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Niger Republic, ECOWAS & Uranium anxieties

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By Jide Babalola, Assistant Editor, Abuja.

Tensions rose in Niger Republic following the junta’s desperate attempt to retain power, with implications for a conflict with impacts that may extend well beyond its borders, particularly for Nigeria and the broader ECOWAS region. Pointers towards de-escalation, with the General Abdourahmane Tchiani-led junta’s assurances during  a visit by a Jamatul Izalatu Bida Waikamatu Sunnah (JIBWIS) delegation from Nigeria, of its willingness to explore diplomatic solutions appear well-received by all stakeholders.

We have agreed and the leader of our country has given the green light for dialogue. They will now go back and inform the Nigerian President what they have heard from us. We hope in the coming days, they (ECOWAS) will come here to meet us to discuss how the sanctions imposed against us will be lifted,” Niger Republic’s Prime Minister, Ali Zeine reportedly told Bala Lau,  leader of the JIBWIS delegation.

West African leaders had made strong hints about capabilities for coercive strategies if diplomacy fails to resolve political chaos spurred with last month’s ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum by his presidential guards.

Evidently, the evolving situation in Niger Republic, the uranium supply concerns for the United States and France, and the multi-faceted implications for Nigeria are worth looking at.

Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), President Bola Ahmed Tinubu emphatically asserts the sub-regional bloc’s priorities when he said: “I hope that through our collective efforts we can bring about a peaceful resolution as a roadmap to restoring stability and democracy in Niger.” Moves by ECOWAS to bare coercive fangs began on concrete terms after Niger Republic’s junta dug in further with the appointment of Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine as Prime Minister.

Through much of the 16th century and continuing through the late 1960s, France was described as the world’s second largest colonial power—just behind the British Empire. However, military coups in three former French colonies — Burkina Faso , Mali and now, Niger – add to a sense of unraveling for French post-colonial and neo-colonial ties to West Africa. But celebration of the situation in Niger by head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeniy Prigozhin added to prevailing anxieties.

Coming barely few weeks after both the United State Congress and the US Senate began unusually serious and bi-partisan moves to pass the Nuclear Fuel Security Act (NFSA) that was first introduced by Senator Manchin Joe in February this year, the unfolding situation between ECOWAS, the international community and the military junta in uranium-rich Niger Republic also lends itself to interpretation from the perspective of some conspiracy theories.

Euratom, the European Union’s nuclear agency which estimates that the trio of Kazakhstan, Niger and Canada supplied 74% of Europe’s uranium needs in 2022, with Niger alone delivering 2, 975 tonnes of natural· uranium, or 25.4 percent of the EU’s supplies.

Rightly or wrongly, many argue that the priorities of two major powers – United States and France – in the unfortunate situation within Niger Republic has much to do with the country’s uranium deposits. As it should be, neither trifles with national security concerns and the longstanding presence of both American and French military in such parts of Francophone West Africa duly attests to dual concerns for both respective countries’ strategic supply sources and perhaps, some concern too about helping curb the widening reach of global terrorists as well as Russia’s broadening influence through the Wagner group.

Aside from religion and cultural affinities that predated the Scramble for Africa and the subsequent Berlin Conference of 1884, the Niger/Nigeria border – 999 severally-adjusted miles stretch from the tripoint with Benin Republic in d West to the tripoint with Chad in the East – remains one of those artificial borders where countless families on either side see the beacons and markers in the ground as nothing of much significance.

Niger Junta’s Power Struggle and ECOWAS Conflict

The Niger junta’s reluctance to relinquish power has ignited a political crisis, raising concerns within the ECOWAS community. The implications for Nigeria are significant and multifaceted. The potential humanitarian crisis resulting from conflict and insecurity could burden Nigeria’s resources, stretching its capacity to manage displaced populations. Furthermore, the porous border shared with Niger poses the risk of arms smuggling and terrorist infiltration, further destabilizing Nigeria’s security landscape across which the military is being unusually engaged in internal security operations in not less than thirty states.

Economic and Political Ramifications for Nigeria:

Apart from the immediate security concerns, the economic burden of funding a potential war effort and shouldering the costs of addressing the fallout poses a significant challenge. The anger stemming from Northern Nigeria due to the ripple effects of the conflict could strain the cohesion of the nation, potentially creating political unrest, which could be capitalized on by extremist groups as well as centrifugal elite forces. Initial public protests from Kano and loud anti-force expressions from North and South mirror Nigerians’ preference for diplomatic solutions.

