Niger gained independence in 1960, but France’s presence still looms large.


President Emmanuel Macron of France is attempting to mend the country’s troubled relationship with its former colonies.

WHEN I was growing up in Arlit, a town in Niger, many of the adults around me worked in the mines. It was the 1990s, long before I dreamed of writing music and playing guitar. I remember seeing miners, who worked long days underground and only returned home at night, turn sick. Because of the radiation in the uranium mines, many developed serious medical issues — respiratory illnesses, pulmonary diseases and paralysis. I recall the women developing symptoms, too, and experiencing premature childbirths. Cancer was prevalent, not only in men and women, but also in children.

Niger is a poor country, but it’s rich in natural resources. When France shut down its domestic mines in 2001, the uranium mines in Niger, which have been in operation since the late 1960s, picked up the slack. Today, the drilling is done by corporations, many of which are majority-owned by the French government. One of the few ways for Nigeriens to get gainful employment is to work for these mining companies.

Understanding the scope of the mines and how they affect Niger means understanding colonialism in practice.

HeraldScotland: Somair’s mineral treatment plant near the uranium opencast mine exploited by Areva, in Arlit, Niger in February 2005. (Pierre Verdy/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images)Somair’s mineral treatment plant near the uranium opencast mine exploited by Areva, in Arlit, Niger in February 2005. (Pierre Verdy/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images)

France is no longer in my country, technically – we gained our independence in 1960 – but its impact is still deeply felt. In Niger, we speak French, spend French money, work for French companies and toil in the mines, supplying our nation’s precious materials to France. In some ways, we are a country in name only.

Daily life in Niger today is not that different from what it was when I was young. It’s even comparable to when the French began uranium mining here in the late 1960s. We existed then to supply exports to France – cheap labour, material goods, natural resources – and our function is the same today. Our most valuable resources, our uranium deposits, belong to France, contractually anyway, and get sent there. Perhaps if we had built these mines ourselves, we could have kept some of the money. Per the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which analyses a population’s average health, education level and income to measure a country’s quality of life, Niger ranks dead last on the list of 189 countries and territories.

One might think that with our bountiful natural resources, we might have a functioning, maybe even advanced, power grid. But while our uranium powers some of the nuclear electricity France runs on, we have to import much of our electricity from Nigeria, another former colony. It seems that we exist only as an afterthought.

I grew up learning guitar on a contraption made from wood and bicycle wire. When I finally got a real guitar, I plugged it into an amplifier that ran on batteries. In fact, I still use battery powered amplifiers. A handful of albums and a dozen tours into my career, I still can’t depend on Niger’s power grid when it’s time to play music. Unlike most American and European musicians, my band can’t plug their equipment into a wall. As for getting to shows, the mining trails that were built between the cities and towns that sprung up around French owned plants barely help anybody.

HeraldScotland: Mdou Moctor (Cem Misirlioglu)Mdou Moctor (Cem Misirlioglu)

When my band and I visit the United States, it takes us less than five hours to travel the approximate 200 miles between New York and Boston. The distance between Arlit and Agadez, a city in my province, is 50 miles shorter, but the trip takes about 10 hours longer. Arlit and Niamey, Niger’s capital, are 750 miles apart, but traveling from one to the other requires an overnight stop — and sometimes a second. This situation is not the starkest reminder of the colonial legacy France has left behind in my country, but it’s an immediate one.

Colonialism is a theme that I explore in a lot of my music. My new album “Afrique Victime” is my most political one yet. But Niger has more problems than I can fit in one album. France’s military presence – its tanks, drones and weapons – pockmark our region. Boko Haram, the terrorist organisation based in Nigeria, has crept into Niger and become increasingly prevalent. Just this summer, 16 soldiers in Niger were killed by Boko Haram militants. Meanwhile, France’s weapons lie idle.

People often ask me how Niger can be helped and whether colonialism can be overcome. I’m not optimistic. While the French flag no longer flies in Niger, the ugly truth is that my country remains a resource colony for France because of its mines. There is no clear way out of our abject poverty, and every day, France’s presence and influence become more deeply embedded and inextricable from our nation’s being.

Colonialism still exists in Niger because it has been allowed to exist. But moving past colonialism is not a problem Nigeriens should be tasked with. It is not something we can do ourselves, and it shouldn’t be. I do what I can with my music, but I can only amplify my own message – a message conveyed through a battery-operated guitar that doesn’t always turn on.

Niger’s situation won’t change until France, given how much power it still holds here, acknowledges the toxic role it has played in shaping my country and the damaging consequences of its continued presence. France needs our power to operate, yet we have no power ourselves.

It’s time for change.

© 2021 The New York Times Company and Mdou Moctar