Arlit: The little town in Niger keeping the lights on in France

From Niamey, the capital of the landlocked West African nation of Niger, we call ahead to a desert town in the remote north of the country. “Journalists? On their way here? It’s been a while”, we hear down the phone from our contact. “We welcome you with open arms, but only on the pretence that you’re visiting to interview migrants on their way to Algeria. If they find out you’re poking your nose in their business, it’s a lost cause.” That same evening, the public bus jolts as it sets off. Destination: the gates of the Sahara.

The stuffy subtropical heat gradually fades into scorching drought and plains of seemingly endless ochre sands. About two days later, we pass through a gateway with “Arlit” written on it in rusty letters.

The town of about 120,000 inhabitants is located in one of the Sahel’s most remote regions, not far from the Algerian border. The surrounding area is known to be the operating territory of numerous bandits and armed groups, including Islamist militants. It is like an island in the middle of the desert, an artificial oasis with only one raison d’être: uranium.

Areva in Arlit

For Arlit, 2 February 1968 was a crucial date. Eight years earlier, Niger had gained its independence from France, but now, the former colonial power was deepening its role in the country once again. After years of research, the French government had decided to open its first uranium mine in the area.

Starting production was relatively straightforward. “In the West you need a bookshelf full of permissions and certificates. In Niger, you give someone a spade and two dollars a day, and you’re mining uranium”, wrotejournalist Danny Forston when he visited the town.

And so it went. The first shovel in the northern sand was accompanied by handshakes and the promise of an honest collaboration between one of the world’s least developed countries and its former coloniser. The French swore that Arlit would soon be known as Le Petit Paris.

Since then, approximately 150,000 tonnes of uranium have been extracted by the majority state-owned French company Areva, which is now one of the largest uranium producers in the world. The two mines around Arlit – Somaïr and Cominak – account for around a third of the multi-billion-dollar company’s total global production.

France uses this uranium to generate nuclear power, some of which is sold on to other European countries. According to Oxfam, over one-third of all lamps in France light up thanks to uranium from Niger.

However, in contrast to France, Niger has failed to see similar benefits. The West African country has become the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium, which contributes tens of millions to the nation’s budget each year. Yet it has remained one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, with almost half its 20 million population living below the poverty line. Its annual budget has typically been a fraction of Areva’s yearly revenue.

The main reason for this is the deal struck between Areva and Niger. The details have not been made public, but some journalists and activists such as Ali Idrissa, who campaigns for more transparency in the industry, have seen the agreement. Amongst other things, the documents suggest that the original deal generously exempted Areva from customs, export, fuel, materials and revenue taxes.

In 2014, Niger attempted to re-negotiate. As the agreement came up for renewal, the government called for the tax breaks to be removed and for the low royalty rate to be raised from 5.5% to 12-15%. Areva insisted this would make its activities unprofitable and suspended operations for two weeks during negotiations, officially for maintenance reasons.

Eventually a new deal was agreed, but the power dynamic between Areva and Niger had been made clear in the drawn out negotiations.

Apart from criticising the Nigerien government for not spending its uranium revenue where it is most needed – such as in health care, education and agriculture – Idrissa emphasises the bigger geopolitical picture: “Don’t forget that Niger isn’t just negotiating with a regular company, but with the French state. Their development aid, military and political support means that we cannot ignore our former coloniser. Our dependency from France goes hand in hand with crooked business deals.”

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By Lucas Destrijcker and Mahadi Diouara

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