Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Uranium and the Military Coup in Niger

Uranium and the Military Coup in Niger

Army seizes power in the mineral rich West African state

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A months-long political crisis in the West African nation of Niger reached a new level on February 18 when army officers stormed the presidential palace and arrested the head of state Mamadou Tandja along with other cabinet ministers. The former French colony has gone under tremendous strife since August 2009 when President Tandja held a referendum to extend his mandate to rule over the uranium-rich country.

The soldiers who took control call themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) and since their taking of power have pledged to hold national elections as soon as possible. The African Union and the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have condemned the coup and dispatched the president of the organization, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, to meet with Salou Djibo, the leader of the CSRD.

A spokesperson for the military told representatives of the AU and ECOWAS that they had no intentions of holding on to state power. According to Colonel Djibri Hamidou Hima, one of the CSRD leaders, “If you want proof, in 1999 we had a similar situation and we handed back power and we had 10 years of stability.” (Al Jazeera, Feb. 22)

Col. Hima also stated that “We are going to do the same thing. We left the political actors to try and find a solution. This did not happen.”

Hima also noted that “Social tensions got worse. We didn’t launch a coup, we just reimposed legitimacy, because this had already disappeared.”

After the meeting between ECOWAS President Chambas, the head of the regional body said of the coup leaders that “They have given us the necessary guarantees and all this will be done with the participation of civil society and the political parties.

Chambas continued saying “Dialogue will be opened with all the vital forces of the nation which will end in the drawing up of a new constitution and a period of transition. We were encouraged by the fact that the authorities themselves are mindful that this is not their normal function and they are eager to finish this task and go back to their normal military and security duties.” (Al Jazeera, February 22)

The coup came in the aftermath of the suspension of talks aimed at a negotiated settlement to resolve the political crisis. In a series of talks beginning on December 21, a draft agreement was hammered out under the mediation of former Nigerian military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar working on behalf of ECOWAS.

The agreement proposed that President Mamadou Tandja remain in his post during a transition period. It also called for the appointment of an opposition Prime Minister and the holding of national elections. However, the opposition parties and the government could not reach an agreement.

Amid the political unrest in the country, there is a mounting humanitarian crisis where 7.8 million of the nation’s 15 million people are facing food insecurity. According to a statement issued by ECOWAS on February 10, “An irregular, spottily distributed and prematurely shortened rainy season in 2009 led to insufficient cereal and fodder production for people and livestock, and the Government is currently evaluating how much more funding is needed.”

Niger’s Uranium Wealth

This West African state is major source for uranium mining which is utilized for nuclear technology supplied in the imperialist countries. At present it is listed as the world’s third largest source of uranium and is slated to double its production over the next two years.

France’s government controlled nuclear energy firm, Areva, recently signed a contract with the country’s leaders to conduct uranium mining in the Imouraren region in the north of Niger. This contract with Areva will make Niger the second largest producer of Uranium in the international market.

The uranium extracted from Niger supplies nearly all of the raw materials for the running of 50 nuclear plants providing electricity to French households. Also other countries such as Spain, Canada, South Korea and South Africa have expressed an interest in uranium sources in Niger.

In addition, there is also mining taking place by China’s National Uranium Corporation which signed an agreement with Niger in 2007 to extract 700 tons of uranium per year from the Azelik region in the north. The People’s Republic of China has increased its investments and economic cooperation with various African states over the last several years.

The deposed President Mamadou Tandja had sought alternative political and economic relations with the progressive states of Libya in North Africa and Venezuela in Latin America. It was rumored that Tandja had been discussing greater economic cooperation with Iran, which is under threat by the United States, Israel and various western imperialist countries.

Even the BBC reported on Feb. 19 that “Some sources have suggested that talk of a deal with the Chinese whetted the appetite of some in the military for a share of the material rewards, intensifying tensions within the military over Mr. Tandja’s monopolization of power.” (BBC News, Press TV)

Just one day prior to the coup, a Canadian-based firm, Orezone Gold Corporation, announced through its subsidiary, Brighton Energy Limited, that it “had completed the acquisition of three uranium exploration permits in the Republic of Niger.” The same statement goes on to say that “Orezone is a gold exploration and development company with more than 15 years experience in West Africa, one of the world’s fastest growing gold producing regions.” (MarketWatch.com, Feb. 17)

Despite the tremendous mineral wealth in Niger and other countries in West Africa, the overall world economic crisis is resulting in food deficits due to the fact that most of the economic development inside the region is geared toward the export of mineral resources and agricultural commodities to the former colonial powers and the United States.

In a recent post-coup report issued by Radio Netherlands, the broadcast reminded the international community that additional political problems exist in Niger where the Tuareg ethnic group has waged an armed struggle against what it believes is the official neglect of their interest in the mineral regions.

“There is only one real threat: the Tuaregs in the territories where the mines are located, have organized two armed revolts in the past 20 years. They want more money and better representation at the top of national politics…. At their last revolt, Areva—and therefore the security of French energy—has been their target.” (Radio Netherlands, Feb. 22)

The United States has called for the return to civilian rule in Niger. In a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in the capital of Niamey, it claims that “The United States continues to support the hopes of the Nigerian people to see constitutional order re-established and a peaceful transition leading to prompt, fair and transparent elections.”

Niger is the country that former U.S. President George W. Bush falsely claimed was a potential supplier of uranium to the Iraq government in their fabricated case to justify the imperialist invasion and occupation of this middle eastern nation. A subsequent investigation by a former U.S. diplomat proved that the allegations against Iraq were false, yet the invasion took place in March 2003.

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