Niger: Terrorism and the Voracious French Presence

Guadi Calvo
Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

In the context of this reality of violence in the Sahel, it is important to pay attention to Niger…

A recent investigation into the growth of Wahhabi violence in Africa says that it increased during 2022 by fifty percent over the previous year, having recorded 19,000 deaths, although other estimates indicate that the figure could be significantly higher.

Deaths have doubled compared to 2019, while the Sahel, Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, Mozambique, the Maghreb and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remain the main hotspots of terrorist activity.

The study points out that the western area of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger) is where most terrorist operations took place, 2,737, the vast majority executed by the group Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), al-Qaeda’s regional license for that area and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) or Dáesh, producing in 2022, 7,899 deaths and two and a half million displaced people in Burkina Faso and northern Mali alone.

Although the Atlanticist press pretends to hold the Russian security company (mercenaries) known as the Wagner Group responsible for this debacle, the reality is that France, with the failure of its strategies in Mali and Burkina Faso, is the main cause of this reality which continues to expand in different directions, particularly towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea littoral. In countries such as Benin, terrorist actions from one year to the next jumped from five to 37, or in Togo, from one to 17.

In the context of this reality of violence in the Sahel, it is important to pay attention to Niger, a key military base for Western forces in their fight against the fundamentalist khatibas for the whole region and where they experienced a 43 percent increase last year with 214 events. Niger is suffering from the onslaught of two insurgent groups. From the southwest, arriving from Mali in 2015, groups linked to Daesh and al-Qaeda, and from the southeast the Nigerian gang Boko Haram.

In the context of this reality, on Thursday, March 16, Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of Joe Biden’s administration arrived in Niger from Ethiopia, the first visit of an official of this hierarchy to the country, which shows that Washington has once again put the African continent in the spotlight for its foreign policy.

Given France’s notorious setbacks, China’s presence has been consolidated for decades with important investments in multiple areas, mega-infrastructures, transport, hydrocarbons and technology. Meanwhile, in the area of security, the consolidation of the Russian presence is already a reality, not only through the Wagner Group, but also with the arrival of instructors and training courses given in military academies in Moscow to officers and chiefs of different armies of the continent.

On his damage control tour Blinken arrived in Niamey, the capital of Niger, after its neighbor, Mali, expelled the French military and had a fundamental rapprochement with Moscow, which led that country to be one of the six that voted against a UN General Assembly resolution seeking Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.

Such rapprochement of Bamako to Moscow makes Niger a key player for the regional balance, since unlike its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, it continues to tolerate the presence of French military, in its case, some 1,000, despite the anti-French popular demonstrations that occur repeatedly in Niamey. The country is also home to Air Base 201, built and operated by the United States under the pretext of the fight against terrorism.

The current president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, elected under a democratic facade in 2021, has become Washington’s darling in the region after his endorsement at the summit between Biden and various leaders of the African continent last December. Much more presentable to the world than General Mahamat Déby Itno, leaders of the military who rule Chad in blood and fire since capturing power in April 2021 and safeguarding France’s last colonial stronghold.

On his light flight over Niger, Blinken, after meeting with President Bazoum, announced $150 million in humanitarian aid to support asylum seekers and others affected by conflict and food insecurity in the region: The aid will go to Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania and Sahelian refugees in Libya in addition to Niger.

Perhaps as a demonstration of the increasing presence of US drones and spy planes over the Sahel, the Nigerian army on March 7 was able to locate a massive movement of people by annihilating some 30 Boko Haram militiamen and arresting 960 others, including women and children who were moving from their sanctuary in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria towards Lake Chad, along the Kamadougou Yoge River, the natural border between Niger and Nigeria. The movement is believed to have followed heavy clashes between the Boko Haram khatiba and their rivals from the Islamic State of West Africa (Iswap).

The detained women and children were taken to the town of Diffa in southeastern Niger, where they were handed over to the Nigerian military.

Old tricks for new problems

According to several analysts, confronted with the revulsion caused by the French presence in most of its former African colonies, Emmanuel Macron insists on the relaunching of the Organization of the Common Regions of the Sahara (OCRS), a last attempt by France to maintain an economic production zone in its Saharan colonies in 1957, when the declarations of independence of most of its colonies were taking place. That project, which was then aborted, seems to be coming back to life after almost 65 years.

Paris’ only intention is to make the advantages it has always enjoyed from its colonies last, keeping them in poverty and disunity and continuing to have unrestricted access to their natural resources, for which it is essential to discourage the presence of other nations such as China or Russia and opening the door to the United States.

According to some experts, the next steps of the Paris-Washington alliance would aim at dividing Mali and part of Niger to enable the creation of a new state dominated by the Tuaregs and under the tutelage of France. This new state, rich in oil, gold and uranium, would cover approximately the same territories as those envisaged in the old OCRS project.

Anyone who doubts this need only recall that until 2014, the French mining company Areva, renamed in January 2018 as Orano, has exploited uranium in Niger since the 1970s following the defense agreements of 1962, which gave France access to these resources without paying any taxes, exploitation or export duties, or on materials and equipment, paying for the entire operation a royalty of only 5.5 percent on the uranium produced. Since 2018, it started paying between 12 and 13 percent.

ORANO has the exploitation rights to the Imouraren mine, 60 kilometers north of Agadez and 80 kilometers from Arlit, one of the largest uranium deposits known in the world, from which some 5,000 tons of uranium could be extracted after reopening for 35 years.

Beyond the plundering of Nigerian resources, the Akouta Mining Company (Cominak), operated since 1978 by the French group Areva, today Orano, which closed its exploitation in 2021 after forty years during which it extracted 75,000 tons of uranium, leaving millions of tons of uranium. 000 tons of uranium leaving millions of tons of partially radioactive waste in an area of 120 hectares, with mountains up to 35 meters high, representing twenty million tons of waste that have been in contact with uranium, with the consequent possibility of contaminating not only the surrounding lands, the possible water tables that run under those lands, but also, and directly, the former employees and the nearby populations. An estimated 200,000 souls are affected.

Although the company promised to seal the radioactive mounds with two meters of a mixture of argillite and sandstone, almost three years after that promise, the contaminant is still active, and there are fears that radon gas, a product of the natural disintegration of uranium, could reach urban centers.

This is not the only open-air dump that France has abandoned in the Sahel strip, and not only as a result of mining operations in the area, but also with the waste from nuclear power plants that it has been surreptitiously abandoning in the desert for decades.

In Arlit, a city of 150,000 inhabitants, more than a decade ago an “epidemic” of blood and lung cancers has been triggered, since it has been proven that many houses have been built with contaminated mud, even the hospital structure was built with the same material only 200 meters from the mine, so births with malformations, deaths from different types of cancer and the mysterious deaths of livestock are not strange, all with the same and unique origin, the fearsome French voracity.

Guadi Calvo is an Argentine writer and journalist. International analyst specialized in Africa, Middle East and Central Asia.