'A CITY LOST IN THE DESERT:' A visit to the Sahara's uranium capital

In May of 2013, a car bomb detonated near the Somair uranium mine in Arlit, in northern Niger, killing one person. Moments earlier, in Agadez, some 150 miles south, Al Qaeda-affiliated militants waged an assault on Nigerien army positions that killed over 20 people.

That same year, Niger’s two uranium mines produced 4,238 tons of uranium, down from 4,572 the year before — but up from 4,159 tons in 2011. The mines didn’t miss their production targets. Extraction continued as if the bombing had barely even happened.

The Somair mine is one of two uranium sites in Arlit that are largely owned and operated by Areva, a majority state-owned French nuclear services company.

As an integral part of the nuclear energy infrastructure of a foreign power, the mine was an irresistible target for jihadists exploiting the security vacuum in nearby Mali.

Even a failed attack in Arlit, and on a facility that does not produce or handle enriched uranium, seemed guaranteed to evoke western fears of nuclear terrorism, vulnerable energy supply chains, and collapsing order in a country less than 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean coast.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the attack wasn’t Al Qaeda’s success in detonating a bomb at the gates of one of the world’s largest uranium mines. Nor was it the fact that the global jihadist network had credibly threatened a facility that handles radioactive materials while its operatives killed dozens of people several hours away.

The deadliness, sophistication, and ambition of the attacks belied their inevitably negligible upshot. The uranium mines kept right on operating.

This continuity could be evidence of the overwhelming imperatives of resource extraction in an impoverished country with virtually no other industrial base. It could show the commitment of the mines’ French operators to remaining in business in the country, which was a French colony until 1960.

It could also reflect the economic and strategic commitment of the French government — which has 3,000 of its troops stationed across five Sahelian countries, including Niger — amid fears over jihadist advances in Algeria, Libya, and Mali.

But above all, the fact that the mines were so unaffected by the attacks shows just how separated Niger’s uranium mining industry is from its broader context.

Niger’s uranium industry is ‘an island’

For decades, the uranium industry has been an island within one of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries: A place which ranks nearly last on the Human Development Index, and which will see its population of 17 million explode to over 50 million by mid-century.

The benefits of one of Niger’s few existing heavy industries are largely sequestered away from a population that is badly in need of them.

“Today, 80% of Nigeriens don’t even know Niger has uranium, and 99% never get any benefits from it,” Almoustapha Alhacen, the founder of the Arlit-based uranium industry watchdog group Aghir In’Man, speculated to Business Insider during an interview in Agadez.

The uranium industry constitutes over one-third of Niger’s exports. In France “one out of every three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium,” according to a 2013 Oxfam publication. Niger has the world’s fifth-largest recoverable uranium reserves, some 7% of the global total. Niger’s two major uranium mines are the country’s second-largest employer, aside from the government.

But the uranium industry inhabits a seemingly different world from the vast majority of Niger’s citizens — even in Arlit, the city at the center of the industry itself.

Armin Rosen/Business InsiderThe desert outside of Arlit, Niger

Niger’s ‘little Paris’

The city of Arlit interrupts a blasted desert landscape, with the city’s outskirts marked with piles of dirt and brick and only the most obstinate signs of life — spiny shrubs, and wavy and colorless grasses that seem transposed from the ocean bottom.

In the city itself, buildings are constructed out of the same material as the ground. The low-slung town is almost invisible even from a couple miles down the highway, and during an average sandstorm the city and the loose earth have the illusion of disappearing into one another.

Inside Arlit, the houses are built with a castle-like thickness, steeled against an endless onslaught of Saharan dust and wind.

Thanks to the uranium, there was a time when Arlit was the most developed place in Niger.

“Arlit used to be Niger’s ‘little Paris,” says a northerner of the city’s glory days, during the uranium boom of the early 1980s. “People came for the hospitals, planes came in from Europe every day.”

Armin Rosen/Business InsiderThe approach to Arlit, Niger

Arlit’s former status can be glimpsed in places like the Cominak worker’s village, home to Nigerien nationals employed at one of Arlit’s two mines. It’s a tranquil assortment of identical single-level abode brick subdivisions organised around a town center with a hospital, school, community center, outdoor cinema, and workers’ club. The village has a spacious yet dust-caked grocery store offering frozen fish and chicken — a rarity at any Nigerien supermarket — bottles of imported Scotch, soda from Algeria, tissue boxes from Dubai, and Duy Anh Foods-brand rice paper from Vietnam.

