Now known as a migrant transit town, Arlit, in northern Niger, was previously and famously known as one of the uranium capitals of Africa.
It is close to the border with Algeria and is home to more than 150,000 inhabitants. Currently covered in dust and with a ‘rusted’ look, the town’s glory is a thing of the past.
Eight years after Niger got its independence from France, the French government decided to open its first uranium mine in Arlit.
It is the uranium from these mines that light up the Eiffel Tower and one of every three bulbs in France, according to an Oxfam and ROTAB 2013 report. Additionally, the uranium is used to produce nuclear materials and sold to other European countries for the benefit of France.
Even with such a huge resource, Niger is one of Africa’s poorest countries. Its annual budget is a fraction of that of Areva, the state-owned French company running the mines in Arlit.
There are parts of Arlit that still do not have electricity or water, and the natives of Niger suffer due to lack of health facilities, education and economic investments.
Rights groups have constantly called for the review of the contract between France and Niger over the mines. The pressure forced a renegotiation of the contract in 2014 after Areva’s contract ended the year before.
One of the contentions about the expired contract was that its details were never made public. However, a report by Reuters revealed that: “Areva’s mines pay no export duties on uranium, no taxes on materials and equipment used in mining operations, and a royalty of just 5.5 per cent on the uranium they produce.”
Then President Mahamadou Issoufou stated that the contract was as a result of France’s dominance in Niger during the colonial time.
Even with the renegotiation, Areva is still benefiting more from the mines than Niger. It has also limited journalists from accessing the mines or investigating them.
“If either Areva or the government were to find out you’re poking your nose in their business, they’ll go to any length to make your work very difficult”, MUOSCA’s director Dan Ballan Mahaman Sani told African Arguments.
Currently, the town experiences attacks from militant groups and members of Areva have been targeted.
Other issues the town is grappling with is toxic waste from the site. Radioactive dust and old discarded equipment are all over the town.
The mine workers have also suffered health problems including joint pain, unknown skin conditions and others. Worse, the only hospital in the area is run by Areva for its employees.
The only concern right now is that the town will be a ghost town after Areva leaves once Uranium is depleted.