Niger President Mamdou Tandja dissolved the country's constitutional court on Tuesday, removing yet another obstacle to his plans to stand once more for the presidency, in defiance of a constitutional ban.

Mamadou Tandja's second presidential term runs out in December of this year, and the constitution prevents him from standing for re-election. With this deadline in sight, the country's leader has prepared a referendum to allow him to stand for a third term. In order to give his project a good start, Tandja granted himself emergency powers to rule by decree last week, and then went on to scrap the constitutional court, which had been attempting to block his referendum plans.

Two months earlier, Niger's government granted French state-owned nuclear giant Areva a crucial uranium contract. Coincidental timing? Although France has condemned Tandja's actions, a specialist on the subject tells us that there's still cause for concern.

 

UPDATE (3 July 09 - 11am Paris time): Areva has responded to Daniel. Read the statement below his comment.

 

Daniel Dubreuil is an activist for Survie, an association working on Franco-African relations, and a specialist of Areva's policies in Niger.

This was no coincidence. Areva and Niger signed a [€1.2 million] contract in January to develop the Imouraren uranium mine [in central Niger]. Negotiations took two years, during which the Niger government eventually gave up on most of its demands. Then in March, Nicolas Sarkozy passed through Niger and made a speech in which he quite clearly stated his support for Mamadou Tandja. On May 4, the mine's first stone was laid, and just a few weeks later, as though by chance, president Tandja launched his constitutional reform plans and dissolved the constitutional court.

How I see this timing of events, is that Areva got the contract in part by promising that France wouldn't take too much of a harsh stance against the president's intended actions.

Areva has ruled out any political pressure. But it's obvious that in the case of Niger, the position of Areva and the French state, which owns 90% of its shares, are inseparable. That's been the case since uranium was discovered in 1959 and up until today. Niger's uranium is a key factor in French diplomacy. Once the Imouraren mine opens, Niger will be supplying a third of Areva's uranium, making it an evermore important player in France's independent energy supplies.

Nicolas Sarkozy made a speech announcing the end of Françafrique [France's ambiguous relationship with former African colonies], but what's actually followed is quite the opposite. Although the French government said on June 5 that it would look into reform projects in Tandja, the half-hearted statement didn't even put forward any sanctions against Niger or president Tandja. It would have been possible, as proved by other countries (notably the US), to take coercive measures - threatening to freeze assets, reconsider certain agreements, etc.

I repeat that in my opinion, Areva has an obvious interest in Niger's internal politics. Recently, one of the company's managers made a revealing statement about the company's behaviour in Niger. According to [French analytical publication] Le Canard enchainé, he said that France should help the Niger government ‘sort out' the Tuaregs [the government has been faced with a rebellion by the local nomadic Saharan people since 2007]. It appears that the Areva manager in question didn't use the phrase ‘sort out', but that was basically what he meant. There's nothing surprising about that. As soon as the accord between Areva and Niger had gone through, the directors of the company felt that they could exploit whatever resources in the region they deemed fit: water, land, air... They didn't seem to think that the effects of their actions on the local Tuareg population held any importance. Just to take a recent example, in order to open the mine in Imouraren, Areva will have to drill a hole eight kilometres long, two km wide and 150 km deep. Can we really believe that such a creation won't have any impact on the local Tuareg people, who live solely from farming?"

UPDATE: Areva’s response – “In no way related”

The following statement was sent to us by Areva's Paris press office on 2 July late evening.  

Areva's receiving contractual permission to mine in Imouraren is in no way related to political events in Niger.

The decision the Nigerian authorities took in January 2009 (three months before President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit) to entrust Areva with the site reinforces conclusions met by the Environmental Impact Study workshop, presented in Agadez in May 2009.

This workshop and the public audience present allowed experts from the State of Niger and the public to analyse, over a period of five days, and then validate, technical, environmental and socio-economic aspects of Areva's proposed project.

The recognition of the mining expertise of Areva by the representatives of the local people was confirmed by the awarding in July 2008, of the Environmental Compliance Certificate for the Imouraren project.

This certificate highlights the interests of all Niger people - representatives of the state, central body experts and members of the public - in the mining in Imouraren being taken out by an industrial group such as Areva. This support was also renewed during the ceremony of the laying of the first stone on 4 May 2009, which was attended by several thousands of local people including the authorities' highest officials.

The examination and contract awarding process is a transparent one. Not only was the group checked by the local and national authorities, but also by the public, which was regularly invited to give their opinion on Areva's projects in Niger, industrial or other. In addition to the benefits that come with mining activity (taxes, employment, training, construction and infrastructure...), the group also provides several million euros to community projects. Choosing the projects is done with the consultation of a wide range of representatives from the Niger population, in conforming with the historic partnership that has united Areva and Niger for over half a century."