LONDON — Security is being stepped up at Western installations across Africa's Sahel region following twin attacks in Niger late last month by Islamist militants. Fears are growing over the extent of the militants’ reach in a region with close links to Europe. The stakes are especially great for France, which is highly dependent on resources mined in its former colonies.
Since the 1970s, much of France’s energy supply has derived from the Sahel region of Africa. So recent attacks on Western commercial interests there have big implications, says energy economist Malcolm Grimston of Imperial College London
“It [France] gets not far short of 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power - that’s by far the highest proportion in the world. It uses around 12,500 tons of uranium per year. Not far short of a third of that comes from Niger already," said Grimston.
Last month Islamist suicide bombers staged twin attacks in Niger - targeting this army barracks in Agadez, and the French run Somair uranium mine in Arlit. One staff member at the mine was killed and uranium production was halted.
The French firm Areva owns the Somair mine. Its president visited Niger the day after the attack to reaffirm the company’s engagement in the country. Areva is developing another site in Niger at Imouraren, says Malcolm Grimston.
“Areva has invested something like 1.5 billion euros [almost $2 billion] in the new mine in Niger. That is a very key area, and I think France will be very keen to maintain its long-term interest and its long-term security in that area," he said.
France has deployed Special Forces alongside Niger's army to protect the mines.
The May attacks follow the assault in January on a gas plant in Algeria. Thirty-nine foreign workers were killed by militants linked to al-Qaida. The plant has yet to reopen.
Fears that Western-run facilities in the Sahel present terror groups with easy targets are over-simplified, says Paul Melly of the London-based policy institute Chatham House.
“On the whole, the security risk is less one of fixed sites, and it's more one of generalized instability and the dangers to the survival of the stable constitutional states in West Africa and the normal process of economic development and political security," said Melly.
Melly says those concerns underpinned France’s military intervention to oust Islamist forces from northern Mali.
“For Europe, West Africa is a long-term fundamental strategic interest rather like Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are for the U.S. It’s that kind of long term investment in partnership that really matters and that’s what underlay the decision to go so far as to send 4,000 troops into Mali," he said.
Analysts say despite the risks, the potential gains for foreign and host governments mean that energy companies are unlikely to suddenly withdraw from the Sahel.