Activist Azara Jalawi lives with her mother, a nomad; her daughter Amina, who watches Mexican soap operas and dates a local human trafficker; her son Doudou, nicknamed “Slim Shady,” and a lean girl, probably a slave, in the town of Arlit, Niger, a mining hub of about forty thousand set deep within the Tuareg Sahara, a slow-baking proto-Chernobyl, a little-known nuclear wasteland.
Around Arlit, prehistoric volcanoes and petrified forests rise from the sand. Beneath it lie the skulls of giant crocodiles who preyed on dinosaurs a hundred million years ago. Within the rocky plateaus are havens like the oasis at Timia, where orange, grapefruit, and pomegranate groves ripen and flower in the desert. For forty years, the French nuclear-energy giant Areva has mined uranium here, and milled it into yellowcake, the solid concentrate that is the first step towards enriching uranium for nuclear fuel or weapons. Three miles outside the town, fifty million tons of radioactive tailings—a waste byproduct containing heavy metals and radon—sit in heaps that resemble unremarkable hills. In strong winds and sandstorms, radioactive particles scatter across the desert. “Radon daughters,” odorless radioactive dust, blanket the town. Public health and the environment exhibit strange symptoms of decay—mysterious illnesses are multiplying; grasses and animals are stunted. The people of Arlit are told that desertification and AIDS are to blame. The town’s two hospitals, both funded by Areva, say they have yet to record a single case of cancer.
Azara was once at war with the mining company and the state. Today she works with them, extracting funds and privileges for the Tuareg women living in domed tents outside town. She sets up tailored aid programs like a micro-savings system—each woman makes a monthly deposit of 100 CFA (sixteen cents) and can withdraw cash for health care should she or one of her dependents fall ill. “You have the mining company, which has executives in beautiful houses with water and electricity, and then you have all the women who live around its perimeter, in tents without water or electricity,” Azara says.
Living atop an open-pit uranium mine has made the people ill, in ways they do not understand. Breathing radioactive dust, drinking contaminated well water, and sleeping between walls stitched from radioactive scrap metal and mud, the people tell stories to fill the gaps in their knowledge. “I know a few people who have high blood pressure,” Amina, Azara’s daughter, tells me. “They say it’s because of the radiation, but I think it’s because they eat a lot of salt.”
At her brother Doudou’s high school, funded by the mining company, students are told not to do drugs or set things on fire. Teachers tell Doudou nothing about the contaminated well water he consumes daily. At lunch on my first day in Arlit, I ask nervously about the source of the water in a chilled glass bottle on the table. “Don’t worry, it’s the well water,” they assure me. “We drink it all the time.” I learn later that well water readings reveal contamination one hundred times beyond the World Health Organization’s threshold for potable water.
Before Azara was an important civil servant and benefactor—the President’s wife appears beside her at a food aid distribution ceremony meant to buy votes; she wears a skin-tight pink-and-purple wax cloth printed with the slogans of his political party—she rebelled. In 1990, the Tuaregs of Arlit took up arms against a parasitic system that took their resources and gave them nothing in return. The Tuareg rebellion, which lasted five years, witnessed the towns of the Aïr massif and its mining facilities placed under martial law. “The military came and massacred innocent people. They would fire at anyone they saw,” Azara says.
The war was inconclusive. The status quo suited the southern elites, who continued militarizing and exploiting northern uranium, more than it did the northern rebels, who lost access to the few schools and hospitals they had. Weary of fighting, they accepted a peace contingent upon their earnest integration into the state and economy—which meant political representation, access to jobs and healthcare, and uranium dividends. Azara spearheaded the first wave of Tuareg civil society formation in the early 2000s. “Now the authorities and the mining companies have started to acknowledge us, to do things to calm us down,” she chuckles.
At the time, a dim awareness of the contamination risks was just beginning. Almoustapha Alhacen, a yellowcake miller and environmental activist, recognizes himself on the cover of a 2012 book I’ve brought with me: “Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade.” He is the man wearing a gas mask and gloves. “The problem with Areva is it never informed people that radioactivity exists and that it is dangerous,” he says. An NGO called the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD), created by a French EU deputy after the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, equipped him with a device and trained him to take readings. Once, he recalls, he saw a pregnant woman eating mud next to the road that leads from the mine to the town. This road is often tamped down with clay from the mines, and the tires that cross it regularly give it a fresh, invisible wash of radon. Almoustapha took a reading there and found radioactivity twenty-four times higher than the safe level. At markets selling scrap metal used for building houses, and at the community taps where people draw water, he took readings that were off the charts.
