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France readies evacuation of its citizens, European nationals from uranium-rich Niger

Street protests and violence gripped Niger's capital Niamey (File video grab courtesy: Twitter)

As massive street protests and violence grips Niger’s capital Niamey, France on Tuesday afternoon announced that it will begin evacuation of its citizens in the West African nation immediately.

The development takes place after General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the commander of the country’s presidential guard, ousted Niger President Mohamed Bazoum in a military coup on July 26, triggering a major crisis in an already troubled and terror-infested Sahel region of the continent.

All the activities of state institutions were suspended, borders closed, and a curfew imposed as more supporters of Bazoum were taken into custody throughout the country, which has some of the world’s largest uranium deposits.

Since Sunday, “visibly prepared groups” have targeted the French embassy in Niamey, chanting slogans against Paris, which ruled the landlocked country until 1960 and still retain a significant influence through numerous agreements.

France initially called for an end to the “unacceptable violence”, stating that the security of its diplomatic premises in Niamey lies with the host State with the Nigerien forces having an obligation to ensure the security under the Vienna Conventions.

Paris also made it clear that democratically-elected by the people of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum is the only President of Niger and France does not recognise the authorities resulting from the putsch led by General Tchiani.

However, after seeing the situation getting out of control, the French government led by President Emmanuel Macron, ordered immediate evacuation of its nationals starting Tuesday afternoon.

“Given the situation in Niamey, the violence that took place against our embassy the day before yesterday and the closure of airspace which leaves our compatriots without the possibility of leaving the country by their own means, France is preparing the evacuation of its nationals and of European nationals wishing to leave the country. This evacuation will begin today,” a statement from the French Foreign Ministry said.

Niger holds large reserves of uranium with as many as 30 French companies active in the country covering all economic sectors, particularly in services, distribution and in the mining sector.

Niger mainly imports from France electrical equipment, computers and equipment and pharmaceutical products. In return, the first three Nigerien products exported to France are: non-ferrous metals, metal ores and various chemical products.

France’s state-owned Orano group, which has been present in Niger for 50 years and operates with the Niger State and foreign partners
through three companies incorporated under Nigerien law, stated over the weekend that its activities at the operational sites in Arlit and at the headquarters in Niamey were continuing despite the coup.

Uranium and petroleum are Niger’s two main natural resources with the country holding the sixth largest reserve and being the fourth world producer of uranium with approximately 7% market share after Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia.

However, in spite of accounting for 4% of the world’s uranium production (48,000tU) and owning abundant natural resources, Niger remains one of the poorest countries in the world with the country of about 25 million people ranked 189th out of 191 in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index in 2021.

After the military coup, the Tchiani-led group stated on Sunday that they will stop exporting uranium and gold to France.

“There are no French companies operating gold mines in Niger. Regarding uranium, we have an extremely diverse supply and Niger only makes up 4% of global production,” said France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs late Monday.

The European Union (EU) is also a major trading partner of Niger, representing, in 2022, 21.7% of the country’s trade with the rest of the world.

With EU countries accounting for 19.6% of Niger’s imports and 33.3% of exports, European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell travelled to Niamey earlier this month to hold meetings with Bazoum and several ministers.

During his visit, Borrell called Niger a “solid and reliable partner”, both from a political and security point of view, saying that EU supports Bazoum’s vision of economic development that combines security, growth with education, enormously.

“Niger is an economic engine for the Sahel with double-digit growth – almost 12%. It is a fundamental driving force for the region. Its energy development shows it: Niger will multiply oil production by five,” said Borrell.

Also Read: Russia distances itself from Niger coup, seeks restoration of constitutional order