France send troops to secure Niger uranium mines
Barely two weeks after invading Mali with over 2,000 troops of the Foreign Legion, France has dispatched special forces troops to neighboring Niger to secure uranium mines run by the French state-owned nuclear power company Areva. Ever since its independence in 1960, France, which had ruled the country as a colony for 60 years, has treated Niger as a semi-colony.
The uranium extracted from the mines in Niger have been considered of strategic importance by successive French governments. The yellowcake produced from Niger’s uranium ore has been used to make France’s nuclear bombs as well as to fuel its nuclear reactors, which account for over 75 percent of the country’s electricity. While vast profits have been reaped from Niger’s uranium, the mining operation has benefited only a thin layer of the country’s subservient bourgeoisie. According to the United Nations human development index, Niger is the third poorest country on the planet, with 70 percent of the population continuing to live on less than $1 a day and life expectancy reaching only 45.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian ordered earlier this week the Special Forces Command to send troops to protect the Areva uranium production sites in Imouraren, 80 kilometers away in Arlit. This is the first ever use of the French commandos to directly defend the assets of a corporation. In reality, the dispatch of French commandos to the uranium mines in Niger only underscores the overriding economic and geo-strategic motives behind the French military intervention in Mali. Under the cover of a supposed war against Islamist “terrorists” and a defense of the central government in Mali, French imperialism is using its military might to tighten its grip on its resource-rich former African colonies.
Moreover, the mining has exacerbated ethnic and regional tensions within Niger. Uranium production is concentrated in the northern homeland of the nomadic Tuareg minority, which repeatedly has risen in revolt, charging that whatever resources do accrue from the mining operations go to the southern capital of Niamey. One of the main demands of the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), a largely Tuareg armed militia that has battled the Nigerien army, has been the more equitable distribution of uranium revenues.
Tthe exploitation of uranium by Areva has created an environmental and health disaster in the mining areas. The environmental group Greenpeace found in a 2010 report that water wells in the region were contaminated with radiation levels up to 500 times higher than normal. In Arlit, site of one of the major Areva mines, deaths from respiratory diseases occur at twice the national average.
France has every reason to fear that its intervention in Mali, which has already seen the bombing of civilian populations and the torture and execution of civilians by the French-backed Malian army in predominantly Tuareg areas, could cause armed conflict to spill over the border into Niger.
However, in addition to securing its profitable facilities from “terrorism” or popular revolt, France has other reasons to flex its military muscle in Niger. In an attempt to increase its share of the uranium profits, the Nigerien government has recently issued exploration permits to Chinese and Indian firms. By dispatching armed commandos, Paris is asserting its domination of the former colony as part of its African sphere of influence.