By Professor Samuel Furfari, formerly a senior official at the Energy Directorate-General of the European Commission (1982-2018), Professor em. at Université libre de Bruxelles
After Mali, it is Niger where France’s African policy is being put to the test. On 28 July, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the presidential guard, overthrew the president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, who is in office since 2021. General Tchiani is backed by Mahamadou Issoufou, the former president who ‘ruled’ Niger from 2011 to 2021. Issoufou was not eligible for re-election.
Leslie Varenne, co-founder of the Institute for Monitoring and Studies of International Relations, Iveris, is a leading specialist in African geopolitics. She published an article as soon as the military junta took power in Niamey. She wrote ‘we must put an end to the fable of “Niger, example for democracy”’, because despite this litany of the ‘democratically elected president’ nothing could be further from the truth. She wonders whether Mahamadou Issoufou was not the instigator of a coup d’état.
While Niger is the world’s poorest country, according to the United Nations’ 2022 Multidimensional Global Poverty Index, it is rife with corruption … and uranium. Issoufou’s name appears twice on the list of people who received bribes during the purchase in 2011 of 2,500 tons of uranium by French multinational nuclear fuel cycle company Orano (ex-Areva, then headed by Anne Lauvergeon). This ‘uranium gate’ would have resulted in a loss of almost $101 million for Areva.
According to Monde Afrique (May 2023), Mahamadou Issoufou would have received no less than 3.4 million dollars. In 2020, according to the Niger Court of Auditors, he would have an official personal fortune of 3.5 million euros, but his undeclared fortune is difficult to estimate. Everything seems to indicate that we are only at the beginning of the evidence collected by the American and French courts, which could explain the fortune he built up during his ten years in power (2011–2021), a fortune estimated at least between 10 and 15 million euros. If we add to the corruption of the coups (four successful in its history, not counting those that failed), we realise that something is rotten in this country, which risks remaining the poorest in the world for a long time to come. The situation is no better in neighbouring countries where, as Leslie Varenne reminds us, five coups have taken place in West Africa in less than three years (two in Mali, two in Burkina Faso and one in Guinea).
It is clear that there is a lack of morality and good governance in these countries of West Africa, and in Niger in particular.
Lack of electricity, perpetuation of unacceptable poverty
Niger will remain poor for much longer, because it does not have enough electricity. I have written a book on the urgent need to electrify Africa, in which I said that poverty in African countries will only be eradicated if there is good governance (starting with real democracy) and cheap and abundant electrification i.e. with fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency, only 14% of Nigeria’s 26 million people are connected to the electricity grid. Even though this figure was only 7% in 2000, this doubling is not encouraging. With few power plants, Niger is dependent on its southern neighbour, Nigeria, which provides 70% of its electricity. In retaliation against the junta, Nigeria’s new president, Bola Tinubu, has decided to cut Niger’s electricity supply, making the blackouts even more frequent and longer than when the situation was already unbearable.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), currently headed by the Nigerian president, has imposed a freeze on all transactions, including energy. The population, which appears to support the rebels, is unlikely to be affected by the power cuts, as it is largely unconnected. But will the rebels be able to hold out for long if the country’s economic engine, electricity, is cut off?
Niger is working to complete its first hydroelectric dam on the river of the same name by 2025. Located 180 kilometres upstream from Niamey, the Kandadji dam will have a capacity of 130 MW. This capacity may seem ridiculous to us Europeans, but it is significant for a country that has only 272 MW of installed capacity. It should be noted that 84% of the country’s capacity runs on diesel, which is an immeasurable anomaly given that it is by far the most expensive energy to produce electricity. In this sun-drenched country, solar energy accounts for only 2%, which is typical for Africa, where there are no ecologists to impose it. Not surprisingly, it is a Chinese company (China Gezhouba Group Company Limited Niger) that is building the dam. The Chinese are also in charge of Niger’s oil…
One hope – Chinese oil
Wapco-Benin, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), is building an oil pipeline to export oil from this landlocked country. The oil will be extracted from the Agadem oil field in northern Niger and transported to the Beninese port of Sèmè-Podji (a south-eastern suburb of Porto-Novo, near Cotonou). The 1,950 km pipeline, the longest in Africa, will have a capacity of 100,000 barrels per day and will require an investment of four billion dollars. The discoveries made by the Chinese company CNPC in the Agadem field indicate recoverable reserves of 900 million barrels. The Beninese government has reaffirmed its support for the project to build a deep-water oil, mineral and commercial port at Sèmè-Podji, despite the coup.
