Civil society groups are marching in Niger's capital Saturday to demand that the French nuclear energy company, Areva, quit mining Niger's uranium. The march comes after months of government accusations that the company is supporting a rebellion in the northeast uranium rich Agadez region. But watchdog groups say the company's exit will not end the violence or improve Niger's troubled mining sector. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.
March organizer, Nouhou Arzika, president of the newly-formed Citizen's Movement for Peace and Democracy, says the French company Areva is an enemy of the state.
He says Areva should leave because it is supporting the rebellion and hiring mercenaries to help the rebels plant landmines.
Earlier this year, Tuareg fighters in Niger's mineral-rich northeast renewed a decade-old rebellion to demand more royalties from uranium mining, a big source of Niger's revenue.
Government officials have accused Areva, the world's largest nuclear power firm which has had a four-decade lock on Niger's uranium mining, of funding the rebels in order to frighten off rival firms.
The Niger government recently lifted Areva's monopoly after expelling the company's local manager.
Rebel leaders and Areva have denied the rebel-funding allegations. The company has since increased the fees it pays the government and has pledged to improve mining practices, which lawyers say are harmful to the miners and the environment.
Niger's mining sector is not only tainted by accusations of harmful practices. There are also allegations of corruption.
Ali Idrissa is national coordinator of a watchdog group that tracks Niger's compliance with the global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, administered by the World Bank.
The initiative is a voluntary effort by mineral-rich countries to improve mineral and oil revenue tracking. Niger signed on two years ago and is in the process of deciding how best to comply.
The watchdog coordinator says rather than asking Areva to leave, the government should increase Areva's mining fees and publish the royalties.
Idrissa says if Areva does not exploit the reserves, another company will. And Niger will face the same problem of mineral wealth leaving the country.
Niger recently granted 30 prospecting and mining contracts to other countries, including China, South Africa and the United States.
The transparency group questions how the Niger government has spent an estimated $600 million in uranium mining royalties over 40 years.
The Secretary General of the Ministry of Mining and Energy, Abdoul Razack, defends Niger's handling of the revenues. Razack denies rebel allegations that the government has funneled mining revenues into weapons and fighter planes. He adds that since 2005 the ministry has made its revenues publicly available, and will continue to do so.
Despite being the world's third largest producer of uranium with almost 10 percent of the market, Niger has the worst living conditions in the world, according to the United Nations.
The government recently declared a state of alert in the northeast.
At least 40 government soldiers have died in rebel attacks over the past seven months in the northeast. Tuareg fighters have also taken almost 40 people hostage. The government has refused to negotiate with the rebels until they end their violence.