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Crisis in Niger: How France's Interests in West Africa Are at Stake

© AP Photo / Sam MednickSupporters of Niger's military government, gather for a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference, in Niamey, Niger, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.
Supporters of Niger's military government, gather for a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference, in Niamey, Niger, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. - Sputnik International, 1920, 05.08.2023
The recent coup in Niger, a former French colony and member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has raised questions about Paris' role and influence in the region. On July 26, Niger's presidential guard ousted and detained President Mohamed Bazoum, who was elected in 2021 in the country's first democratic transfer of power.
Niger's recent military coup has been condemned by regional and international actors who have called for the restoration of democracy and the release of detained President Mohamed Bazoum.
On July 26, Niger's presidential guard ousted and detained Bazoum, who was elected in 2021 in the country's first democratic transfer of power. The guard’s commander, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, proclaimed himself interim leader and the president of the caretaker National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). The coup leaders claimed they acted because of the worsening security situation and the poor governance of the country.
France, Niger's former colonial ruler and a recent ally in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region, quickly suspended financial aid to the West African country, stressing that Paris recognizes Bazoum as the only legitimate leader of the country.
Yet Paris also has significant economic interests in Niger, particularly in the mining and energy sectors.
To understand how the coup could affect France's interests in West Africa, Sputnik Africa spoke to Dr. Ismael Buchanan, a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the Univeristy of Rwanda's School of Governance.
According to Buchanan, France has a strong foothold in West Africa through its control of the CFA franc, a currency used by 14 West African states that is pegged to the euro and backed by France. He said that some of those countries' reserves are in the hands of France, and that it is Paris that has control over the printing of the currency.
"It is the French government that has over control in printing the CFA currency for the 14 African states in West Africa, which sometimes people in those countries have complained about on how the CFA is pulling down African economies," Buchanan said.
The political scientist also said that Paris' presence in West Africa has given it access and opportunities to dominate many positions and lucrative contracts in the Francophone African economies in sectors such as power generation, transportation and logistics, infrastructure development, telecommunications, mining concessions, oil and gas, agro-processing and light manufacturing.
"When it comes to the mining and energy sectors, you know very well that major French companies are the main players in these two sectors," he noted. "So whatever sovereign rights these African countries have, they still need these French companies that have the technology and the capital to make good use of some of their resources, and this is very important and beneficial for France."
Buchanan cited the example of French company Orano's (formerly Areva) operations in Niger, which has the seventh-largest uranium reserves in the world and the second-largest uranium production in Africa after Namibia, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA).
Orano operates three uranium mines in Niger: Arlit, Akokan and Imouraren. Uranium from Niger accounts for approximately 20% of France's nuclear power production, according to the French news outlets. Orano has said it will not leave Niger, despite the tensions in the wake of the July 26 military coup.
Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum demonstrate in his support in Niamey, Niger, Wednesday July 26, 2023. Governing bodies in Africa condemned what they characterized as a coup attempt Wednesday against Niger's president, whose official Twitter account reported that elements of the presidential guard engaged in an anti-Republican demonstration and tried to obtain the support of other security forces.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 05.08.2023
US Temporarily Suspends Certain Foreign Aid to Niger Amid Military Takeover
Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian policy adviser at the Development Reimagined consultancy, echoed Buchanan’s sentiment, noting that both France and the EU heavily benefit from Niger’s uranium exports.
He pointed out that, following the eviction of French troop contingents from Mali and Burkina Faso, some of these troops have since been relocated to Niger, a country that served as a “cornerstone of US, French and European Union regional strategies” and that played an important role in France’s “energy security.”
“That is why we are seeing this reluctance to exit Niger the way they exited Mali and exited Burkina Faso,” Eguegu said referring to Paris.
He added that, due to its control of Niger and because of the fact that “the European Union has considered nuclear energy as green,” France “has always prioritized nuclear energy materials.”
Thus, the loss of the uranium imports from Niger, coupled with the risks of losing the supply of uranium from sources such as Russia, are a serious concern for France, argued Eguegu.

Anti-French Sentiment

Buchanan said that conflict or crisis in West African countries is likely to cause France to look for an exit strategy. He said some of the new leaders in those countries are trying to negotiate among themselves and figure out with whom to do business.
"Many of these leaders are in fact distancing themselves from France, looking for alternative centers of power and developing relations in the East with China, Russia and others and Turkiye," he said.
He said this does not look good in the eyes of Western powers, especially the European Union and France, because they could be affected economically.
"So as soon as these countries in West Africa feel that they have regained their status-quo as sovereign actors or that they are getting fair partners, believe me, they may definitely determine who they want to work or partner with or not," he said.
Protesters cheer Nigerien troops as they gather in front of the French Embassy in Niamey during a demonstration that followed a rally in support of Niger's junta in Niamey on July 30, 2023 - Sputnik International, 1920, 04.08.2023
Moscow: Intervention in Niger Should Be Avoided
The scholar added that one should not write off France or the EU for the time being, and that French companies still have a very strong foothold in West African countries.
"They have established a long tie in different sectors (in terms of cultural, education, mining, trade, military) with some private and public companies in those countries and no-one can undermine those tie overnight," Buchanan said.
In terms of uranium reserves, France is heavily dependent on Niger, which provides 20% of its uranium needs. While the crisis and tensions in Niger may not have an immediate impact on France's uranium supply, the situation could pose challenges in the future.
For now, French companies have existing stocks that can meet their needs for several years. However, as Europe seeks to reduce its dependence on Russia, finding alternative and competitive sources of uranium will become increasingly important in the long term.
"Still, France can benefit from other sources for its uranium. Meanwhile, one cannot ignore that to some extent and in the longer run, this is going to be a challenge for Europe including France as the continent is trying to phase out dependency on Russia," Buchanan concluded.
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