Niger's visitors

Niger is just one battleground, albeit it one on the periphery, in the new geopolitical scramble for resources taking place among developed nations. Nowhere has the Chinese quest for resources in Africa been more pronounced
Ethan Wagner
14 February 2011

Aside from the occasional tourist or diplomat, flights these days into Niamey, the capital of Niger, generally arrive with two types of passengers: French military advisors dispatched to locate a group of workers who were kidnapped last September from France’s uranium mine in the northern town of Arlit, and Chinese engineers sent to work on any one of a variety of projects, including China’s own newly-operational uranium mine at Azelik, not far from where the French group was abducted.  The majority of the Chinese passengers wear the blue hygienic masks that were in fashion during the SARS epidemic, and whose popularity among Chinese seems to have spread more quickly than the disease itself.

New bridge across Niger river built by state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation

Like their Chinese guests, I soon find out, the authorities in Niger also take the prospect of illness very seriously. Well, $56 worth of seriously.  For visitors who do not have an international vaccination card proving that they’ve had the requisite series of inoculations, that is the difference between the cost (2,000 CFA, or about $4) of receiving a set of injections on the spot at the airport from a medical professional (who, moments earlier, had seemed a mere ordinary immigration officer until putting on a white lab coat), and the price of the fine for entering the country sans immunization (30,000 CFA, or roughly $60).  Despite my protestations that I’ve had all the relevant vaccines, I am told that I must choose.  Frugality wins out over skepticism, and I opt for the needle.

Given the margins, one might expect that authorities would prefer to see visitors pay the fine, as the national treasury could surely use the additional income.  Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and perennially finds itself at or near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) rankings.  Unlike some other African states that have suffered slow or negative growth as a result of war or the outbreak of disease, poverty in Niger - land-locked and overwhelmingly covered by forbidding, arid desert - can best be attributed to the fact that the country simply doesn’t have much in the way of resources.  Except, that is, for uranium.

In 2003, Niger fleetingly made international headlines during the run-up to war in Iraq, when allegations surfaced that Saddam Hussein’s agents had visited the country in search of a uranium powder known as “yellowcake,” or gateau jaune as it’s called locally in French, which remains the country’s official language as a holdover from colonial days.  When it was later revealed (or was it?) that the claims came from forged documents, the country faded from the world’s consciousness just as quickly.

Football outside the National Museum in Niamey

France, however, has long attempted to cultivate a close relationship with Niger since its uranium deposits were first discovered in the Sahara over four decades ago.  Since 1969, the French state-owned energy giant Areva has operated two mines in northern Niger, extracting uranium deposits that are estimated to provide three-quarters of France’s annual nuclear energy supply.  But the Franco-Nigerien relationship, forged during the colonial era and surviving more on familiarity than warmth, has grown complicated in recent years.  In 2007, Nigerien authorities expelled Areva’s local director from the country and accused the company of supporting a rebellion by ethnic Tuareg in the north that had killed dozens of soldiers.  Niger’s Tuareg who live in the vicinity of the French mines, meanwhile, have consistently voiced complaints that Areva is destroying their traditional way of life, failing to invest in local development, and damaging the health of the local population through the waste and pollution produced by the mines.

Enter China.  Either to express his government’s displeasure with France, take advantage of an opportunity for personal enrichment (as some of his opponents have alleged), or as part of a genuine strategy of diversifying the country’s trade partners (or perhaps all three), in 2008 former President Mamadou Tandja dispensed with Niger’s unwritten policy of allowing the French exclusive mining rights and awarded permits to several Chinese state-owned firms, including China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and ZTE Energy. 

In Niamey, a man guides his crop-laden camel in front of signs in French, the country's official language

“Tandja brought in China to put pressure on Areva and to make it clear to the French that Niger has other options,” explains Abdou Mohamad Gazali, a political commentator in Niger who works as the local correspondent for Radio Deutsche Welle. 

Though Tandja is now gone, China remains in force.  On December 31, 2010, barely two years after receiving the concession, CNNC announced that it had produced its first barrel of uranium in Niger.  Chinese officials expect its Nigerien mines to produce about 1,000 tons of uranium next year, with targets set to increase to 2,500 tons by 2015.  That China remains in Niger’s good graces is not dependent on Tandja; the military government that ousted him in a coup has awarded the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) exclusive rights to explore petroleum deposits in Diffa, in eastern Niger. Joint Chinese-Nigerian research has estimated the area’s reserves at nearly 300 million barrels, and CNPC has announced plans to invest upwards of $5 billion over the next several years.

Street vendor balances cigarettes and chewing gum atop his head

Niger is just one battleground, albeit it one on the periphery, in the new geopolitical scramble for resources taking place among developed nations, a once-quiet free-for-all that is unfolding across Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic with ever-greater urgency and contentiousness.  China, with its double-digit growth rate and a seemingly insatiable, Audrey II-like hunger for consuming energy, minerals, and other resources, has quickly moved from itself being considered a target for resource exploitation into direct competition with Europe, America, and Japan for the rest of the world’s resource supply.  In Niger, only a few years ago France held an unimpeachable position of privilege; now, despite having had diplomatic relations with Niger for less than a decade-and-a-half, China is clearly ascendant.

It’s not only the French who are being overtaken by China.  The United States does its best by sending a large contingent of Peace Corps volunteers to Niger each year, and USAID spends between $15-20 million each year in the country, with some high-visibility efforts like a programme that employs several hundred people to clean the streets of Niamey.  But these sums are small change compared to Chinese investment - it is believed that the signing fee Tandja negotiated with China in 2008 was worth $300 million alone. 

Perhaps no better symbol of these shifting relationships exists than the pair of bridges spanning the Niger River at the heart of Niamey.  To the west lies Kennedy Bridge, functional but shoddy, built by the United States in 1970.  Just to the east, the China Railway Construction Corporation has begun work on an as-yet-unnamed state-of-the-art bridge that is expected to supplement—and then eventually supplant—its outdated American counterpart.  Just down the road from the new bridge, the Chinese commercial and economic section occupies a low-slung, gleaming white building in downtown Niamey between the National Museum and the Palace of Justice, keeping watch over its expanding domain.

Shortly after the kidnapping of its workers in Arlit, Areva announced - in an entirely understandable decision - that it would be pulling most of its employees out of Niger. And so it is at the airport in Niamey as it is in much of Africa: the westerners departing, and the Chinese arriving.

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