“Arlit was built around uranium. And humanity needs uranium,” Almoustapha says, speaking quickly and with rage. “But what happens next for us, when the uranium runs out, Areva leaves, and we are left with 50 million tons of radioactive waste?” As an activist, he ponders the future and the environment with seriousness. But these become abstract concerns before the fact of his job, which he needs right now. In a white turban and sunglasses, with sequined leather jewelry adorning his chest, he protests: “There’s nothing nuclear in what I do. It’s just rocks we dilute into powder, powder we dilute into liquid. It’s just mechanics, like for any car.”
Amongst nomadic herders, Mayor Abdourahmane Mawli’s graduate degree, a master’s in literature, sets him apart. So does his fondness for crisp floor-length boubous tinted an unmistakable nuclear yellow. He started college in the Nigerien capital Niamey, but was forced into hiding when the rebellion broke out in the 1990s. He completed his degree in Ivory Coast. “The worst is the indirect contact,” he says. “The miners bring it into their houses, on their clothes, on their shoes.” Radiation-induced cancers can take decades of repeated exposure to develop, making it difficult to establish empirical links between mining and illness. “Areva only cares about extracting their riches,” he continues. “Today we are understanding that our riches must serve us as well.”
Photo courtesy of the author
II. Nigerien uranium powers the twinkling of the Eiffel Tower
The mines, which vacuum up resources, exploit locals, and spread sickness that is hard to see, are a powerful symbol of the asymmetrical relationship France maintains with its former colonies.
Nigerien uranium powers everything from the twinkling of the Eiffel Tower to the French laboratories making advances in nanotechnology and cancer treatments. It fuels half of France’s domestic energy infrastructure. Uranium should have done for Niger what oil did for Saudi Arabia.
But uranium receipts contribute less than purple onion exports do to the GDP of Niger. In terms of maternal mortality and development, Niger ranks below Somalia and Afghanistan—countries torn apart by civil wars and in possession of no natural resources.
Uranium is at the core of Niger’s struggle for autonomy from France. In the 1970s, France covertly supported several West African coups d’etat and manned a price-fixing cartel to keep the market price for uranium artificially low. Niger responded by furtively exporting upwards of two thousand tons of fuel to Libya, Pakistan, and Iran. After a few bad deals convinced it that rogue states made for unreliable clients, Niger re-awarded France an official monopoly. The monopoly has more or less held since then.
The Arlit mines came to symbolize not only French tyranny over Niger, but also Tuaregs’ exclusion—as with the Kurds or the South Sudanese, post-Independence bound them to a system that cared more for the resource-rich land than it did for the people. Tuaregs make up less than 10 percent of the national population but have historically dominated the uranium-rich Aïr, alongside a smattering of Arab and Tobou tribes. Famously noble outlaws, they shun monogamy, are constantly on the move, and have easy access to weapons and 4x4s they handle with skill.
But the past fifty years have proved hard. Countless goats and camels have died in droughts, rendering Saharan pastoralism all but extinct. French empire and the post-independence period upended Tuaregs’ carefully cultivated social hierarchies. In 1960, the tracing of new states’ borders split their land into six parts. Former slave castes became powerful civil servants while Tuareg nobles starved to death. The mines’ arrival coincided with this devastation, a rupture that saw the old ways recede into the past and uncertainty surround the future. No longer able to roam with their animals, the Tuaregs started wanting to settle in cities and get jobs—which only existed in the mines. But they didn’t have the education.
Famished and unemployed, tens of thousands of Tuareg “Ishumar”—a Tamacheq-language declension of the French word chomeur (unemployed)—fled the desert in search of work. Many served as mercenaries in Muammar Qaddafi’s Islamic army. In the early 1990s, they came home to make war, fighting for authority in their land. Azara’s husband was killed in this war. Mano Dayak, a leader of this rebellion, describes the Tuareg at war as a jackal: He might not have the majesty of the lion or the brute strength of the hippo, but he will raid and destroy until sated. He will bite down and never let go.
