Geopolitics

Regional instability and uranium market constraints. The consequences of the military coup in Niger may reach beyond the borders of the continent

Bianka Niňajová

On July 26th, Niger, the largest country in West Africa, experienced a military coup that saw the overthrow of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoun by members of his own guard. The coup organisers suspended the constitution and appointed General Abdourahman Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, as the new head of state. While the official reason behind the military uprising is the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel region of Africa, the true catalyst for the Niger coup likely lies in government incompetence in addressing the rising cost of living, President Bazoun’s plans to replace Tchiani as the commander of the presidential guard, and the differing stances of the army and the president towards the military juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. The developments in Niger, a key global uranium producer, also present risks to the supply of this commodity to the EU. Additionally, there remains a potential for neighbouring countries to respond to the military takeover with military intervention, potentially leading to a significant wave of migration.

Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, the Sahel region has long grappled with political instability, coups d’état, and jihadist insurgencies led by groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State, and Al Qaeda. Following recent military coups in Mali (in 2020 and 2021) and Burkina Faso (in 2022), democratic Niger has emerged as a critical partner for France, the European Union, and the United States in the region. The country hosts French and Turkish military bases, as well as at least two US air bases, with these Western powers seeking to provide security assistance against extremist threats and counter Russian influence in the Sahel. Despite Niger’s relative handling of the tumultuous situation, supporters of the coup argue that military intervention was the only viable solution. However, the coups in neighbouring states cast doubt on this claim, leaving uncertainty about whether a military junta can effectively counter the growing Islamist insurgency.

Nevertheless, the current political situation in Niger raises concerns regarding global energy supplies. The country boasts substantial reserves of oil, gold, and the world’s seventh-largest uranium deposits. Statistically, Niger contributes approximately 5% of the world’s uranium. Last year, it ranked as the second-largest uranium supplier to the European Union, accounting for around 24% of total supplies. Over half of the uranium ore extracted in Niger is exported to France, its former colonial ruler, which relies on nuclear power for 70% of its electricity generation. However, the emergence of the new government casts uncertainties over French uranium supply, as the Nigerian authorities have announced the suspension of uranium exports to Europe. In response to the Niger events, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that “any attack against his country and the interests of France will not be tolerated,” underscoring Paris’ significant economic influence. Orano, a multinational company predominantly owned by France, operates three uranium mines in Niger, although two are currently inactive. Presently, uranium production hinges on SOMAÏR operations near the town of Arlit, situated over 1,100 kilometres north of the capital. According to Orano, mining activities will continue for the time being in line with prevailing measures.

Should uranium exports face a temporary suspension, France’s energy sector might not immediately feel adverse consequences. Unlike gas, uranium is supplied in discrete batches, and building long-term stocks is common in the nuclear power industry. The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) affirmed that restrictions on Niger’s supplies would not pose an immediate threat to the European market, as EU reserves could last up to three years. Nonetheless, if Niger’s commodity exports were permanently halted, France would need alternative suppliers, including Russia—a significant uranium exporter. However, Brussels refrains from actions that might reduce dependence on Russian uranium or lead to sanctions on its nuclear sector due to the Ukraine conflict. Niger could potentially seek cooperation with China, which has launched an extensive nuclear program described by experts as the world’s largest and fastest. China’s expanding nuclear energy infrastructure contributes to heightened global uranium demand, further straining already stretched supply chains. For instance, in 2021, existing mines met only 77% of global demand, resulting in nearly a 40% surge in uranium spot prices last year. Following the Niamey military coup, the price of the radioactive metal slightly increased once again.

The political developments in Niamey prompted a strong regional response. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) introduced a package of sanctions a mere four days after the coup. These sanctions included trade suspension, border closures, halting Nigeria’s electricity supply, and a potential military intervention threat. ECOWAS warned the new Nigerian government of possible military action unless the overthrown president Bazoun was reinstated. However, as of now, no such attack has taken place. Meanwhile, the Niger military junta announced a military pact with Mali and Burkina Faso, where previous military coups occurred. However, even within ECOWAS member states, a unified approach to resolving the conflict through military means is absent. While the United States supports ECOWAS’ decision, it favours diplomatic solutions over military intervention. From a security perspective, it’s evident that an ECOWAS military intervention would be the least desirable outcome, resulting in displacement, casualties, and migration. In a region grappling with numerous economic, humanitarian, and developmental challenges, such intervention could exacerbate instability. Consequently, a more effective approach might involve tightening sanctions on Niger. Sanctions have already been imposed by the European Union, France, the US, and the World Bank. However, the will of the Nigerian people, a significant portion of whom openly support the military junta’s rule, must not be disregarded.”

This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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