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May 27, 2009
Uranium-rich Niger faces political uncertainty

Niger’s uranium deposits have received wide attention.

On Tuesday, Niger’s president, Mamadou Tandja, dissolved the country’s parliament rather than give up power after his current term expires.

The parliament had declined his request to hold a referendum on a law allowing him to stay in office for a third term. 

Niger produces around 7.5 percent of the world’s uranium and has recently attracted investors from around the world as interest in nuclear energy has grown. 

Michael Keating is the senior fellow and associate director at the Center for Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He writes at “World Politics Review” that the political uncertainty is cause for concern far beyond Niger’s borders.

Uranium-Rich Niger Heats Up

Aside from being confused with its much larger neighbor, Nigeria, to the west, Niger rarely commands the attention of the global spotlight. That’s probably why yesterday’s report that its president, Mamadou Tandja, has suspended Parliament in retaliation for its refusal to grant him permission to run for a constitutionally prohibited third term has barely caused a media ripple. 

In recent years Niger has been known for two things. It’s the place where Saddam Hussein was alleged to have bought “yellowcake” uranium, a claim later debunked by Joseph Wilson. It’s also the site of one of Africa’s longest-running, low-level civil wars. The fighting pits government forces from the south against a Taureg insurgency based in the uranium-rich north. 

Niger may not have sold uranium to Iraq, but it sells plenty of it to its former colonial master, France — as well as to China, Japan and Korea. Currently, the major project involves the Imouraren deposit, which the French firm Areva has purchased for €1.2 billion, in addition to €6 million worth of yearly social investments in community development. It is precisely these kinds of investments that the Taurag rebels are looking to share in. One of their standing demands has been to receive at least 30 percent of uranium investments made on their traditional lands before the central government takes it all back to the capital. 

On a day that saw the leak of a secret Israeli report alleging that Iran is buying uranium from Venezuela and Bolivia, anti-proliferationists can only be chilled by the prospect of one of the world’s major producers, Niger, plunging into a constitutional crisis, one that may completely destabilize a government that has already demonstrated an inability to keep the peace in its most strategic uranium districts.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user vodkamax under a Creative Commons license.

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