China mining company causes unrest in Niger

As resource-hungry China expands its mining operations in Niger, Tuareg rebels say China enriched a corrupt government at the expense of locals.

The sun-wizened Tuareg women of Azalik have declared war on China. Like their ancestors, they once eked out a living selling dried salts from an ancestral well. Everything changed last year, when the government leased their land to the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U) for uranium exploration. Left with no livelihood and no compensation, a hundred women gathered to launch stones at mining machinery.

“Now it is eternal war,” says Tinatina Salah, their 50-year-old leader, who still seeks compensation for the loss of her salt.

Her land contains one of the world's largest uranium deposits, and Niger was the world's sixth-largest uranium producer in 2008. As resource-hungry China expands its holdings here, local groups and Tuareg-led political opposition are voicing concerns over Chinese investment in the Saharan state’s graft-ridden mining industry.

Nigerien authorities led by President Mamadou Tandja, deposed last month in a military coup, awarded a fresh round of exploration and operating permits to foreign companies starting in 2007, for uranium, gold, silver, and oil in the desert of northern Niger.

Despite billions of dollars pouring into the country, however, Tuareg rebels accuse Mr. Tandja’s administration and mining companies of neglecting development in the north, which is a Tuareg stronghold. The largely Tuareg rebel organization Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ), which fought Niger troops and sabotaged Chinese mining operations up until last year, wants local people to have greater control over resources.

All that is harmful about Chinese investment

An economic boom is fueling China's fresh push for mining contracts in Africa. But Chinese state-owned companies’ efforts in Africa have been marred by strikes, substandard conditions, and, in some cases, fighting with locals.

Tuaregs are particularly irked with Chinese investments in uranium and oil. To Tuaregs, the $300 million SOMINA uranium mine at the desert outpost of Azalik, due to begin producing later this year, has come to represent all that is harmful about Chinese investment in Niger.

Last month Nigerien workers – many of whom are Tuareg – denounced in a written statement conditions at SOMINA, claiming it resembled “a Chinese colony." Nigerien laborers sleep in dorms, separately from Chinese workers. The rooms are located in illegal proximity to open pit uranium mines, and the Nigeriens suffer chronic diarrhea on account of an unsanitary water supply, the document charged. Trouble at the mine has led Azalik to be referred to throughout northern Niger as “Guantanamo.”

Despite poor conditions, the mine offers a coveted chance to work. But further frustrating locals, SOMINA employs hundreds of Chinese nationals and recruits ethnically Hausa workers from the south despite widespread poverty and unemployment among the local Tuaregs.

“[Sino-U] brings in a lot of Chinese to do jobs that Nigeriens could easily do or be trained to do,” said one mining official who is prospecting land adjacent to Azalik. He requested anonymity.

The office of Souleymane Mamadou Abba, minister of mines and energy, declined an interview request.

Few jobs for locals, and low wages

What work is available for Tuaregs is hazardous and poorly paid, according to Ali Idrissa, president of the coalition of nongovernmental groups ROTAB, which recently completed a study on mining conditions in the north. Hard, manual labor like digging holes and transporting bricks under the glaring sun is reserved for Nigerien workers, while bureaucratic and engineering jobs are given to Chinese workers. A Nigerien engineer’s salary at the Chinese-run mine at Azalik is about $350 a month, compared with $2,000 a month at France’s Areva.

Chinese companies are "exploiting" the local Tuareg population in areas like Azelik, according to Mr. Idrissa. "Their land is expropriated and given to the Chinese in order to mine riches. And in return, [Tuareg workers'] jobs don't even provide the minimum they need to support their families," he says.

Meanwhile, Chinese mining executives refuse invitations from local elected officials to discuss improving conditions. "The [Chinese] company at Azalik does not even respect the region's local elected officials," Idrissa says. "They won't even receive them."

“They say they don’t have to answer to us because they have direct communication with the central government,” adds Mohamed Mamane Illo, a former Tuareg rebel and elected councilor of Ingall.

In addition to those at the uranium mine at Azalik, complaints are piling up against a $5 billion deal struck last year by state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to pump oil from the Agadem block in exchange for building the country its first oil refinery at Zinder. CNPC paid a $272 million signing bonus to the administration of Tandja, who had appointed his own son Ousmane as commercial attaché to the Nigerien Embassy in Hong Kong, a move NGOs say helped Chinese companies curry favor with the African ex-president.

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