Under the sticky colonial development model of resource extraction, African natural resources have been a blessing for former colonial powers and a curse for source countries and the entire continent as a whole, Hippolyte Fofack writes.
When the homeland is dying, it is everyone’s fault.
And for now, that dying homeland is Niger, the usually-overlooked and landlocked West African nation that has been commanding headlines in even the Western media since late July when the latest in a long line of coups in the Sahel region — stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea along the southern edge of the Sahara — was announced by the country’s military.
African affairs typically only enter the mainstream media in the context of humanitarian crises or through the geopolitical prism.
And sure enough, in this case, the West — led by the US and France, the former colonial power — is concerned that Niger will follow the path already taken in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali in the new “scramble for Africa”.
The sudden rise in interest in a country that most people might have trouble distinguishing from Nigeria, its southern neighbour, has put a spotlight on Niger and offered an opportunity to reflect on the key development challenges confronting the region.
Chief among these is the stickiness of the highly extroverted colonial development model of resource extraction, which has been at the root of intergenerational poverty in Niger and other African states, as well as environmental stresses that fuel insecurity and amplify migration pressures.
A country is so rich, yet its people are poor
Niger is the quintessence of Africa’s development paradox. The country is one of the most natural resource-rich in the world and endowed with plentiful renewable and non-renewable energy sources, but is also one of the world’s poorest.
Despite being one of the leading producers of gold and a major supplier of uranium, Niger suffers from one of the highest poverty rates in the world and is ranked third from last on the United Nations Human Development Index, ahead of only Chad and South Sudan.
More than 10 million Nigeriens (around 42% of its population) live in extreme poverty, and only 58% of children attend school, down from 66% in 2017.
Violence and insecurity have caused mass displacement and school closures, with almost 900 schools having been shuttered across affected communities.
Things have gone from bad to worse in Niger and, indeed, in many Sahelian countries, where more than 22,000 Africans were killed in jihadist-related violence in the 12 months to June 2023, a 50% increase from the year prior.
Terrorist acts and pitch-dark blackouts
Niger’s population has suffocated under a combination of immiserising growth, mismanagement of natural resources, intergenerational poverty, climate disaster, and rampant insecurity.
Countless villages have been destroyed by itinerant terrorists whose firepower has grown ever more powerful year after year, despite the proliferation of foreign military bases and drone stations in the country.
Niger hosts strategic US drone bases and French soldiers, as well as troops from Germany, Italy, and Canada.
On top of that, Niger was plunged into blackouts just days after the coup when Nigeria cut off the supply of electricity to its neighbour, in contravention of its obligations as a member of the nine-country Niger Basin Authority.
The power cuts risk exacerbating insecurity and social stresses in Niger, which has already come under draconian economic and financial sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS.
In addition to freezing Nigerien assets held in regional central banks, these sanctions suspended all commercial and financial transactions between Niger and other member states.
Neighbouring Nigeria suffers from the same paradox
There is a certain irony to Nigeria cutting Niger’s access to power. In normal times, the former provides around 70% of the total electricity consumed by the latter’s homes and industries — despite Nigerians themselves suffering frequent blackouts, which occur so often that the power supply in the country has been called “epileptic”.
Despite being the largest oil exporter on the continent, Nigeria is actually one of the most energy-poor countries in the world in per capita terms—its citizens consume 113 kilowatt hours of energy per capita annually, against a continental average of 317 kilowatt hours.
Typically, Nigeria’s power system is able to dispatch only around 4 gigawatts per day, far too little to support its population of more than 220 million people.
Around 60% of Nigerians have access to electricity. For the neighbours to the north in Niger where citizens consume a paltry 51 kilowatt hours of energy per capita annually, that percentage stands at less than 20%, and just 9.1% in rural areas, even though the country is endowed with remarkable resource wealth.
It is one of the world’s leading producers of high-grade uranium, the radioactive material essential to the production of nuclear energy in Europe. Niger’s uranium has served its former colonial possessor, France, especially well.
