“Uranium mining is a disaster for Niger”

Almoustapha Alhacen on the situation of uranium production after the military coup in July 2023
Horst Hamm , Franza Drechsel , Almoustapha Alhacen (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung) 9 September 2023

Almoustapha Alhacen worked in the Arlit uranium mine since 1978. When he noticed that many of his colleagues were becoming mysteriously ill, he founded the NGO Aghirin'man in 2000 , a partner organization of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation for many years, through which he criticized the conditions of uranium mining. He was released in 2015. Horst Hamm and Franza Drechsel spoke to him about the current situation in uranium mining in Niger.

Mr. Alhacen, at the end of July the Nigerien army deposed the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. As a result, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) closed its borders and the self-proclaimed government announced it would stop exporting uranium. What is the situation in the mining town of Arlit? Is uranium currently being mined?

The situation is very complicated for various reasons. In general, life is very, very difficult because of the border closures. The amount of rice that used to cost, say, twenty euros now costs forty. Life has become incredibly expensive! As for mining uranium: This is currently possible, but since the borders to neighboring countries are closed, there is a lack of fuel. So no uranium can be mined at the moment and production has slowed down.

Uranium is currently Niger's most important export product. What does an export ban mean for the residents of the mines?

An export stop or a mining stop means little to most Nigeriens. If you don't mine uranium, there will be no pollution and that's a good thing. But for those who work in the mines, this is of course a problem because they no longer earn any money.

As of 2022, Niger has exported more than 256,000 tons of uranium, which corresponds to a value of approx. 41 billion US dollars at a uranium price of currently 57.85 USD per pound (as of 8/21/23). However, Niger had practically nothing of this because the country only received a fraction of the value of the uranium it mined. No Nigerian president has ever managed to obtain a significantly higher share. Do you think the interim government can renegotiate the contracts?

I would like the contracts to be renegotiated! I also hope that there will continue to be cooperation with the West. However, a stronger focus on people is needed, which means that the Nigeriens must benefit from their resources.

Do you think the current government is capable of this?

I don't know whether the military will be able to negotiate better contract terms. Frankly, I don't think this is a military or civilian government issue. We have had military coups and we have had civilian presidents who have tried to improve the terms of the treaty. Things got worse during the last democratic period. The resource trap is part of it. It must also be seen that the military who are now in power were the ones who used violence against the protests against the mining conditions.

So you're saying that democracy has done little for you?

Since we entered another democratic phase under President Mahamadou Issoufou in 2011, we have been deprived of any opportunity to demonstrate! During the last twelve years every form of protest, every form of opposition has been suppressed! So for us this democracy is not a democracy that contributes to Niger developing, but the opposite. It is an imposed democracy that has not been adapted to our society. It only leads to dividing Nigeriens and destroying social cohesion. That means we're torn about the military in power: we don't know what to say anymore. Because it would be hypocritical to praise democracy, but it would be equally hypocritical to condemn or praise military history.

Let's come back to the question of the profit from uranium mining: Should the price be able to be renegotiated, would this also benefit the population?

The money could be used to improve some living conditions, for example building hospitals, but also roads, schools, wells and much more. Support measures for students could be addressed. These are the priorities of Nigerians. And all that would be possible! At the same time, it is important to respect nature, the environment, flora and fauna. And the workers too. For example, poor treatment of suppliers is unacceptable. These are also things that need to be negotiated. Another issue is how we get electricity. Because currently there is no power plant for us. All the energy that Orano produces only goes into mining uranium - while the local residents have no electricity. And this uranium, in turn, is used to fuel nuclear power plants in Europe, especially France. That's absurd!

There are repeated examples where higher government revenues have not led to the investments in infrastructure that you are calling for. So a renegotiation of the contracts in itself does not mean that the majority of Nigeriens will benefit from it, right?

At the local level, the revenue from uranium exports was often poorly used. That's why the national government stopped passing the money on to municipalities. The result is that the municipalities now have debts to the national state. If the funds were managed well, they could be used sensibly.

Historically, the French Orano group is the important uranium producer in Niger through its interests in the Nigerian mining companies Somaïr and COMINAK. Are you afraid that France will intervene militarily in Niger - directly or via ECOWAS - to protect its uranium interests?

Yes, I'm actually afraid that France will intervene militarily. France has already done this several times, for example in Mali, in Ivory Coast, in Chad - everywhere, so to speak. So why not in Niger too? France does not respect international conventions, borders, states, international law. The French government says it does, but the reality is different. For this reason, I do not rule out a military invasion by France. But it would be really bad if the whole world allowed France to continue as it did in the past. However, it seems to me that other countries are using France for precisely these interventions. To answer your question: yes, I am afraid for Niger. The West is in the process of pushing ECOWAS to intervene.

Despite its wealth of uranium, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and ranks third from bottom of all countries on the United Nations Human Development Index, also because Niger received too little money for the uranium it mined. 45 percent of people live below the poverty line and every second child is malnourished. Wouldn't it be better if uranium mining in Niger stopped completely? Or would that be an economic catastrophe for people?

Currently, uranium mining is a disaster for Niger. It is an economic and ecological disaster because the uranium is mined in an uncontrolled manner. One can even speak of a crime against humanity. If further mining means that pollution continues as before, then it is better to stop.



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