According to Savannah energy, Niger’s current oil production capacity is 20,000 barrels per day. Between 2011 and 2019, it generated cumulative revenues of more than US$2 billion, accounting for between 4% and 7% of GDP and 16% to 29% of exports, depending on the year. The development of Niger’s nascent oil and gas industry is a key stated goal of the country’s government and is expected to account for around 24% of GDP and 68% of exports by 2025. It is notable that two of the four companies operating in the country are Chinese. On 30 June 2023, Niger and China signed a series of agreements for an industrial park, an oil pipeline and a uranium mine.
Logically, Niger’s oil should be transported to international markets via a Niger-Chad-Cameroon pipeline. However, this solution, the cheapest and quickest, was rejected by CNPC because it has quite complicated relations with the Chadian authorities … while enjoying good relations with Benin.
Whatever the governance of the countries, whatever the morality, the Chinese are there to invest and produce energy. This is further proof that oil is not about to be dethroned as the world’s main energy source.
Uranium supply will continue and so will amorality
Niger is the largest supplier of uranium to the EU with 24%, but it accounts for less than 5% of world production, with Kazakhstan leading the world with 45%. Moreover, its share will fall by a quarter between 2020 and 2021, as Canada, which is relying heavily on the nuclear renaissance, and Kazakhstan, significantly increase their production. However, in order not to lose its markets, Niger is granting new exploration licences. It should be noted that Niger, Kazakhstan, Russia, Australia and Canada together supplied 96% of the natural uranium delivered to the EU, with the relative shares of the different producing countries varying slightly.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken confidence in a key nuclear energy partner. Will the suspension of exports from Niger be an additional cause for concern? No, because there is no geopolitical game to be played over uranium supplies. Canada and Australia are not only uranium giants, they are also OECD countries. What’s more, even if they are not yet major suppliers of uranium ore to the EU, other countries are working hard to get their share of a growing global market. In 2022, Orano Mining has signed a tripartite strategic cooperation agreement for mining projects in Uzbekistan and is optimistic about prospects in Mongolia. Also in Africa, Namibia has produced 12% of the world’s natural uranium, according to the European Nuclear Supply Agency, a country that also suffers from a lack of electricity, with only 45% of the population connected to the grid. However, Niger is not about to give up its position in uranium ore, since, as we have just reported, a few weeks ago, the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation decided to invest in the Arlit uranium mine project, in the Agadez region of northern Niger, a project that had been suspended a few years ago, when the prospects for nuclear power were not as good as they are today.
Moreover, the uranium industry has nothing to do with gas supply constraints, which by definition are difficult to store. In addition, the process of converting and enriching uranium into the fissile uranium used in power plants is a lengthy one: stocks exist at all stages of this industrial process. Finally, the law requires electricity companies to hold stocks for several years. Contrary to those who seize every opportunity to criticise nuclear energy, the supply of natural uranium to the European Union’s nuclear power stations is not threatened by the events in Niger.
Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister (1784–1839), once declared: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
In geopolitics, and especially in the geopolitics of energy, this is irrefutable, not only for China, but for every country in the world. Energy is the lifeblood of any country. It is so essential that leaders set aside all morality to ensure the daily survival of their country. A coup in a corrupt country reduces the influence of Paris and Washington (as discussed in this article in the Wall Street Journal) in Africa, it allows China to continue its investments in Africa, and it ensures that Russia will continue to sell uranium to the European Union. If we add that according to Reuters, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner’s mercenaries, said that ‘What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers. With colonisers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago’, we can understand that panic prevails in Western chancelleries.
Don’t be surprised when I tell you that there is no morality in energy geopolitics.
Originally published on Factuel