The battle for Africa

The African nation of Niger has become a bellwether for those who fear that the struggle to secure the continent’s resources risks re-creating the ruinous brinkmanship of the cold war.

The lions of Niamey are going up in the world. The cramped cats may not know it, but when they move to their spacious new enclosure at the zoo in the capital of landlocked Niger, they will be the latest beneficiaries of a latter-day scramble for Africa.

Their $US60,000 pen is the merest nicety compared with the rest of the largesse that Beijing and companies acting on its behalf are lavishing on an arid west African nation of 15 million people more accustomed to hunger and penury.

Following the same bargain it has struck across the continent – swapping infrastructure and cash for resources to sustain its breakneck growth – China has secured access not only to another source of African oil but also to what is perhaps the single commodity considered more sensitive than crude: uranium. It has also turned Niger into a bellwether for those who fear that the struggle to secure the continent’s resources risks re-creating the ruinous brinkmanship of the cold war.

A few mud-red blocks from the zoo, two colonial thoroughfares converge. One, Avenue du Gnral de Gaulle, is named for the French leader who ensured his country’s stamp remained on its African colonies long after independence. The other, Avenue de l’Uranium, bears the name of the metal that has made Niger the bedrock of France’s nuclear-powered economy.

China has vied with western groups in Africa for oil and minerals for the best part of a decade. But it also has ambitious nuclear power targets and its quest for uranium – repositories of which are few and far between – has thrown the rivalry into sharper focus.

In the past three years, as China embarked on its new thrust into Africa, relations between Niamey and Paris plunged. The award of uranium concessions to China’s Sino-U and other prospectors broke the de facto 40-year monopoly of Areva, France’s state-controlled nuclear group.

The competition has seen work start on Niger’s first refinery and a $US700 million hydro-electric barrage, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in "signature bonuses”, courtesy of Beijing. It helped the country wring tougher terms from France before granting permission for Areva’s vast new mine, which will make the country the world’s second-biggest uranium producer after Kazakhstan.

Yet a February coup d’etat heightened the anxiety of those who see danger in a stand-off. Although ethnic rivalries and opportunism played their part in the putsch, Mamadou Tandja became the first African leader whose downfall could be traced directly to his embrace of Chinese suitors. "It was because Tandja had Chinese money that he felt he could mock the European Union, Ecowas [the regional bloc], the US,” says Mohamed Bazoum, a former minister who now serves on the "consultative council” created by the military junta that seized power.

The volatility in Niger is worrying to western intelligence agencies as they contemplate al-Qaeda’s presence in the effectively borderless lands of the Sahara. Drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods flow freely. That uranium destined for a dirty bomb could do the same ranks among the west’s security nightmares. Niger’s uranium could also prove of strategic importance as Europe frets about its dependence on Russian gas and looks to nuclear energy to help combat climate change.

From 2004, when he became the first president in Niger’s history to be re-elected, Tandja set about loosening Niamey’s umbilical bond to Paris. From 2007, Niger granted some 150 new permits to prospect for uranium, which accounts for up to half its export earnings. Relations with France reached their nadir when his government accused Areva of funding the Tuareg rebels of the Sahara who kidnapped expatriates and laid landmines in the northern mining region, demanding a greater share of the uranium spoils. Two senior Areva officials were ejected from the country in spite of French denials.

Meanwhile, $US47 million of a $US57 million bonus that China paid for rights to mine at Azelik went on arms to combat the rebellion, says Ali Idrissa, head of Rotab, a local transparency campaign. China National Petroleum Corporation paid a far larger bonus – some $US300 million, equivalent to about one-third of Niger’s annual exports – for the Agadem oil block. It plans to spend $US5 billion to produce Niger’s first oil.

With fresh financial support that would offset frozen aid, Tandja began to indulge his authoritarian streak. At the October 2008 ceremony to mark the start of construction at the Chinese refinery, a band of supporters made the first of several appearances. Their printed T-shirts bore the word tazartch, or continuity in the local Hausa language – a demand that Tandja should extend his rule beyond its constitutional limit a year later.