Let there be light — thanks to Nigeiren uranium
Over a third of all lamps in France light up thanks to Nigerian uranium. Around 70% of France’s electricity is derived from nuclear energy, which has enabled French citizens to consume over 6,950 kilowatts hours of energy per capita annually, one of the highest in the world.
Last year, Niger supplied 1,440 tonnes of the country’s natural uranium, accounting for almost 30% of all such imports between 2020-22. More broadly, Niger accounts for a fifth of the European Union’s uranium supplies.
In 2013 the UK-based anti-poverty organization Oxfam published a report detailing how French multinational companies were profiting massively from Niger’s uranium.
Figures show that in 2010, two Nigerien subsidiaries of Areva, the French nuclear power multinational, extracted 114,346 metric tonnes of uranium in Niger with an export value of more than €3.5 billion, of which just 13% (around €450m) was paid to Niger.
That share has hardly changed in the intervening years, and with rising military expenditures and constraints on the domestic revenue mobilisation side of the sovereign balance sheet, Niger has fallen into a debilitating donor dependency trap.
The government depends on foreign aid for around 40% of its budget.
'David vs Goliath struggle'
Watchdogs have documented over several years the extent to which the contracts between successive Nigerien governments and multinational companies have exploited the country’s uranium wealth to the detriment of its citizens, both financially and environmentally.
Niger’s efforts to secure greater benefits from its natural resources were aptly described by Oxfam as a “David vs Goliath struggle”.
In 2010, a Greenpeace investigation revealed dangerous radiation levels among Nigeriens working in the mining sector, with people suffering from unexplained diseases affecting their skin, liver, kidneys, and lungs.
And earlier this year the France-based Independent Research and Information Commission on Radioactivity found that 20 million tonnes of waste from a recently depleted uranium mine was spreading radon, a potentially lethal radioactive gas, polluting the air and contaminating the soil and water supplies.
Natural resources, a blessing for some, for others a curse
Numerous reports have also documented the climate crimes committed by multinational oil companies, most notably Shell in Nigeria and more specifically in the Niger Delta, the oil-rich region devastated by pollution from oil spills that have cost many residents their livelihoods.
In addition to destroying mangrove forests, families were forced to abandon their homes.
Reflecting on the scale of pollution and the human costs, Mark Dummet, then director of Amnesty International’s global issue program, said: “It is incomprehensible to imagine that if these spills and this level of pollution occurred in North America or Europe that it would be allowed to happen.”
The natural resources that were supposed to help improve the welfare of the population have failed to meet expectations.
Worse still, they have produced enduring pollution and environmental stresses, which have become their main heritage.
Under the highly extroverted and sticky colonial development model of resource extraction, African natural resources have been a blessing for former colonial powers and a curse for source countries and the entire continent as a whole.
Democracy will remain fragile
Army Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the young leader of Burkina Faso who engineered his own military coup last year, has been vocal about the similarly incomprehensible position in which Africa finds itself from a development perspective.
Speaking at the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg on 27-28 July hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Traoré asked: “The question that my generation poses to itself, if I can summarise it, is how can Africa, with so many resources under our soil, with such a natural abundance of sun and water, still today remain the poorest continent?”
Unless we find the right answer to this development paradox and broaden the distributional gains from natural resource exploitation while minimising the negative externalities, democracy will remain fragile.
Waves of campaigners have cheered on troops in Niamey, Niger’s capital, and the first survey of citizens’ opinion of the coup, conducted by Premise Data, is very revealing: 78% of respondents support the military’s actions and 73% believe the coup leaders should stay in power for an extended period or until new elections are held.
When the homeland is dying under the relentless firepower of jihadist forces and a long heritage of environmental crimes, it is everyone’s fault; and this includes both the military and civilian population.
Hippolyte Fofack is Chief Economist and Director of Research at the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank).
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