But the worker’s village has a rusting look to it. Despite its atypical selection, most of the shelves in the supermarket are empty.

Since the bursting of the 1980s bubble, Arlit has grown — even as the mines have aged, uranium has plunged in price, and oil seems poised to eclipse uranium in importance.

“In the late 1990s, there was lots of money here,” a one-time Arlit resident who now occasionally visits the city, recalled. “Now, the town’s bigger, and the population is poor … Back then, the only people here were working for mines and contractors. Today, there are a lot of soldiers, bandits, smugglers, and immigrants passing by here. There are more people. A lot of changes.”

Ghamar Il’ontoufigh, Aghir In’Man’s secretary general, estimates the city’s population has grown from around 10,000 at the start of uranium exploitation in the early 1970s to approximately 115,000 today.

As one resident of northern Niger described it to Business Insider, the country’s mining capital is now a “a city lost in the desert.”

Its character is shaped primarily through its remoteness, more than through its connection to any one industry. It’s the last stop before Algeria, and the last settlement of any real size before the belt of recently discovered gold sources a day’s drive to the north.

Armin Rosen/Business InsiderThe outskirts of Arlit, Niger.

The uranium is close by, and there’s evidence of it throughout the city, even if the mines themselves are hazy outlines sprawling across the far horizon.

A faded Areva logo is etched onto Arlit’s entry arch, marking the last police checkpoint before a city of right-angle intersections, unnervingly broad and unpaved avenues, mud-block neighbourhoods, and military police on languid, endless patrols.

Armin Rosen/Business InsiderAn intersection in Arlit, Niger

Industrial miscellany litters the town, and forms the backdrop to the city’s daily life. On a typical street, children play in a busted truck chassis and men repair an earth-mover’s scoop with a soldering iron. There are frequent piles of tires, some of them very thick and wide, as if they were once attached to heavy machinery.

In one gaping, walled-off lot, dozens of truck hoppers painted in identical green — once used to haul uranium from the mines, now irradiated scrap metal, with the name of a defunct mining subcontractor emblazoned on their sides — rust in the desert sun.

NigerArmin Rosen/Business InsiderDiscarded truck hoppers once used at Areva-operated uranium mines sit in a lot in Arlit.

Arlit’s hidden economy

Uranium explains the city’s orderly and modular layout. It explains the discarded vehicles rotting alongside major intersections, and the rectangles of sturdy workers’ barracks nested between broad, dust-swept avenues — as well as the ubiquity of security forces.

To a degree, it explains the existence of the city itself, which has been a locus of the country’s economic life for more than 40 years because of the nearby mines.

NigerArmin Rosen/Business InsiderOld mining equipment in Arlit, Niger, the town closest to the country’s two mines.

Still, much of the uranium industry at the heart of Arlit remains hidden.

Business Insider drove within a mile of the gates of the Cominak mine before gendarmes politely asked us to turn around. And ongoing security concerns ensure the workers’ village for the mining companies’ French employees are kept totally out of sight. Areva’s international staff housing is apparently so isolated, so self-contained, and so heavily guarded that Arlit locals refer to the area as “Guantanamo.”

“The French live like prisoners,” Il’ontoufigh told Business Insider.

Armin Rosen/Business Insider
Armin Rosen/Business Insider
Central Arlit, Niger
Central Arlit, Niger

While the mining companies import a few hundred foreign workers, thousands of Nigeriens are also fully integrated into Arlit’s uranium economy. Some 3,000 Nigerien direct hires and 1,700 contractors work for Areva in the city, according to Alhacen, the founder of the uranium mining watchdog group.

Alhacen, who has emerged as one of the company’s most high-profile Nigerien critics, worked in the uranium industry for two decades and acknowledges its payoff for the people closest to it: Nigerien laborers make around 400,000 Central African Francs ($688) a month, and engineers or logistics officers earn 1.2 million francs ($2065) a month in a country with a per capita gross national income of just over $400 a year. They get to live in workers’ villages that are among the most desirable communities in the country.

But Alhacen doesn’t think the industry has had much of a general benefit for people who aren’t directly tied to it.