Over the next few months, Tandja waged a campaign against Niger’s institutions. When the national assembly and then the courts refused to back his plans to remain in office, he dissolved them. Defying protests at home and sanctions from Africa and the west, he triumphed in a referendum last August that the opposition boycotted.

Memories are still fresh of the way repressive kleptocrats such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam played Washington and Moscow against one another to keep themselves in guns, funds and power before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today’s emissaries from east and west come bearing energy contracts rather than ideology.

Rights groups denounce Beijing for its readiness to do business with authoritarians in Sudan or Angola provided the oil keeps flowing. Yet they note that relationships such as Washington’s cosy ties to Equatorial Guinea’s petro-dictatorship deprive the west of any moral high ground.

Even Tandja’s critics would not liken him to a Mobutu or a Mengistu. But that is partly because he failed to cling to power. "He became arrogant,” says one western diplomat. "He counted too much on the Chinese to be there.”

Perhaps Tandja had not acquainted himself with China’s policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of African states. When young officers stormed the presidential palace on February 18, Beijing was as silent as it had been while he amassed power. The toppled president remains under lock and key. The junta pledged elections by February and has barred its own members from contesting them – so those overseeing the transition are not themselves participants. The soldiers have signalled they have no plans to break with China, although they intend to audit all Tandja-era mining permits.

If Tandja set too much store by his Chinese allies, perhaps Beijing also invested too much in him – and his family. One son, Ousmane, was Niger’s commercial attach in China. According to people familiar with the matter, he has close links to Trendfield Holdings, a British Virgin Islands-registered consultancy that helped China secure its uranium permits and is funding the lion enclosure at Niamey zoo. (El-Moctar Ichah, head of Trendfield’s Niger subsidiary, dismisses such claims as "speculation”.)

France’s critics say its subdued criticism of both Tandja’s authoritarianism and the coup undermined democratic forces in Niger. "There is a sense of neo-colonialism – that France has no friends, only interests,” says one French expatriate.

Those interests may remain secure. "Fundamentally, Areva is still the big partner,” says another western diplomat. Olivier Muller, Areva’s managing director in Niger, dismisses talk of damaging rivalry with China. "It’s like in oil: there are enough blocks to produce,” he says. "You might compete for the blocks you want but after [they are assigned] you co-operate. In the next 10 years...all the so-called ‘competitors’ will share infrastructure.”

Areva’s $1.5 billion Imouraren mine is on track to start production in 2013. It is slated to yield 5,000 tonnes of uranium a year, doubling Areva’s output in the country. Muller says the negotiations with Tandja were tough but that Areva’s agreement to increase payments to the government by 50 per cent had more to do with rising global prices than competition. He describes Salou Djibo, the previously unknown officer and former United Nations peacekeeper now heading the junta, as "a nice guy”, adding: "I met the president for an hour this morning...If you have one hour with the president, it has gone well. If not, you get five minutes. Obviously, we don’t talk politics, just business.”

Xia Huang, China’s ambassador in Niamey, says Beijing’s bonds to Niger are unshaken and that grander projects are in the offing, including pipelines and coal-fired power stations. China, he says, has offered Africa a "more profitable option” than other partners have. With a little overstatement, he adds: "This country has already seen uranium extraction for nearly 40 years. But when one sees that the direct revenues from uranium are more or less equivalent to those derived from the export of onions each year, there’s a problem.”

Beijing’s critics are unbowed. Idrissa, the transparency campaigner, repeats charges heard across the continent. Chinese companies prefer to import their own labour and, when they do employ locals, they do so in poor conditions and at low wages, he says. "They are going to take our riches and go,” Idrissa concludes.

But for others, China’s efforts offer an opportunity for industrialisation on a scale never countenanced by the colonisers of old. Ibrahim Iddi Ango, an industrialist and president of the chamber of commerce, is pushing for regulations that would oblige foreign investors to foster the local private sector. He notes that France’s Total and others including ExxonMobil of the US sat on the Agadem block for years but balked at Niamey’s demands. "Each time the government said, ‘build a refinery’, they said: ‘it’s impossible’. The Chinese came and said: ‘A refinery? What size?’”

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