With the peace in 1995, which Dayak helped negotiate, Niger began feeding the jackal, implementing a policy of decentralization to soothe the rebellion’s root causes—exclusion and unemployment. Before, it had governed like colonial France, dispatching prefects to preside over the Tuareg north; now, it empowered local agents. It turned the rebels into soldiers and let them patrol their own areas. To a meaningful extent, the state delegated rule of the north to northerners.
Azara and the activists of Arlit rode to power on this wave of decentralization, which happened in 2002. Satellite TVs were beaming images of scientific and medical achievements into their homes, making the town’s poor conditions stand out. Industrial mining installations pumped billions of dollars worth of yellow gold from beneath their feet, yet they didn’t have so much as a paved national road.
Then, a teacher fell ill and died, refused treatment by a mining company hospital that would only treat miners. Azara, Almoustapha, and Abdourahmane led hundreds of miners, ex-rebels, and nomads in marches through the town. It was Arlit’s first peaceful uprising. They demanded access to the hospitals and clean water, paved roads, and a share of mining revenues. From this point on, the state and Areva opened up to them. In 2004, Azara was elected to public office, as municipal counselor. Abdourahmane, with his neon yellow boubou, became the town’s first-ever Tuareg mayor. Almoustapha founded Aghir Inman (“A Call for Help”), an NGO dedicated to environmental awareness. The Presidency and Parliament appointed Tuaregs as special counselors. In a decade, the President will even appoint a Tuareg from the Aïr as prime minister.
Decentralization, a technocratic solution developed countries devised in the 1990s to promote democracy in developing countries, has its flaws. Patronage empowers but also coopts local leaders, whose financial dependence on the state and donors may come to supersede their accountability to constituents. It may also weaken already-fragile centralized states. But the way it helps Niger overcome the political exclusion of northern Tuaregs is a watershed moment in the history of Saharan struggles for self-rule.
Joblessness, then, is the main remaining grievance. In the 1990s, when the Tuaregs of northern Niger rebelled, protracted insecurity and a policy of “Nigerization” designed to transfer knowledge and jobs to Nigeriens drove European miners out of Arlit for good. Nearly all of their jobs went to black workers from the south, who arrived with education and training. Of the five thousand skilled jobs at the mines, most still go to southerners. The people of the Aïr hold no more than 10 percent of salaried positions. Tuaregs are integrated into the mining economy at the lowest levels, at the margins rather than the center: The jobs they are qualified for, most often sub-contracted manual labor or transportation, are low-paying, not secure, and often do not pay for months. Unlike salaried workers who have a long-term stake in the mines, sub-contractors are informally engaged, with no prospects for job security or evolution. Young Tuareg men have few alternatives to running guns, goods, and sub-Saharan migrants across borders, getting sucked into the nexus of organized crime and jihadism that is spreading across the zone.
Frustration takes a new form now. Since 2010, Saharan jihadis, sometimes with Tuareg help, have struck at the mining industry in Arlit, the only high-profile economic activity in all of northern Niger. The few white workers who remain‚most are French—live in heavily fortified compounds, and drink bottled water delivered especially for them. They are forbidden from going into town. In the dusty, depressed streets, the only white faces to be seen belong to the French and American Special Forces who patrol town.
Photo courtesy of the author
III. The first suicide attack in Niger
When I visit Arlit in the early months of 2014, the only clue that this is the site of the Sahara’s most valuable resource reserves is its intense yet furtive militarization—French and American special forces are stationed nearby, and a $100 million American drone base is under construction just outside the regional capital. Apart from a few patrols, the presence of foreign forces is carefully hidden from sight, like the radon daughters that cover the earth.
It takes two days and twenty hours of driving to cross the six hundred miles of dilapidated road between Niamey, the Nigerien capital, and Arlit. I ride with a few local TV journalists dispatched to report on the abysmal working conditions in the open-pit mines. They are from the south and grow cagey as we penetrate deeper into the northern desert. As the path cuts through dried riverbeds with inclined banks, the cameraman frightens us with tales of Tuareg rebels and evil sorcerers: “This is the most dangerous part, where the rebels would always ATTACK!”
