The thrill is gone: After Mali and Burkina Faso, France's President Emmanuel Macron has announced his intention to withdraw French troops from Niger by year's end. Ambassador Sylvain Itte, who was declared a 'persona non grata' by Niger's coup leaders back in August, has also arrived back in Paris after weeks of suspense. Like it or not, France is slowly losing ground in West Africa.
But this does not spell the end of tensions between the former colonial power and what was once considered its 'pre carre' in Africa. Now an alliance of civil society groups known as M62 is also calling on Niger to end its uranium business with France.
Niger's greatest treasure lies underground: Uranium is the most important commodity in the Sahel state. But ever since a military junta supporting Abdourahamane Tiani toppled the pro-Western government of President Mohamed Bazoum two months ago, fears have been rising that the uranium supply to global markets is in jeopardy.
France, the former colonial power in Niger, is in a particularly tight spot. Around two-thirds of its electricity comes from nuclear power plants, and around one-fifth of the uranium used to power them is sourced from Niger. France also exports electricity to other countries in Europe that have no nuclear plants of their own.
Dealings with France 'unequal'
M62 coordinator Abdoulaye Seydou has called on Niger to return its Imouraren mining concession made to French firm Orano, formally known as Areva, which he considered to be 'illegal' and not in line with the national mining law.
In the wake of the coup in Niger on July 26, the economic cooperation and military partnerships between the two countries have been on the line, with the junta under General Abdourahamane Tiani clearly signalling that it is tired of France.
When it took power, the junta ordered a halt to uranium exports and later gave the French envoy 48 hours to leave.
"Everyone in Niger feels this partnership is very unequal," said Mahaman Laouan Gaya, a former Nigerien energy minister and the Organization of African Petroleum Producers (APPO) secretary general until 2020.
In an email to DW weeks after the coup, Gaya cited what he said were significant inconsistencies. Niger, he wrote, exported uranium worth €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion) to France in 2010 but received only €459 million in return.
"If Niger decides not to export uranium to France, it will have dramatic consequences for France but little impact on the Nigerien economy," Gaya said.
He added that some 90% of Niger's population has no electricity, and price exploitation means Niger today also receives too little income for its exports.
Has uranium production stopped?
For decades, the French nuclear conglomerate Orano (formerly Areva) has been mining uranium in Niger. The material is used mainly to produce fuel rods for France's 56 nuclear power plants.
It is unclear whether the junta's moratorium on uranium exports is being implemented.
"The current crisis has no short-term impact on Orano's supply capacity," a company spokesman told the AFP news agency following the coup.
Meanwhile, Niger's former prime minister and opposition leader, Hama Amadou, told broadcaster Voxafrica that the mining company was still producing uranate, the basis for uranium.
"I don't think the new authorities have canceled the uranium mining contracts between France and Niger," Amadou was quoted as saying in the report. "So what is the French state afraid of when it comes to its interests in Niger?"
Niger mines firmly in French hands
Somair exploits the largest uranium mine in the Sahara, located on the outskirts of the city of Arlit. The company is 63% owned by France's majority state-owned Orano group. Sopamin, a Nigerien state-owned company, owns the remaining 37%.
In 2021, the Somair mine accounted for more than 90% of Niger's uranium exports. France and the ousted government of Mohamed Bazoum had also agreed to restart another mine.
And in May, Orano signed new contracts with the Nigerien government, extending French uranium mining in the country until 2040.
Nigerien journalist Seidick Abba in August said the coup did not change these commercial agreements between corporations.
"The uranium will still be shipped from the mine near Arlit to France via Cotonou. The contract does not give Niger the right to stop the shipments," Abba told DW.
"The junta has no way to stop the deliveries."
Europe has other suppliers
Last year, France received about one-fifth of its uranium from Niger, according to Euratom Supply Agency data. Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also supplied significant amounts of uranium to France.
As recently as 2022, Niger was France's third-largest uranium supplier, says Alex Vines of the London-based think tank Chatham House. But the dependence is overestimated, Vines told DW.
"France does business with countries like Kazakhstan, Australia, and Namibia. It can easily diversify its uranium supply," said Vines.
According to the World Nuclear Association, only 5% of the uranium sold on the global market in 2022 came from Niger.
Some analysts warn of price increases with far-reaching effects if no or less Nigerien uranium were to reach the global market.
In 2022, French nuclear power dominance in Europe was visible when energy prices increased as many power plants ran out of cooling water.
Europe has been searching for alternative uranium supplies. Kazakhstan has already signaled, according to reports, that more uranium could be shipped to Europe if needed.
But doubts and worries about whether the lights could go out in Europe because of the conflict in Niger were dispelled by European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz.
He said the European Union (EU) has sufficient stocks of natural uranium to cushion short-term supply risks. There are "sufficient deposits on the world market in the medium and long term to meet the EU's needs," according to Jahnz.
This is an updated version of an article that was first published on 09/04/2023. It was adapted from German.