“We cannot understand why there’s no power or electricity in parts of Arlit,” says Alhacen. “The money from the uranium is not in Niger.”

DSCN1895.NIgerArmin Rosen/Business InsiderFlyover under construction near the Niger River in downtown Niamey, Niger.

Areva is alleged to outsource nearly every mining-related service to companies based outside of Niger, to the point that relatively little uranium-related cash flow actually stays within the country’s borders.

In Niamey, Business Insider met a former Prime Ministerial advisor who said the government commissioned an internal study in the early 1990s — after the bursting of a uranium price bubble — to determine the actual economic benefit of mining. The aim of the survey was to establish the “net retained cash flows” of the industry: the economic activity related to uranium that actually stayed inside of Niger.

The report found the industry’s net retained cashflow was only 10%. I asked the advisor if the situation had improved at all over the past 20 years.

“It may have actually gotten worse,” he replied.

Areva’s expertise in uranium mining, and its alleged subcontracting of companies with little local buy-in, also gives the company an outsized ability to determine its true operating costs. This in turn informs the actual price and production level of the uranium, which is set through annual negotiations between officials from Niger and France.

“If someone is operating the mine they can name their operating price. If a machine breaks, they can say it costs $10 million to fix. Well they made the machine, so how do we know?” one uranium industry insider in Niamey told Business Insider.

“All the food is coming from Europe, you have costs going crazy. And we’ve never run a uranium plant. As long as we don’t have skills to defend our interests, this is going to happen.”

NigerArmin Rosen/Business InsiderA vehicle formerly used by the Imouraren mine, which is currently closed.

A gaping power imbalance

Even if Niger did manage to build the local expertise and capacity needed to meet Areva on a more even plane, Niger and France might still be stuck with one another, connected through an economic and political relationship whose contours are unlikely to dramatically change.

In the 1980s, the Nigerien government attempted to free itself from its dependence on Franch uranium purchases by selling to internationally isolated countries, including Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan. According to University of Michigan professor Gabrielle Hecht’s book “Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade,” one of the nuclear weapons Pakistan tested in 1998 contained Nigerien uranium.

But France had a level of demand and investment in Niger that no other potential buyer could match. “State officials had trouble finding and sustaining a customer base that did not involve French expertise and infrastructures,” Hecht writes.

The relationship has become somewhat more equitable over time. Niger’s share of the uranium revenue increased slightly as the result of the last contract negotiations between Areva and the Nigerien government, in 2014.

And transparency on Niger’s end is improving, at least on paper: In 2010, the Nigerien constitution was amended so that the government was required to publish its contracts with mining companies.

“Formerly they did not negotiate at all,” Doudou Sidibe, a professor at Novancia Business School and author of a paper on the negotiation of the 2014 Niger uranium mining contract, told Business Insider. “Between two heads of state they would say OK, the uranium will be sold this way.”

During the period spanning the beginning of uranium exports in 1971 and the 2007 mining contract, French extractors paid no export taxes and left the Nigerien state with only around 5.5% of uranium industry revenue, according to Sidibe. He says that Niger’s share of the revenue is now at around 12%.

During a visit to Areva’s Niamey headquarters — an airy high-rise across the street from the Ministry of Mines, with offices busier and sleeker than the building’s sunbaked and ageing facade suggested — Serge Martinez, the director of the Cominak mine, emphasised to Business Insider that the company is committed to using the uranium industry to improve Niger. He said that Areva maintained a workforce in the country that was 98% Nigerien, and whose members earned “10 times” more than the average national wage for similar work.

Martinez explained that Areva had built the only paved highway to Arlit in the late 1970s and had committed over $120 million to funding its restoration. Martinez said Areva contributed $19 million to agricultural programs in northern Niger, operated two hospitals in Arlit whose patients were largely from outside the mining industry and were treated free of charge, and funded scholarships.

Moreover, he claimed Areva was operating at lower margins than it might appear: Martinez said that between 80% and 90% of Areva’s uranium revenues were spent inside Niger, in the form of taxes — which Martinez said comprised 6% of the Nigerien government’s budget — wages, service contracts, and other overhead.

But Niger and Areva’s relationship — historically wracked by questions of equitable revenue splits, and the heavy environmental and social impact of uranium mining regardless of how the revenue is distributed — is now further complicated by the company’s downturn in fortunes, a partial result of low uranium prices.