The stereo clatters with autotuned Haoussa-language mp3s from Maradi and Zinder, along the Nigerian border. Many are odes to round women— You come and bring your husband food, looking all flat. Don’t be surprised when he goes to another woman ; The woman who gives birth and then gains weight is delicious.
“The marabouts prayed for this singer to die young,” the cameraman says. “Married women would leap over the walls of their houses to come see him sing. He caused many divorces.”
The Land Cruiser slams along the pitted path, passing burnt automobile carcasses. The road runs parallel to power lines, a reminder that this is the only state infrastructure for hundreds of miles in either direction. Yards from the road, Tuareg nomads and their donkeys haul blue bags of water from wells, paying no notice to our dramatic passage. A little low scrub keeps the nomads’ gaunt herds barely alive. Besides that, nothing grows or is produced around Arlit. Small airplanes chartered by the mining company shuttle the Europeans in and out. All other people and goods take the road, usually in buses and trucks heaving with mangos and purple onions, or cheap, Chinese-made mats, plastic goods and electronics stitched together with ropes and net.
We pass a truck full of dynamite broken down by the side of the road. A mounted pickup and eight gendarmes stand guard. Trucks often topple off the crumbling road, spilling chemical products used to process and refine uranium out into the desert. As we approach Arlit, little hills of yellow powder appear by the side of the road. I imagine it’s yellowcake, but the journalists assure me it’s sulfur. (Trucks carrying Arlit yellowcake do spill over from time to time—in February 2017, one crashed in a small village in southern Benin; it lay there wounded for two days until a crane could be brought in to right it.) A coolant called pyralin is often left lying about—any earth it touches becomes barren for half a century. Nomads notice their goats, sheep, and camels die when they graze near “uranium juice.” The ostriches and deer that used to dart through the thorny bush have vanished.
“Before the mines came, this zone was covered in vegetation,” a Tuareg official in Arlit tells me. “I don’t know whether the aridity is linked to mining or desertification. Both are threatening us. But the grass doesn’t grow anymore—even if the rains come, nothing grows in these areas.”
I try to look past the frightfully undocumented environmental and health effects of the mines’ radiation to see what residents nevertheless value so highly—jobs.
Ibrahim Illa, a salaried miner from the south, is round and jovial, with an air of prosperity rare among men in northern Niger. Working as a mining electrician for thirty-four years has enabled him to support four wives and nineteen children.
“I drink the water, my kids drink the water, and we’re fine! If people have work,” he says, “there is no risk that Islamists will recruit them. As the President Chirac once said, ‘ la jeunesse c’est une bombe !’” He was citing a quote from 2003, when then-President Jacques Chirac warned that the 800 million Africans who would be under the age of twenty in 2025 could be a “time bomb that could shake the whole world.” Chirac does not seem to have reflected on how French activities in places like Arlit, which it had polluted, militarized and abused for four decades, could be setting the clock on this bomb. When I ask if he wants his children to work in the mines too, Ibrahim’s face falls. He looks away and shakes his head.
Most miners are far less fortunate. I meet two who tried to unionize against a mass firing. Police loaded them into the open pickup truck beds and drove them from Arlit to Niamey like cattle, exposed to the sun, with nothing to eat or drink for the entire sixteen-hour trip. They were left there and told to never come back.
“Areva is a state within a state!” one says. He has a severed finger and dirt on his face. His wife died of a cancer he suspects but cannot prove is linked to the mines. He returned to Arlit in 2000 and has fought since to bring a lawsuit on behalf of 827 men who were summarily fired without benefits and now suffer from mysterious ailments—with no success.
When I visit in 2014, despite or perhaps because of the sinkholes of wars and extremism opening up across the Sahara but not here, Tuaregs feel strongly that they have progressed in Niger.
“Things have changed,” says Azara, going on to list administrative reforms favoring local representation. “Imagine: We have a Tuareg prime minister. We have special councilors, technical services, each commune has its mayor. Even Tuaregs who never went to school are being given functions and government salaries.”
A decade ago, Areva company directors, dealing directly with central authorities in the south, refused to take meetings with Azara. Since decentralization, they write her checks for women’s outreach. At her urging, they finance a sustainable development fund earmarked for wells, classrooms, and clinics for the communes of the Aïr.
