebel factions have reunited for negotiations with the junta, hoping to hammer out a road map to accelerate the peace process, according to rebel chief Aghaly ag Alembo.
"We hope to implicate all of the people of the region in the economic spin-off of mining in the north, and that there will be a benefit as well for the nomadic populations in these regions," Alembo said by phone from the capital.
"Peace would not have lasted with the former regime," Ahmed Akoli, political secretary of the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), said by phone from Paris. The stakes are high, according to Akoli, who said 6,000 rebels remain armed pending a written resolution.