In July of 2015, Areva announced its plans to sell a controlling stake in its nuclear reactor business, just months after announcing it intended to lay off 5,000-6,000 of its employees, out of a global total of 42,000. In Niger, a third Areva uranium mining project in Imouraren, near Arlit, was suspended before the mine went into operation. Imouraren will likely only begin production once the uranium price rebounds, something that industry experts don’t expect to occur until late this decade.

The challenges of profiting off of uranium were steep even in times when the price wasn’t in a long-tern trough. The complex economics of the uranium industry might not allow Niger or Areva to prosper at the moment.

Revealingly, uranium is not even the most important local extractive industry for many of the people who currently live in Arlit, a city bifurcated between a sector dependent on the uranium trade — and one where the uranium economy might as well not even exist.

Arlit’s gold rush

Gold was discovered in the desert north of Arlit in early 2014. The gold deposits are in undeveloped artisanal mining tracts far from any paved roads or major population centres.

Gold is everything the uranium isn’t: It’s a totally unregulated endeavour whose benefits ramify throughout the local marketplaces. Even if gold mining is a contraband industry, the government has neither the incentive nor the capability to stop it.

The gold has attracted would-be miners from the south of Niger, from other countries in West Africa, and even from countries as far afield as Sudan. Economic migrants have fuelled a boom in petty commerce, and locals can act as middle-men for gold transactions, matching bulk buyers to miners newly returned from the desert.

“The population benefits more from the gold than from the uranium,” Ibrahim, an Arlit-based journalist, told Business Insider. “One-thousand times more.”

Multiple sources in Arlit told Business Insider that Nigerien security forces escort convoys to the gold-producing areas. The local authorities realise the region is badly in need of an economic engine, even if it’s rooted in an unregulated, contraband industry and even if the government is incapable of capturing the gold trade’s direct profits.

The uprisings among the region’s ethnic Tuaregs — low-level insurgencies which lasted for much of the early 1990s and late 2000s — are still fresh memories. The rebellions stemmed partially from resentment of the uranium industry’s alleged exclusion of northerners.

“If the gold mines closed, there would be nothing to do. If there are no mines, there might be another rebellion,” Ibrahim says, explaining that a plunge in the region’s economy could begin to muddy its security picture.

Today, many of the former rebels have been incorporated into the government and the mining industry. Uranium, and then gold, provided the north with the promise of economic transformation, along with a degree of leverage over the country’s political elites hundreds of miles to the south. In a sense, the rebellions even made uranium an unexpected source of cohesion in a country with an unsettled national identity.

As Abu Tarka, a Nigerien army colonel and the head of Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace explained, the uranium gave the government in Niamey a reason to take a national-level view of a multi-ethnic and geographically vast country.

“Niamey was very vigilant about not losing the north,” Tarka told Business Insider. “The uranium made the state interested in developing the region.”

The industry is one reason the country’s most distant populated areas have a sense of buy-in for Niger’s larger destiny. But there’s still an awareness of how inevitably remote and lawless northern Niger really is.

“You came down the road to Arlit,” Ibrahim told Business Insider, referring to the badly degraded “uranium highway” linking the city to southern Niger. “You see how bad it is. Even that can cause a rebellion,” he said.

Armin Rosen/Business InsiderUranium refining byproduct spotted in downtown Arlit, Niger.

‘We’re very rich, but only in pollution’

If many in northern Niger have given up on seeing their region transformed through uranium mining, they also believe the region is owed something more than it’s received — especially since the industry has allegedly degraded the environment and endangered the health of the area’s residents.

Il’ontoufigh, of the uranium industry watchdog group Aghir In’man, told Business Insider his organisation had identified 103 locations in the city with unhealthy levels of radiation, including areas in front of the Somair mine’s hospital.

It’s common for residents to construct their houses using radioactive mine tailings. And because uranium milling is so water-intensive, the water table is dropping and the groundwater is showing higher concentrations of uranium, according to Il’ontoufigh.

Although there are patches of green ringing Arlit — places where the ground feeds pockets of oasis-like bloom — there’s very little agriculture. Residents assume the ground water and everything it sustains are contaminated.