Tuaregs appreciate being heard at the national level so much that when a new rebellion started in 2007, most withheld their support. They were largely satisfied with the pace and progress of decentralization and felt that violence would only make their fragile region more vulnerable. With no popular backing, the rebellion faltered.
Signs that the state has good faith are consistent. Integrating light-skinned northern ex-rebels into an army of black southern soldiers is no easy task. On my first trip to northern Niger in 2010, a mandatory military escort consists of a dozen southern teenagers who keep tripping over their own plastic sandals. They terrify us at night by firing their guns at ghosts. One naps on his Kalachnikov, eye socket resting on the barrel. A few years later, my escort consists of seasoned northern ex-rebels. Not only are they competent and knowledgeable of the region, they are pleased with their state salaries and hopeful for the future.
In 2010, just months before a North African fruit seller’s self-immolation ignited a chain of uprisings across the Middle East and Africa, a new battle began. The spoils were still the mines, but this time Niger and Nigeriens had nothing to do with it.
That summer, the 2007 Tuareg rebellion on its last legs, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared war on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Within months, AQIM gunmen struck Arlit, taking seven workers—five of them French; one, Francoise, a friend of Azara’s who raised money to furnish schools in Arlit—from their homes. France finally paid ransoms amounting to €12.5 million in 2011 and €30 million in 2013 to free its hostages. AQIM reinvested these enormous sums back into smuggling, weapons, and recruitment. During this period, European ransoms were al Qaeda’s main source of income.
Emboldened by reams of money, vacuums of power—Niger’s rare ability to pacify and integrate its restless northerners is not replicated elsewhere—and the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the threat al Qaeda posed to the Sahel intensified. Blushing with military aid, Niger ushered in indefinite deployments of French and American Special Forces, at new bases just outside Arlit. France and the US each used these to discreetly patrol the greater Sahel.
One still May morning in 2013, as the call to prayer saturated the dense desert air, an AQIM splinter group sent suicide bombers to the mine. They crashed through the gates in a Toyota and blew themselves up at the power station. At precisely the same time in Agadez, more than one hundred miles away, attackers shot and exploded their way into a military barracks, killing twenty-four Nigerien soldiers and taking dozens of others hostage. It was the first suicide attack in Niger.
“We attacked France, and we attacked Niger, because of its co-operation with France in the war against Sharia,” Abu Walid al Sahraoui, a spokesman for the splinter group the Movement for Oneness and Unity in Jihad (MUJAO) said in a statement. France downplayed the disaster, but the attack closed the mines for several months, at a loss of roughly 100 million euros.
As global abstractions overwhelm local politics, the mines become a flag to be captured in a war between the West and Islamic militancy. Niger fought for forty years to get a foothold in a race where it was at a steep disadvantage. The real story should have been how it finally forged a precedent-setting internal unity—Tuaregs accept the mines, southern Niger accepts the Tuaregs, everyone is willing to accept the devastation of health and the environment so long as the prospect of being lifted out of abject impoverishment holds fast. But Niger gathers the wherewithal to write its own fate too late; it is at best a supporting actor in the drama unfolding within its territory.
“We are here, in the city, in the dust, looking for work. And we can’t find it,” says Azara, who like most in Arlit is in mourning for the freedom of pastoralism. She is still more afraid of Nigerien soldiers, who have massacred her people, than of the terrorists who pick off foreign targets. Almoustapha, who spends his days chemically transforming yellowcake, most wants partners and support for his quest to make Nigeriens aware of the risks—“so they can decide on their future with regard to uranium.” Mayor Mawli sounds exasperated when he tells me how easy it would be to neutralize the threat posed by the heaped tailings just outside the town, simply by putting the waste in water as is done nearly everywhere else. “All of the insecurity here is due to mismanagement of natural resources,” he says.
If any state benefits from the distraction counter-terrorism provides from these underlying issues, it is France. Insecurity shields the mines from environmental scrutiny. Threats justify deepening militarization, an ongoing erosion of Nigerien sovereignty and independence. And the French mines still face no real obstacle to radiating the radiant desert. In fact, they’re expanding. A new mine—Africa’s largest—is being built near Arlit, at a site called Imouraren. There, a “security belt” encircles 100,000 acres, marking the land off limits to nomads.