Written by Alice Powell of Publish What You Pay.
A couple of weeks ago, thousands of Nigerien citizens took to the streets in Arlit to protest against nuclear giant AREVA. According to one of the organisers, “The aim of the protest… is to support the government in its upcoming discussions with Areva on the subject of our uranium”. Protestors were also voicing their discontent at how the mining of uranium has affected their daily lives, without yielding many benefits.
Indeed, Niger’s citizens have seen little good come out of almost half a century of uranium extraction. While seven out of ten homes in France are lit up thanks to nuclear energy, mainly fuelled by Niger’s uranium, many Nigeriens go without electricity. Despite being one of the world’s top producers of the mineral, Niger lies at the bottom of the development index.
The extractive process in Niger has been mired in secrecy from the off. As its empire crumbled France wrangled lucrative resource deals with soon-to-be former colonies, ensuring themselves a steady and heavily discounted supply of resources.
Niger was no exception to this and the advantageous monopoly given to the French company AREVA has cost Nigeriens citizens dearly over the years. Les Afriques estimates that, in selling uranium far below the global market price, Niger lost out on a potential $20 billion over half a century.
The secrecy surrounding uranium contracts ensured that Nigeriens could not calculate whether they were getting a fair deal for their resources. The deals were classed as part of defence agreements, making it even more difficult, and dangerous, for citizens to seek information. While contract terms have been renegotiated since Niger’s independence, the deal remains imbalanced and largely shrouded in secrecy.
In order for a deal to truly benefit all citizens rather than the few in power, the terms must be public. Moreover the bidding process must be open, so that civil society can ensure the best company was chosen for the right reasons.
When it comes to extractive transparency and a fairer deal for its uranium, the tide may be turning for Niger. A change of government in 2010 brought with it a new constitution, which enshrined the principle that natural resources belong to the citizens and must be governed transparently. Article 150 stated that all extractive contracts must be made public.
On a number of occasions since 2010, the government has publicly announced its intention to renegotiate its contract with AREVA and rebalance the relationship between government and company, so that Niger can profit more from its key natural resource.
Most recently, the government last September announced an audit of all mines operated by AREVA. The aim is to reduce costs and increase the profits of the mines. The audit will serve as a basis for its next renegotiation with AREVA, which is due this month when the current contract lapses. It was in support of this move that Arlit’s residents came out to demonstrate.
Uranium is no small opportunity for Niger. The opening of the Imouraren mine in 2015, also operated by AREVA, will propel Niger up the ranks of uranium producers to become the second largest in the world.
While these developments are promising, the principles of transparency and openness must be fully integrated in the future management of Niger’s natural resources if uranium is to improve the lives of Niger’s citizens.
PWYP Niger has voiced concerns over the much lauded audit, particularly as few details have been revealed. Who will be conducting this audit? When is their deadline for submission? Will it be done on time to affect the government’s renegotiation with AREVA? PWYP Niger continues also to call for the publication of contracts, as the celebrated article 150 of the constitution has yet to be realised.
The October renegotiation, if conducted in an open manner, could mark the turning point in Niger’s natural resource management, ensuring that its resources benefit future generations to come.
To find out more about PWYP’s work in Niger, visit http://www.publishwhatyoupay.org/where/coalitions/Niger