Uranium Supply and Geopolitical Dependencies

Niger holds a prominent role in global uranium supply, providing critical resources for both France and the United States. France, which heavily relies on nuclear energy, sources a significant portion of its uranium from Niger. Similarly, the United States has a growing need for uranium to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies. Recent bills and legislation have been introduced in the U.S. to incentivize domestic uranium production and diversify supply chains, marking a shift in policy direction. According to the Uranium Marketing Annual Report of May 2022, sources and percentage shares of total US purchases of uranium in 2021, as published online by the US Energy Information Administration are as follows:

  • Kazakhstan 35%
  • Canada 15%
  • Australia 14%
  • Russia 14%
  • Namibia 7%
  • US domestic sources 5%
  • Five other countries combined 10%

A June 14, 2023 article published in New York Times asserts that “Today, American companies are paying around $1 billion a year to Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency to buy the fuel that generates more than half of the United States’ emissions-free energy.” Being somewhat forced to sustain uranium imports from Russia, the world’s cheapest producer, despite the extensive sanctions following the Russia/Ukraine war has become a source of major concern for many, including the three  US Senators now leading a powerful bi-partisan coalition to push the Nuclear Fuel Security Act (NFSA). They are Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) , Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee , John Barrasso (R-WY) , Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee , and Jim Risch (R-ID).

The bipartisan legislation directs the Secretary of the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a nuclear fuel program with the purpose of on-shoring nuclear fuel production to ensure that a disruption in Russian uranium supply would not impact the development of advanced reactors or the operation of the United States’ light-water reactor fleet.

“American energy security and independence is impossible when we continue· to rely on Russia and Vladimir Putin for the uranium we need to power our nuclear reactors. Russia’s war against Ukraine has drastically disrupted energy· supply chains around the world, and now is the time to take a hard look at how we source the raw materials necessary to power our nation and develop advanced energy technologies. This bill will help to start that process by directing the Secretary of Energy to establish a program that will expand both our uranium conversion and enrichment capacity to meet our domestic fuel· needs. No matter what Russia does, the United States should always be ready and able to supply nuclear fuel for ourselves and our friends and allies, ” said Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in a February 15, 2023 joint press release posted on his official website

Republican Senator John Barasso spoke in similar vein: “It’s time for America to ramp up uranium production so we can eliminate our dependence on Russia. 

Republican Senator Jim Rich too: “Enriched uranium is key to unlocking the boundless potential for clean and reliable nuclear energy. Just as importantly, it’s a pillar of American national security. Unfortunately, the U. S. lacks capacity to fully produce· enriched uranium , and it has resulted in an unsafe reliance on Russia—a bad actor who could cut off uranium exports to us at any time,”.

To enhance security in Niger, one of the world’s poorest and multidimensionality vulnerable countries, US troops have trained Nigerien forces in counterterrorism and operated two military bases over the past ten years, including one that conducts drone missions against Islamic State and an Al Qaeda affiliate in the region.

For France where domestic mining of uranium ceased almost twenty years ago, operation of the fifty-six nuclear reactors that powers France’s eighteen power plants requires an average of around 8,000 tons of natural uranium annually.  Government-owned French group Orano (formerly Areva) holds majority shares in Niger’s three uranium mines – Aïr mines, Akokan mining site and the Imouraren mine. However while authoritative French daily, Le Monde notes that 20% of the 88, 200 tonnes of uranium imported by France over the past ten years came mainly came from Kazakhstan (27 %), Niger (20 %), and Uzbekistan (19 %).

Some 1, 500 out of about 5, 650 French soldiers on the African continent were stationed in Niger for counter-terrorism operations while another 1, 000 were in neighbouring Chad. The United States also had about 1, 000 soldiers in Niger. However, the July 26 coup led by General Tiani has led to the suspension of anti-terrorism operations by both French and American forces.

 De-escalation and Resolution

Under its current chairman, President Bola Tinubu, long-term benefits, including pre-emptive arrangements for potential crises are now very possible.

To mitigate the risks associated with the Niger junta’s power struggle, ECOWAS needs to sustain some good measure of decisive and unified action. Diplomatic channels need to be maximized to foster dialogue and encourage a peaceful transfer of power. Humanitarian efforts should be coordinated, involving both ECOWAS and the international community, to address any potential displacement and suffering and regional security forces should enhance border control measures to counter arms smuggling and terrorist infiltration.

As some likely breath of relief begins to manifest, the Niger Republic’s political crisis underscores the interconnectedness of regional stability and global geopolitics. As the United States and France seek to secure uranium supplies, it is imperative for ECOWAS to engage in measured diplomacy and conflict resolution strategies to prevent further instability. By doing so, the region can avert a potential humanitarian catastrophe, secure its borders, and maintain political harmony.

jide
jidehttps://peoplesnews.ng
Mr. Akinjide Babalola is a seasoned journalist par excellence. He's been in the journalism business for the better part of the past thirty years!

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