Niger's uranium coup

March 6, 2010

On February 18, Niger's President Mamadou Tandja was overthrown in a military coup. A military junta calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, headed by Major Salou Djibo, took power.

On February 20, a 10,000-strong rally, supported by Niger's largest trade union federation, demonstrated in support of Tandja's overthrow, Reuters said that day. The protest also called for the junta to hold elections, Reuters reported that day.

However, the junta is unlikely to confront the causes of Niger's extreme poverty: Western-imposed neoliberal austerity and the environmentally and socially destructive plunder of natural resources, particularly uranium.

This is the fourth coup in Niger since 1974. From a military background himself, Tandja was involved in two of them.

He was elected president in 1999 and re-elected in 2004. His 10-year rule was characterised by famine, ethnic insurgency and human rights abuses.

The latest coup was preceded by a constitutional crisis that began when Tandja unilaterally dissolved the National Assembly in May last year. This was in response to some parties in the ruling coalition crossing the floor to defeat a government motion for a referendum on a new constitution.

Tandja declared a state of emergency on June 26. The constitutional referendum was held on August 4.

An opposition coalition of political parties and unions called for a boycott and rejected the results as rigged. The opposition escalated its campaign of strikes and protests.

On February 14, Reuters said, 10,000 people protested for Tandja to go.

However, the coup ensures that political power remains with the same military officer caste from which Tandja came.

Nigerien sociologist Issouf Bayard told IRIN on February 19 that before the coup, the "likely outcomes were ... a popular uprising, strikes that would have paralysed the country or a military coup".

Some of the officers in the current junta had been Tandja's co-conspirators in past coups.

The military domination of Niger's politics has its roots in the discovery of uranium in the then-French colony shortly before independence in 1960. Independence was conditional on secret agreements giving France preferential access to mineral resources and continued military influence.

Nigerien units of the French colonial army became the armed forces of the nominally independent republic and continued to be trained, armed and financed by France. French troops remained in Niger.

The hand-picked post-independence president Diori Hamani relied on French intervention to stay in power. However, in the early 1970s he attempted to chart a more independent course and negotiated the departure of French forces.

This led to his overthrow in a 1974 military coup.

France is the world's largest nuclear power generator: almost 80% of France's electricity is nuclear generated. French nuclear-generated electricity is exported to neighbouring European countries.

France also has a large nuclear weapons arsenal and is dependent on Niger for its uranium supplies.

Niger is the world's third-largest exporter of uranium. Uranium mining in Niger is dominated by Areva, the world's largest nuclear corporation that is part-owned by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). Areva gets 45% of its uranium from Niger.

Exploration licences to mine uranium have also been granted to mining companies from the US, South Africa, China, Canada and Australia.

The neocolonial secret agreements giving Areva below-market prices mean that very little of the wealth from Niger's uranium remains in the country.

What little wealth is left over is pocketed by the military-based elite. The main difference the coup is likely to make is changing which elite pockets from this wealth goes into.

The United Nations ranks Niger as the fourth-poorest country in the world. Its life expectancy is 43. One in four children die before their fifth birthday and 71% of adults are illiterate.

This poverty has been exacerbated by drought and desertification — problems being made worse by global warming.

Johanne Sekkenes from the NGO Doctors Without Borders told the August 1, 2005 Independent about the effect on Niger of an International Monetary Fund-imposed structural adjustment program: "No sooner had the government been re-elected than it was obliged to introduce 19% VAT [sales tax] on basic foodstuffs.

"At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished."

In 2008, there were hunger riots.

Niger's poverty is worsened by environmental destruction from the uranium mining industry, which is concentrated in the arid north of the country.

Pambazuka News said on January 14 that the "use of non-renewable water sources for … underground mines and … 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)".

Health worker Butali Chiverain described to Al Jazeera on August 31, 2008, some of the effects the uranium has on the local population and mine workers: "There are illnesses which people hadn't seen before. There are also skin diseases with bumps breaking out especially on the feet, which touch the soil.

"In the company there are also respiratory illnesses [and] high blood pressure — people are suffering from hypertension. After a person works 10 years in the company they start suffering from heart problems, coma and these kinds of illnesses.

"Many people have died."

He said that water in the region had 10 times the level of radioactivity considered safe.

Then-environment minister Mohamed Akotey admitted to Al Jazeera that the government had no ability to monitor the mines. "Today these companies have environmental teams at the mines. At the same time the government does not have the means to make studies at the different locations."

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