Le Monde reports on a fascinating crisis, one that incorporates essentially all the themes of the times. In northern Niger lurk huge reserves of uranium, and the French nuclear power industry covers about a third of its requirements from mines there owned by Areva SA. It was this mining industry that Joe Wilson was ordered to investigate, with fateful consequences. Now, with the price of uranium historically high on roaring demand, a curious confluence of developments twirls across the desert..
For a start, back in June, the chief of security at Areva was ordered to leave Niger immediately. Unsurprisingly, Gilles Denamur is a retired French Army colonel who used to be the French military attache to Niger – one of that very specific type of all-purpose soldiers/spooks/businessmen/crooks France’s continuing involvement in Africa produces. He was accused of colluding with a local group of rebels, the National Movement for Justice (MNJ) – a local chapter of the spreading, water-stressed trouble across the continent from Somalia, this lot are mostly Touaregs. According to the Niger government, he was secretly arming the rebels, perhaps as an alternative to the government troops posted at the mines.
More recently, on the 25th of July, the managing director of Areva in Niger was himself rousted. Dominique Pin is another of those men; a veteran of Mitterand’s Africa policy cell that was at the heart of the vast network of scandals around the Angolan war. He’s accused of intriguing with the MNJ, too – after all, if baroudeur had a job description attached, intriguing would be the first or second item on it. And the Niger government has something to be angry about. After all, their crack commando unit that was (of course) stationed to protect the mines has deserted to the rebels in its entirety.
There is of course something else the government has to be angry about; Areva and its predecessors have had a monopoly of uranium mining in Niger for the last forty years, or to put it another way, ever since independence. Now, Niger would like some more of the money, what with the raging demand from China. And they reckon there may be much more uranium out there; the desert is now positively crowded with prospectors after it. Wouldn’t it be terribly convenient, then, if some of the French execs were caught doing something absolutely intolerable? And, indeed, Niger has announced that the monopoly is over. Although Areva got some five new exploration permits, Niger has secured the right to market some of the production from the existing mines itself.
The French claim that the Chinese are offering arms in return for exploration rights, but this may merely be propaganda. And there is an important fact that is missing from Le Monde‘s story; on the 7th of July, a Chinese mining executive from Sino-U was kidnapped by the MNJ. Their spokesman, who is based in Paris (one can perhaps see why Niger is suspicious of French motives), claims it’s because the Chinese paid for the government to buy a pair of Mi-24 attack helicopters, and also because the Chinese are digging too close to a major traditional gathering-place. He was released soon enough, after some trouble due to the fact he didn’t speak French or English, let alone a local language. At the time, Le Monde was noticeably sympathetic to the Touareg cause; I think they have cooled on it quite a lot, going by the tone of the latest dispatch.