Aside from being confused with its much larger neighbor, Nigeria, to the west, Niger rarely commands the attention of the global spotlight. That's probably why yesterday's report that its president, Mamadou Tandja, has suspended Parliament in retaliation for its refusal to grant him permission to run for a constitutionally prohibited third term has barely caused a media ripple.
In recent years Niger has been known for two things. It's the place where Saddam Hussein was alleged to have bought "yellowcake" uranium, a claim later debunked by Joseph Wilson. It's also the site of one of Africa's longest-running, low-level civil wars. The fighting pits government forces from the south against a Taureg insurgency based in the uranium-rich north.
Niger may not have sold uranium to Iraq, but it sells plenty of it to its former colonial master, France -- as well as to China, Japan and Korea. Currently, the major project involves the Imouraren deposit, which the French firm Areva has purchased for €1.2 billion, in addition to €6 million worth of yearly social investments in community development. It is precisely these kinds of investments that the Taurag rebels are looking to share in. One of their standing demands has been to receive at least 30 percent of uranium investments made on their traditional lands before the central government takes it all back to the capital.
On a day that saw the leak of a secret Israeli report alleging that Iran is buying uranium from Venezuela and Bolivia, anti-proliferationists can only be chilled by the prospect of one of the world's major producers, Niger, plunging into a constitutional crisis, one that may completely destabilize a government that has already demonstrated an inability to keep the peace in its most strategic uranium districts.
It could be that the French would be ready to jump in if things get out of hand. With almost 80 percent of its domestic electricity production generated by nuclear reactors, France depends on Niger uranium, and is unlikely to let internal political squabbles with desert nomads interrupt the critical flow.
On the other hand, if the government really does lose control, even for a short period, smugglers might be able to abscond with several tons of the stuff. And who knows where they might land? Tehran, Pyongyang, Islamabad? Niger needs to be on everyone's radar in the coming months.
(First published in World Politics Review, May 27th)