Kidnapping comes as French nuclear giant Areva works on image
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The kidnapping of seven foreign nuclear employees in Niger comes at a time when French nuclear giant Areva has been striving to improve its image in a region threatened by robbery, radical Islamism, and the local population's widespread resentment.
The kidnapping of seven foreign nuclear employees in Niger comes as the French nuclear giant Areva is trying to improve its image in a region threatened by robbery, widespread resentment, and radical Islamism.
"In nearly 40 years, Areva didn’t care at all for the locals. But in the last few years, Areva changed its strategy and started implementing development projects”, says Moussa Kaka, RFI’s correspondent in Niger.
French nuclear giant under fire
Repeated clashes between Niger’s military and Tuareg rebels over mining profits triggered diplomatic tensions in 2007 between Paris and the Nigerien government. At that time, former President Mamadou Tandja openly accused Areva of funding the Tuareg rebellion in order to discourage them from attacking its mining infrastructure.
Niger’s uranium reserves are critical for France, whose large network of nuclear power plants relies on the former French colony for 50 percent of its fuel.
Areva has been operating for some 42 years in Niger, where the state-controlled company employs 2,500 people - including many French expats. The nuclear giant maintains a dominant position in this strategic region, where it plans to start mining another huge uranium deposit in Imouraren in the coming years.
Besides alleged bribes made to Tuareg rebels, Areva was also criticised by several NGOs for polluting underground aquifers, aggravating a chronic water shortage, and exposing its employees to uranium contamination.
Winning hearts and minds
Since obtaining the lucrative Imouraren mining license in 2009, Areva has tried to improve its deteriorating image by promising to give €30 million to local development projects over five years.
At a press conference in July 2010, Areva executive Sebastien de Montessus also announced €1 million in emergency aid to alleviate a grave food crisis, adding that the French consortium was looking into ways to help the West African nation cope with a “severe” budgetary crisis.
In a bid to win over the local population’s hearts and minds, Areva also funded local “sanitary structures” and two hospitals offering free medical care, according to the company’s website.
But several NGOs have decried the French company’s rosy picture of its activities in northern Niger. The president of local NGO Aghir In Man, Almoustapha Alassane, has accused Areva of poisoning water and air near its mining sites, blaming uranium contamination for several “mysterious” deaths in the region.
In a bid to avoid further controversy, Areva has decided to set up a centre -- in partnership with several NGOs -- to monitor the local population’s health.