News | Labour / Unions - West Africa Uranium Mining Is a Disaster for Niger

After the July 2023 coup, should uranium mining be reclaimed for the people — or ended entirely?


The uranium mine in Arlit, northern Niger.
The uranium mine in Arlit, northern Niger.
  Photo: picture alliance / AP Photo | Maurice Ascani

The July 2023 coup that overthrew Niger’s democratically elected government has thrown the region into crisis, with both France and the regional alliance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), denouncing the coup and calling for military intervention if necessary. So far, these calls have proven hollow, but the situation in the region remains tense.

Almoustapha Alhacen began working in the Arlit uranium mine in 1978. When he realized 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, which criticized the conditions of uranium mining. He was ultimately fired in 2015.

Behind the calls to “restore democracy” in Niger lies a very material interest: namely, France’s stake in the Nigerien uranium industry, which is dominated by the French state-owned energy corporation, the Orano Group. France has used Niger as a source of uranium for decades, with little benefit to Niger itself, which still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Will the new government be able to renegotiate contracts and organize mining in a way that benefits the people? Or should uranium mining be phased out all together?

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Franza Drechsel and journalist Horst Hamm spoke with Almoustapha Alhacen, a Nigerien uranium mine worker who has campaigned around mine-related issues for decades, about how the coup has impacted mining and what demands he has going forward.

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

The situation is very complicated for several reasons. In general, life is very, very difficult because of the border closures. The amount of rice that used to cost, say, 20 euros, now costs 40. Life has become incredibly expensive! As for the mining of uranium: it is currently possible, but because the borders with neighbouring countries are closed, there is a lack of fuel. Therefore, no uranium can be mined right now and production has slowed down.

So far, uranium has been Niger’s most important export product. What does an export stop mean for the residents of the mines?

An export stop, or even a mining stop, means little to most Nigeriens. If you don’t mine uranium, you don’t pollute, and that’s good. But for those who work in the mines, it is of course a problem because they no longer earn money.

This democracy is an imposed democracy that has not been adapted to our society. It only leads to Nigeriens being divided and social cohesion being destroyed.

By 2022, Niger had exported more than 256,000 metric tons of uranium, worth about 41 billion US dollars at a price of 57.85 dollars per pound (as of 21 Aug 2023). However, Niger got practically nothing of this, because the country received only a fraction of the value from the uranium it mined. No Nigerien president has yet managed to receive a significantly higher share. Do you think the transitional government can renegotiate the contracts?

I wish that the contracts would be renegotiated! I would also like to see continued cooperation with the West. However, there needs to be a stronger focus on the people, that is, Nigeriens need to benefit from their resources.

Do you think the current government is capable of doing that?

I don’t know if the military can manage to negotiate better contract terms. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a question of military or civilian government. We’ve had military coups and we’ve had civilian presidents who have tried to improve contract terms. During the last democratic period, many things got worse. The resource trap is one of them. You also have to see that the military who are in power now were the ones who violently cracked down on protests against mining conditions.

So you’re saying that democracy has brought you very little?

Since we entered another democratic phase in 2011 under President Mahamadou Issoufou, we have been deprived of any possibility to demonstrate! During the last 12 years, any kind of protest, any form of opposition has been suppressed This democracy is not a democracy that helps Niger to develop, but the opposite. It is an imposed democracy that has not been adapted to our society. It only leads to Nigeriens being divided and social cohesion being destroyed.

We are ambivalent about the military in power: we no longer know what to say. It would be hypocritical to praise democracy, but it would be equally hypocritical to condemn or praise military history.

Let’s get back to the question of profit from uranium mining. If the price could be renegotiated, would this also benefit the population?

The money could be used to improve some living conditions, for example to build hospitals, but also roads, schools, wells, and much more. One could tackle support measures for students. These are the priorities of the Nigeriens. At the same time, it is important to respect nature, the environment, flora and fauna — not to mention the workers. For example, the bad 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 goes into mining uranium — the residents have no electricity in the meantime. This uranium, in turn, is used to fuel nuclear power plants in Europe, especially France. That’s absurd!

There are plenty of examples where higher government revenues have not led to the investments in infrastructure that you are calling for. Thus, renegotiating the treaties themselves doesn’t mean that the majority of Nigeriens will benefit, does it?

At the municipal level, revenues from uranium exports have often been poorly used. Therefore, the national government stopped passing the money on to the municipalities. As a result, the municipalities are now in debt to the national government. However, if the money was better supervised, it could be put to good use.

Uranium mining is an economic and ecological disaster, because the uranium is mined in an uncontrolled way.

Historically, the Orano Group has been the major uranium producer in Niger through its interests in the Nigerien mining companies Somaïr and COMINAK. Do you fear that France will intervene militarily in Niger — directly or via ECOWAS — to protect its uranium interests?

Yes, I am indeed afraid that France will intervene militarily. France has done that many times, for example, in Mali, in Côte d'Ivoire, in Chad — everywhere, so to speak. So why not in Niger as well? France does not respect international conventions, borders, states, international law. The French government says it does, but the reality is different. From that, I don’t rule out a military invasion by France.

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 states are using France for exactly these interventions. To answer your question, yes, I am afraid for Niger. The West is pushing ECOWAS to the point of intervention. If ECOWAS’s demands are not met, I don’t know what will happen.

Despite its uranium wealth, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and ranks third-to-last among all states on the United Nations Human Development Index, partly because Niger has received too little money for the uranium it mines. Forty-five percent of the people live below the poverty line, and every second child is malnourished. Would it be better if uranium mining in Niger was stopped completely? Or would that be an economic disaster for the people?

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