Niger: the Coup and Uranium
Niger’s capital of Niamey appeared calm Feb. 19, one day after a military coup toppled President Mamadou Tandja. Countries with uranium interests in Niger are wary the new military junta could disrupt lucrative mining operations in the country, but the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy has a financial incentive to keep those operations running smoothly.
Calm has returned to Niger’s capital of Niamey on Feb. 19, one day after a dissident military faction toppled President Mamadou Tandja, a former colonel himself, in a coup. The new ruling junta, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), appears to have solidified its control over the country.
A CSRD spokesman said Feb. 19 that Tandja had seen a doctor and was in good condition, though Tandja himself has yet to be heard from publicly. The deposed president’s exact whereabouts remain unknown, though the CSRD reaffirmed Feb. 19 that he is being held in military barracks in Niamey. What is certain is that Tandja is out of power, and that the CSRD junta is in.
The CSRD introduced itself to the world late Feb. 18 through a television address in which it announced the suspension of Niger’s constitution and all state institutions, followed by the enforcement of a nationwide curfew and the sealing of Niger’s borders. On the day of the coup, the junta also turned away a private plane carrying Senegal’s foreign minister, who had been dispatched by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade the day after Wade had been appointed as a mediator in Niger’s ongoing political gridlock by regional body Economic Community of West African States. But just a day after the coup was announced, the CSRD already has lifted the nighttime curfew, reopened the country’s borders and allowed Senegal’s foreign minister into the country.
The junta has begun to resume business as usual in the country, holding its first meeting with government ministers the morning of Feb. 19 and informing reporters that it intends to establish a consultative working council for making collective decisions. A CSRD statement issued Feb. 19 said that the government will be run by “senior civil servants,” though exactly what this means was not specified. Ministers held under house arrest following Tandja’s abduction have been released according to the junta, though this, too, is unconfirmed.
While there have been reports of the continued presence of tanks and machine-gun-mounted trucks on the streets of Niamey – guarding the presidential palace, prime minister’s office and foreign ministry – there have been no reports of violence since the Feb. 18 siege of the presidential palace.
After initial contradictory reports on who exactly was in charge of the CSRD, it now appears to be a little-known army officer, Col. Salou Djibo. Djibo has experience in Niger’s contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations in Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And in the Feb. 18 coup, he reportedly worked in concert with 15 other officers, a few of who were key players in the last military coup to topple a Nigerien government, in 1999.
The months leading up to this most recent coup in Niger were framed by an ongoing political gridlock in the country sparked by Tandja’s attempts to stay in office beyond the expiration of his second and final term as president. First elected in 1999, Tandja was constitutionally obligated to leave office by Dec. 22, 2009; however, in the spring of 2009, he began to make overt moves with the aim of amending the constitution to allow him three more years in power. Tandja pushed for the holding of a referendum to achieve this; and when parliament and the country’s Constitutional Court opposed it, he simply dissolved both bodies.
The referendum was held in August 2009, and passed amidst allegations of electoral fraud. Tandja nonetheless proceeded to declare himself “the exclusive holder of executive power,” and went on to hold parliamentary elections in October 2009, which were boycotted by the opposition. Tandja was overthrown four months later.
The Uranium Issue
While several countries have condemned the coup (most notably France, which used to administer Niger as a colony in its West African Francafrique empire), the most important issue on the minds of Niger’s main foreign investors — and the main geopolitical ramification of the coup — is the security of its uranium mining activities and how the junta will treat existing mining contracts. It is unlikely, however, that the new regime will change the way business is done.
Niger contains one of the largest deposits of uranium in the world and was the world’s sixth-largest producer in 2008. It provides up to 40 percent of France’s uranium consumption, which for a country as reliant on nuclear power as France — 76 percent of the country’s energy comes through nuclear power — makes Niger a core strategic interest.
French state-owned nuclear power company Areva currently operates two major uranium mines in Niger, located in the Arlit and Akouta deposits, which combined to produce 3,032 metric tons of uranium in 2008, roughly 7 percent of world output. Areva also put down $1.5 billion to secure the rights to the Imouraren deposit in April 2008, which, when it begins production in 2012, is expected to produce 5,000 metric tons of uranium a year, marking an enormous expansion of Areva’s production in Niger.
France maintained a monopoly on Niger’s uranium production for more than three decades following the beginning of commercial production in 1971. But Niamey has begun to open its doors to other countries — most notably China, which has been increasingly active on the African continent in recent years. Beijing has secured exploration rights at two of Niger’s significant uranium deposits, Azelik and Teguidda, in the past two years. China also paid the Nigerien government $5 billion in June 2008 for the rights to explore for oil at the Agadem field, near the country’s eastern border with Chad.
The bulk of Niger’s uranium deposits are located near the twin mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, on the border of the Sahara in the central part of the country, roughly 745 miles by road from the capital, which is located in the extreme southwest.Uranium mines are heavily fortified to guard against the threat of attack by groups like the ethnic-Tuareg Niger Movement for Justice, which has in the past attacked Nigerien troops guarding uranium sites. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrebis known to operate in Niger’s northern region but has never targeted the country’s mining interests.
While uranium does not form as high of a percentage of Niger’s gross domestic product as might be expected (roughly 7 percent in 2008), the junta nonetheless has a financial incentive to keep these operations running smoothly. Uranium constitutes roughly half of Niger’s exports and the lion’s share of foreign direct investment — meaning that whoever controls the purse strings of the government has access to big money. Indeed, Areva said in a Feb. 19 statement that uranium production since the coup is continuing as usual.
If the junta, for some reason, were to decide to adopt a hostile policy to French interests, Paris would not hesitate to deploy an expeditionary force to impose its will – France maintains troops in Senegal, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire (though Senegal announced Feb. 19 that France would soon be shutting its Dakar base down, and French troops in Cote d’Ivoire are part of a U.N. peacekeeping force), and it would not be an insurmountable challenge by any means to send troops to Niger if necessary. The CSRD therefore likely will try to convince France and China — and all other nations with deals signed under the Tandja regime — that the change in power will not threaten foreign investment in Niger.