Since a military coup d’état took place in Niamey on July 23rd, there have been many commentaries on its strategic significance for the former colonial overlord. France sources a significant portion of its much-needed uranium from Niger, and also has a military presence in the Sahelian country. The political troubles in Niamey are undoubtedly of interest in Paris.
Soon after the military takeover, a rumor spread that Niger had banned uranium exports to France, although this has been proven false— the idea, however, may have been floated around. This allegation would also entail that Niger would have denied France its most-prized source of uranium ore. For a brief moment, let’s consider just how important is the resource for the government in the Élysée, and more broadly for the energy needs of the French.
Niger contributes around 5% towards global supply, based on 2022 data from the World Nuclear Association (WNA): it produced 2,020 tones of uranium. It has had many difficulties to grow in the sector due to high costs associated with bad infrastructure and insecurity. The heavy hitters include Kazakhstan (43%), Canada (15%), Namibia (11%), and Australia (8%). Nonetheless, Niger’s uranium is of strategic importance to France, and it is the world’s 7th largest producer.
According to French newspaper Le Monde, in 2022 the European major power sourced 20.2% of its uranium imports from Niger – that is 1,440 tones out of 7,131. That makes the African country the second largest supplier, after Kazakhstan and before Uzbekistan. Furthermore, the French state-controlled Orano owns three mines in the Sahelian nation, despite only one being in operation. Niger could also be the source of a fifth of uranium imports for the entire EU.
Following this point, France derives 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy. While other countries, such as Germany, are clamping down, in Paris it is seen as a cost-efficient and sustainable source. Plans are for nuclear to grow alongside renewable energy production, not to scale down. From this perspective, Nigerien uranium is of importance to both France’s present economy and its future growth.
According to the World Bank, in 2019 all of Niger’s uranium exports were bound exclusively to France. The former colony is thus not just significant as a supplier, but as one that is in many ways controlled by a monopoly. To practical effects, we are speaking about a French industry on Nigerien soil.
While Niger faces a dilemma similar to that of many resource-rich but economically-poor commodity producers. It lacks a domestic industry, and has to rely on foreign capital for mining and the entire supply chain – which is beyond its reach. As long as this situation persists, Niamey will need to seek close relations with a foreign power in the sector. After the military coup d’état, are we about to see France replaced? Or will we see the birth different dynamic with more players involved, perhaps giving a greater role to Nigeriens?