Sarkozy: Lucrative in Africa

     A short visit to three African countries enables French companies to beat out Chinese competition and gain access to massive uranium mines - a victory for Sarkozy's nuclear ambitions, a defeat for human rights, Edoardo Totolo writes for ISN Security Watch.
     The visits that French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo-Brazzaville and Niger at the end of March this year did not have great humanitarian purposes. Sarkozy gave speeches on the role of peace and democracy for development in Africa, but the "important talks" were happening in other venues, where delegations of businessmen succeeded in signing contracts for the exploitation of mineral resources. 
     The core objective was to accelerate French mining and prospecting deals in the DRC and Niger for the extraction of uranium. The new agreements will allow French public nuclear multinational Areva to double its uranium supplies by 2015 (from 6,000 to 12,000 tonnes per year), and to become the largest player in the global market for nuclear energy, with a 25% market share.
     In this game of global powers and economic interests, African development and human rights seem the biggest losers. According to Nigerien and French civil society groups, uranium mines have caused serious damage to environment and health in the past, while offering only a negligible contribution to prosperity and development for local populations.
     Areva promises that safety measures will be guaranteed and that local governments will benefit from increased revenues and employment opportunities.
     "We will pay a fair price for uranium," said President Sarkozy.
     However, only Areva and the African political elite seem satisfied with the new deals.

Africa's biggest uranium mine
     Areva's greatest achievement was on 4 May, when Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja laid the founding stone of a new uranium mine complex in Imouraren, in the country's north.
     This complex will be the largest in Africa and the second largest in the world, with a production capacity of 5,000 tonnes per year starting in 2012. The French multinational has invested $1.5 billion in the project: Two-thirds of the mining revenues will be kept by Areva, and one-third will go to the government of Niger – but the terms of the agreement have sparked the ire of local and international civil society groups.
     One of the most outspoken critics is the Nigerien organization Rotab, which has fought for many years for more transparency in the mining sector. The organization is particularly concerned about the health and environmental threats posed by the new mine.
     "The pollution from uranium mines has seriously affected the livelihood and health of our population," Rotab spokesperson Amadou Marou told ISN Security Watch.
     Areva, which has been extracting mineral resources in Niger for over 40 years, has always rejected these accusations, stating that most health problems are caused by the desert's harsh conditions and not by uranium mining activities. However, scientific investigations conducted by French organizations Criirad and Sherpa found abnormally high levels of radiation in soil, water and even in kitchen utensils made of scrap metal in close proximity to Areva's mines.
     "The mining sector can contribute to the eradication of poverty in our country, so we are not against it. But this agreement enriches France and a small elite in Niger, and seems to damage everyone else," said Marou. 
     Areva promised to spend €6 million ($8.1 million) in social programs over the next five years, to build schools and hospitals and to facilitate access to water resources, which is a major problem for populations living in arid areas such as north Niger.
     However, the Rotab spokesperson says that these programs should be a government responsibility, instead of a temporary donation by a private multinational taking away much of the nation's wealth.
     The increase of mining activities in the past years also provoked the armed insurgency of the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice (MNJ), a rebel group of Tuareg nomads living in the uranium-rich areas in north Niger. Sarkozy's visit accelerated the peace talks and the MNJ signed an agreement with the government of Niger just one day before the construction of the Imouraren complex officially started. However, the peace deal does not seem durable in the long term, as the Tuareg rebels have refused to disarm and have already demanded higher shares of the future uranium profits.

     Sarkozy's visit to the DRC - the first for a French president in the past 25 years - brought additional benefits to the national nuclear company. Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon reached a favorable agreement with the Congolese Ministry of Mines for Uranium mining and prospecting.
     Areva will have access to the uranium mine in Katenga province (south of the DRC) and will also have the right to review the uranium potential for the entire country. The French multinational will start a joint technical prospecting program with local public institutions that could have an important economic impact on the world market for nuclear energy, as the DRC is believed to possess large quantities of uranium that are yet to be discovered.
     However, there is strong scepticism about the effects that these deals will have on peace and development in the country. The DRC has suffered a 10-year conflict that has led to some five million deaths - the highest death toll since World War II - mostly because of struggles over natural resources. There are doubts that this contract will bring tangible benefits to the population.

Global competition
     Beijing has closely followed the development of the French mission in Niger and the DRC. China has 12 nuclear reactors under construction and another dozen slated for operation in the coming year, making it a leading player in the uranium market.
     The government of Niger moved to put an end to the French monopoly over uranium mines in 2006, granting over 100 exploration licenses to foreign companies, mainly Chinese, Indian and Canadian. The Chinese state-owned nuclear company obtained a prospecting contract in the Agadez region in 2007 and recently provided a $95 million loan to the Nigerien government for the implementation of a major uranium extracting deal. 
     The competition between China and France reached a peak in 2007 when then-chief of Areva operations in Niger, Dominique Pin, was accused of financing the Tuareg rebel insurgency. The government announced that all contracts with Areva would end, and that existing operations would be transferred to Chinese companies. After long negotiations between high-ranking French diplomats and the government, the parties agreed that Areva's contracts would be renewed in exchange for increased aid for the central government.
     The increasing global competition over uranium mines prompted the Nigerien government to push Areva for more during negotiations also in the latest agreements. As such, in order to obtain the contract for the Imouraren complex, the French multinational agreed to pay a considerably higher price for the uranium extracted.
     However, according to Rotab's spokesperson, Niger's bargaining power in these contracts is still extremely weak, and despite the higher price paid by Areva, the new contracts are unlikely to bring about any major benefits to development or poverty eradication in the country.

Corporate and social responsibility
     Areva maintains that 40 years of operation in Niger have contributed significantly to the country's development and that the group plays a central role in Niger's economy.
     In an official document released by Areva in January 2009, the company admits that "The expectations of the population and the communities are, frankly, huge" and that many programs of corporate social responsibility are hindered by local conflict and economic instability.
     However, Areva has built up infrastructure in many parts of the country and provided employment to thousands of households (the new Imouraren complex will create 1,400 local jobs). Moreover, the company emphasizes the success obtained in HIV prevention programs and the electrification of shantytowns in the Agadez region.
     The French nuclear multinational has rejected all criticism raised by international and local civil society groups, stating that it operates in Niger in the same way it operates in Canada, Kazakhstan, or formerly in France: by assuring the highest possible safety and environmental protection standards.

Les textes soulignés le sont par le webmaistre...