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Niger coup: Good for Tuareg rebels, bad for uranium investors

The military junta announced it will audit all uranium exploration permits awarded before last month's Niger coup. Evidence has emerged that the permits enriched the ousted president and devastated the Tuareg population.

By Hannah ArmstrongCorrespondent / March 23, 2010

Niger coup: Soldiers from Niger's military junta stand outside a base in Niamey, the capital, last month. The coup leaders announced that they will audit all uranium exploration permits awarded before last month's coup.

Emmanuel Braun/REUTERS/File

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Agadez, Niger

The military junta that ousted Niger's president raised transparency expectations and sent stocks sliding over the weekend with the announcement that it would audit all uranium and gold contracts. The announcement came just days after a coalition of pressure groups petitioned the junta to renegotiate mining contracts awarded under ousted President Mamadou Tandja.

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The world’s third-largest uranium deposit lies in northern Niger, the poorest zone in what the UN calls the world’s poorest country. With more governments backing clean, uranium-fueled nuclear energy to replace coal-burning power, foreign investors from China, Australia, South Africa, America, and Canada have flocked to the landlocked Saharan state.

Niger's authorities have awarded at least 50 uranium exploration permits in the two years since government officials busted a 40-year mining monopoly held by France’s Areva SA, according to mining officials. But government watchdogs say these opaque contracts illegally enriched Mr. Tandja and his family, even while food shortages plagued the Saharan state.

Until recently, little has been known about expanded uranium prospecting in northern Niger, which has become a flashpoint between insurgent Tuaregs and the southern-based government over mining rights. In the chaos surrounding the 2007 armed Tuareg rebellion, Tandja’s administration implemented a media blackout in the northern zone, banning foreign journalists, censoring local reporting on uranium and the northern rebellion, and even suspending Radio France Internationale broadcasts for one month on accusations of sympathizing with rebels.

As Tandja’s ouster in February allows light to be shed on the cloistered northern region, new details of corruption and devastation inflicted on mainly Tuareg civilian populations are emerging.

Land mines and radioactive contamination

The seeding of land mines throughout the Air Mountains – which the armed forces and rebels on each other – has rendered villages such as Iferouane and Elmeki uninhabitable. The entire seminomadic population of Elmeki (an estimated 600-1,000 families) was forced to flee to Agadez, according to Igor Rugengeka, a Burundian coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Agadez.

A once-thriving tourism industry that sustained local businesses and artisans is now decimated in the Saharan caravan capital Agadez, reduced to little more than a stopover for African migrants and internal refugees heading north toward Libya and, for a lucky few, Europe. On average, 2,000 refugees a month pass through Agadez, driving up food prices and unemployment, according to Mr. Rugengeka.

Meanwhile, scientists documented dangerous levels of radioactive contamination still present in water and dirt in a survey of uranium mining villages Arlit and Akokan conducted by Greenpeace International and France’s CRIIRAD, an independent watchdog group. A full report of findings is due later this month.

Seeking benefits for local populations

Disputes over uranium have fanned tensions between Tuareg rebels and authorities since the early 1990s. Nevertheless, hopes are now running high that the ouster of Tandja will pave the way for a binding resolution, ideally one that will reinvest uranium profits into northern economic development.

Tuareg rebel leaders are at present gathered in the capital Niamey, where splintered rebel factions have reunited for negotiations with the junta, hoping to hammer out a road map to accelerate the peace process, according to rebel chief Aghaly ag Alembo.

“We hope to implicate all of the people of the region in the economic spin-off of mining in the north, and that there will be a benefit as well for the nomadic populations in these regions,” Alembo said by phone from the capital.

“Peace would not have lasted with the former regime,” Ahmed Akoli, political secretary of the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), said by phone from Paris. The stakes are high, according to Akoli, who said 6,000 rebels remain armed pending a written resolution.

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