Perfect Storm: Niger’s Uranium Amidst Sahelian Chaos – Analysis

After several weeks of tense diplomatic negotiations and saber-rattling between Niamey and Paris, President Emmanuel Macron’s government withdrew Ambassador Sylvain Itte and diplomatic staff from Niger in late September. France’s military mission plans to withdraw by the end of 2023. Niger’s junta government appears totally uninterested in a continuing security relationship with France, reflecting a lack of confidence that may have encouraged President Mohamed Bazoum’s ouster on July 6, 2023.

France’s withdrawal may spell the end of French firm Orano’s uranium project in Niger’s northeast. Orano, which Paris controls with a 90 percent share, is already pivoting towards Mongolia and other partners in Central Asia. The company, to say nothing of Paris, appears interested in pursuing new relationships in less prohibitive security environments. Macron’s recent trip to Central Asia may reflect a French pivot in energy policy and investment. Without French investment, Niger’s mines could lie dormant—or be occupied by a malicious actor.

Niger’s Junta
Niger is just the latest domino to fall in the Sahel, where coups have returned at a blistering pace. Coups have toppled governments in Mali twice, Burkina Faso, and Guinea since 2021. In Niamey, a military junta led by the Presidential Guard staged a coup against Bazoum, who is also president of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and an ally of France and the United States, on July 26, 2023. While dispatching a general to Mali to confer with Wagner Group, the junta government has sparred with ECOWAS, with many member states closing their borders to Niger and threatening military intervention to return Bazoum to power.

France’s Nigerien Uranium Project
France relies on nuclear power as a key source of its energy production. France derives approximately 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Niger was its second-largest supplier at 20 percent of French uranium imports over the past ten years, trailing only Kazakhstan at 27 percent. Orano maintains majority shares in three mines in Niger: Aïr, Akokan, and Imouraren. Only the Aïr mine operates today, while Akokan is in rehabilitation mode, and Imouraren has been shuttered because of unfavorable market conditions. Many in France fear that a junta government hostile to France could restrict its access to uranium reserves that are critical to France’s power plants. While some politicians may overstate this concern as a matter of security, these deposits are located very close to the increasingly unstable border with Mali.

Niger’s Uranium and Terrorism History
Niger’s uranium mines, particularly the Somaïr mine, have historically been targeted by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2010, five French and two African mine employees were kidnapped in the nearby town of Arlit. In 2013, AQIM exploded a car in the mine, killing one employee. Then, in 2016, AQIM’s al-Nasser brigade claimed a rocket attack on the mine, although there were no casualties.

The competition between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) and AQIM in the area, the addition of a violent mercenary force (Wagner Group) with limited leadership to the fray, and an unstable post-coup environment in Niger could create a perfect storm. Unfortunately, Niger’s uranium mines might be at the heart of that storm.

Although AQIM was the primary terrorist group in Mali and Niger prior to 2015, the founding and expansion of ISGS has occurred at breakneck speed. After the withdrawal of Operation Barkhane in 2022 and as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) continues drawing down in Mali, both AQIM and ISGS have found new territories to exploit and contest. Fighting between Wagner-backed Malian army forces and both Tuareg separatists and AQIM in Mali has recently moved into Kidal and Gao provinces, which both border Niger. Escalation into Menaka province could have serious effects on Niger’s northwestern border near the country’s uranium mines.

Niger’s Uranium Threats Today
Escalated competition between AQIM and ISGS, not to mention Boko Haram and Tuareg separatist forces across the Sahel, could put Niger’s mines under threat. These forces are fighting Wagner Group and the national militaries of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and more. Attacking the Nigerien government’s access to one of Niger’s key economic exports would be a legitimate strategy by any of these groups to target a rival actor and signal legitimacy in their own inter-jihadist power struggles.

The conditions on the ground favor jihadist offensives. Mali is currently facing a security vacuum, created by Junta President Assimi Goïta’s anti-Western agenda. The withdrawal of French and UN forces from Mali and Niger are leaving significant gaps that have been filled by AQIM and ISGS. Wagner Group’s program of executions, human rights violations, and failed counter-terror activities will continue destabilizing Mali, accelerating Malian state insecurity, and likely removing any remaining Malian border security forces with Niger. Niger’s ability to resist major jihadist offensives will likely be tested very soon.

France’s ongoing diplomatic dispute with Niger’s junta government could result in punitive action taken against French-controlled elements of the uranium mines, leaving them less guarded than before. Although the head of Orano’s mining business unit has publicly stated that Niger provides security for Orano’s mines, the capacity of such security operations is becoming less and less clear as France draws down its military support from Niger.

Although Niger’s uranium reserves do not represent a direct proliferation risk in a “dirty bomb,” jihadist control of a uranium mine would be a public relations nightmare and could feed disinformation campaigns. Uranium is prohibitively expensive to concentrate and converting it into a “weaponized” form would require many expensive and technologically prohibitive steps. It is unlikely that AQIM or ISGS would try to use access to a mine as a path toward developing a weapon. Should one of these groups try to smuggle this uranium elsewhere, they would also run into a multitude of issues. The amount of uranium needed for enrichment would likely require international shipping, and there are numerous international safeguards and treaties to prevent the illicit transshipment of nuclear materials.

Despite these limits on weaponizing Niger’s uranium mines in the traditional sense, jihadist groups could still cause significant political damage and instability. Should these mines be sabotaged, jihadist groups could cause prohibitive damage to the local environment and groundwater supplies. The optics of a terrorist group gaining access to any of these mines would provide notoriety to these groups, increase recruitment, and fuel local or even regional conflict and instability. Indeed, jihadist groups could seek to swing the narrative on uranium weaponization through disinformation campaigns, inspiring fear and panic by convincing Nigeriens that a nuclear threat could be realized. Such campaigns are tied to evolving al-Qaeda and Islamic State activities in Mali and Burkina Faso, and developments in one West African state can have ripple effects across the region.

Uranium and Niger’s Economy
Lastly, a jihadist seizure of these uranium mines could irreparably damage the Nigerien economy. Today, uranium ore makes up a whopping 75 percent of Niger’s foreign exports. Since the coup, Niger has massively increased the price of uranium, from 0.80 euro/kg ($0.88/kg) to 200 euro/kg, in an attempt to match the costs of uranium produced in other countries worldwide, particularly Canada. This tectonic shift reflects the Nigerien junta’s interest in redefining its relationship with France, which benefited from cheap uranium purchased in a former colony. Perhaps Orano’s decision to reorient much of its uranium business towards Central Asia reflects a French desire to punish Niger’s junta, which would be unsurprising after the bad blood created by France’s withdrawal in the past few months. It may also be practical—as Paris sees escalating instability occurring in Niger and disinterested security forces around the country’s mining projects. Regardless, without access to uranium profits, Niger’s government may be even more hamstrung in its effort to build new security architecture against mounting jihadist threats.

Still, France’s loss may be Europe’s gain. Other EU states may enter the picture, particularly as much of Europe attempts to disentangle itself from a dependency on Russian energy amidst the war in Ukraine. Russia continues supplying the European Union with uranium ore, and a stoppage in Niger could prevent future sanctions in the energy sector against Russia. Pivoting this energy partnership could be mutually beneficial for Niger and the European Union, as both exporters and importers face rising political instability in their respective regions. However, the challenge will be ensuring facility security in remote northern Niger and along transportation routes.

Niger’s junta government will need to consider all of these complex angles as it redefines its security architecture and export regime after forcing French military and diplomatic missions out of the country. Security and economics are intimately tied together, and any security solution will require a broad strategy that reflects the risks and benefits of the country’s uranium reserves.

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