Since February, Niger’s army has been battling Boko Haram in its Diffa region. It borders Nigeria’s northeastern region where Boko Haram is trying to establish an Islamic state. This terrorist organization has killed more than 15,000 people and created 1.5 million refugees, some 100,000 of which are in Niger.
Niger’s government has declared a state of emergency in Diffa. If Boko Haram could establish a base there, it would be within striking range of Niger’s Agadez region. The country’s uranium output is produced from three Agadez mines. Boko Haram, which has declared allegiance to the Islamic State, must not be allowed to control one of the world’s largest reserves of uranium ore.
In Van Hipp’s recent book, The New Terrorism, he proposes we help Niger deplete its uranium reserves before terrorists can get them. The author is a friend and his efforts to bring attention to this issue are commendable.
This idea may take years to complete and Hipp believes we should coordinate with the French since French companies work in two of the main uranium mines. The third is run by the Chinese. The Chinese should be cooperative due to their long-term demand for energy.
We must also work with other G7 countries to push for economic aid to Niger in order to get them to extract as much uranium as possible. Intelligence cooperation against Boko Haram from Nigeria and potential Tuareg separatists in the north will also be crucial. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries. Uranium is its leading export. Our allies and we must make sure it’s sold to the right people and that Niger has a way to safely keep the proceeds.
When Uranium One, a U.S. company. was sold to Rosatom, a Russian company (with the Obama Administration apparently asleep at the switch), we potentially lost control of 20 percent of U.S. uranium production. Some of Niger’s uranium output could make up the difference.
If all politics is local in the United States, all politics in Africa is tribal. Van Hipp explains how Niger has experienced rebellions from Tuaregs in northern Niger where the uranium mines are located. The Tuareg are a Berber people, who have waged separatist rebellions in both Mali and Niger. The most recent one in Mali ended with a ceasefire a few months ago. We must not wait for another Tuareg rebellion before working to deplete Niger’s stockpile.
Boko Haram is also a tribal phenomenon, as well as Islamic. Both the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, and its current leader, Abubakar Shekau, are from the Kanuri tribe. While the Hausa and Fulani tribes make up much of the Muslim elite in Nigeria, the Kanuri are marginalized and live in the Borno State, its poorest area.
Most borders in both the Middle East and Africa were drawn by Europeans irrespective of tribal boundaries. As easily as ISIS erased the border between Syria and Iraq, this could happen in Africa. For example, the Hausa tribe comprises most of Niger’s population and at least 20 percent of Nigeria’s. There doesn’t appear to be a Hausa unification movement at the moment, but many Kanuri Muslims in Nigeria have some interest in separatism. Many of the Christians tribes in Nigeria might also have reason for separatism in the future should sectarian tensions escalate.
We must help Niger deplete its uranium before Boko Haram or separatist movements become conflicts that undermine our own national security. The time to act is now.