“For 40 years uranium was exploited, but there had been nothing for Niger. We’re very rich, but only in pollution,” Almoustapha Alhacen, the founder of Aghir In’man, told Business Insider.

Armin Rosen/Business Insider
Armin Rosen/Business Insider
Central Arlit, Niger
Central Arlit, Niger

Uranium mining has imposed realities that many in Arlit refuse to passively accept.

In 2006, Azahar Jelawi, a lifelong Arlit resident, development professional, and then-advisor to the city’s mayor, launched a movement aimed at encouraging the government to extract greater concessions from the mining industry. Jelawi, now president of the Alliance Femme l’Air (named after the nearby Air mountain range), organised the city’s women to help raise awareness of the imbalances between the resources the mines received and the state of daily life in the surrounding communities.

“We were not happy with what Areva was doing. Where we are, there’s not much water,” says Jelawi. “But at the mines, there are tanks in front of the [workers’] houses. In the local schools, kids are learning by flashlight. In the mines, they have electricity.”

Jelawi distributed statements to the city’s radio stations and organised Arlit’s women to demonstrate outside of city hall. They soon began to formulate concrete demands, pushing for the Agadez Region to receive its own percentage cut of the uranium wealth — something that became a reality in 2007, when Niger’s share of uranium profits increased and the Agadez Region started to get 15% of the central government’s total. Like every other activist or leader Business Insider met in northern Niger, Jelawi wants to change the terms of the relationship between the mining industry and local communities, but does not advocate closing the uranium mines.

At a meeting of the alliance this past September, Business Insider met women who were attempting to launch small trading businesses — in jewellery, dried lamb’s meat, and basic commercial goods. None had any connection to the mines.

“They come from poor places,” Jelawi says. “If they go to the hospital, they have to wait for people who work for the mines. Some come from places without water or electricity.”

Most people in Arlit are in a similar situation: They are outside the uranium industry, but inextricably connected to it.

The health and environmental consequences of the industry have lingered in Arlit, while the opportunity for a resources-driven, wholesale transformation has largely vanished.

The question is whether the same can be said for the rest of Niger as well.

The dangers of a wasted opportunity

Niger’s future depends on effective natural resource management, especially since the country also sits on an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil. It’s facing numerous looming crises that an oil or uranium windfall could help contain.

The Nigerian jihadst group Boko Haram began carrying out attacks in the Diffa region, near the country’s border with Nigeria and Chad, in early 2015. The Nigerien army swiftly moved into the area in an attempt to contain the terrorists. But there’s still a persistent extremist presence inside of Nigerien territory.

The country’s borders are long and unpoliceable; even with a far larger and more capable security apparatus, illicit traffic in weapons, drugs, and human beings over the country’s territory would be difficult to curtail. Niger has already seen its resources stretched by neighbouring crises: Niger hosts 37,000 refugees from the ongoing instability in Mali, along with 138,000 refugees or internally displaced fleeing Boko Haram attacks.

Security is the baseline of any functional country. But places as poor as Niger face almost impossible opportunity costs even in peacetime, as well as long-term questions of governance that could overwhelm richer and more capable states. Mali, which disintegrated — and turned into a jihadist magnet — in 2012 as the partial result of longstanding tensions between the Tuareg north and the country’s centres of political power, is stark evidence of how fragile and vulnerable the Sahelien states might really be.

The most alarming long-term threat to Niger comes from the possibility that pockets of insecurity could siphon the state’s limited resources and aggravate other problems that don’t have an explicit security dimension to them.

Niger’s population is set to increase from 17 million today to 50 million by 2050. According to data from the UN’s World Population Prospects, in 2060 Niger will be the only country in Africa with a median age in the teens.

The World Food Program classifies an estimated 2.5 million Nigeriens as being “severely food insecure” — in Niger, it’s possible to witness UN food distributions in areas untouched by armed conflict.

To be sure, Niger is still inching towards a more democratic political system; this month, it’s holding its first, somewhat chaotic presidential election since a 2011 military coup. Yet as Arlit and the uranium industry demonstrate, it’s far from obvious that Niger will eventually capitalise on the country’s few built-in advantages in order to stave off the region’s encroaching chaos, or the country’s own impending crises.

Niger sits on some 7% of the world’s uranium. The real danger to Niger is how little this has actually helped it so far.

Armin Rosen reported from Niger on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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