Welcome to Arlit, the impoverished uranium capital of Africa.
From Niamey, the capital of the landlocked West African nation of Niger, we call ahead to a desert town in the remote north of the country. “Journalists? On their way here? It’s been a while”, we hear down the phone from our contact. “We welcome you with open arms, but only on the pretence that you’re visiting to interview migrants on their way to Algeria. If they find out you’re poking your nose in their business, it’s a lost cause.”
That same evening, the public bus jolts as it sets off. Destination: the gates of the Sahara. The stuffy subtropical heat gradually fades into scorching drought and plains of seemingly endless ochre sands. About two days later, we pass through a gateway with “Arlit” written on it in rusty letters.
The town of about 120,000 inhabitants is located in one of the Sahel’s most remote regions, not far from the Algerian border. The surrounding area is known to be the operating territory of numerous bandits and armed groups, including Islamist militants. It is like an island in the middle of the desert, an artificial oasis with only one raison d’être: uranium.
Areva in Arlit
For Arlit, 2 February 1968 was a crucial date. Eight years earlier, Niger had gained its independence from France, but now, the former colonial power was deepening its role in the country once again. After years of research, the French government had decided to open its first uranium mine in the area.
Starting production was relatively straightforward. “In the West you need a bookshelf full of permissions and certificates. In Niger, you give someone a spade and two dollars a day, and you’re mining uranium”, wrote journalist Danny Forston when he visited the town.
And so it went. The first shovel in the northern sand was accompanied by handshakes and the promise of an honest collaboration between one of the world’s least developed countries and its former coloniser. The French swore that Arlit would soon be known as Le Petit Paris.