Students and police clashed in the capital city of the West African nation of Niger this week over essential stipends held up by a school official. Police threw tear gas bombs at the students who set up barricades and burned tires, according to news accounts. Younous Abdouramane, student union leader at Niamey University, estimated the toll of injured at 30 with over 60 detained by police.
The disturbances came as President Mahmadou Issoufou wound up two years of talks with the French company Areva which was seeking to renew its contract to extract valuable uranium ore.
The exact terms of the new contract have not yet been made public. But it is expected that Areva will owe an increased share of profits to the government and have fewer tax exemptions – terms that were outlined in the country’s 2006 mining code.
Niger is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium and yet remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
The negotiations were closely watched by activists who said it is about time Niger got a fair share of the mining profits.
Ali Idrissa, national coordinator for Publish What you Pay (PWYP) Niger/ROTAB, a network of organizations that campaign for transparency and accountability in the mining sector, called the new contract a promising step forward, but not enough.
“For more than five months, Areva has refused to follow the Nigerien mining law,” he said. “Now, they have arrived at a deal, but we don’t yet know what exactly is in the contract,” adding: “The government needs to respect the constitution and publish the new terms, and then apply the law to Areva, so that Areva’s uranium extraction activities actually benefit our citizens.”
Under the generous terms of the old contract, Areva was exempt from paying export duties, customs duties and value-added taxes on uranium mining materials and equipment. That contract expired last year.
Students were not, however, President Issafou’s only headache. A planned protest march by opponents of the government – including the Nigerien Democratic Movement for an African Federation led by the president’s former ally but now rival, Hama Amadou – was banned as a threat to ‘public order.’ Some 40 opposition figures were detained and charged with planning a coup.
“The arrests are intended to stifle protest in the country,” said Idayat Hassan of the Nigeria-based Center for Democracy and Development. “At the moment, the government does not tolerate any opposition, be it from political parties, the media or students.”
More than 60 percent of Nigeriens live on less than a dollar a day. Frustration within the population is growing, says Hassan. They protest against corruption, press censorship and poverty, even though every protest is followed by arrests.w/pix of Pres. M. Issoufou