So What Was Iraq Buying From Niger?

No doubt everyone is tired of the Niger uranium story. But this article by Terence Jeffrey in Human Events, linked to this morning by Real Clear Politics, caused me to think again about the practical reality of trade between Iraq and Niger.
Jeffrey’s article notes that in 1999, according to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, an Iraqi named Wissam al Zawahie was sent on a “trade mission” to Niger. The article’s main theme is that al Zawahie was one of the chief Iraqi advocates for the development of nuclear weapons by that country. Jeffrey also recounts that he tried to get more information on Zawahie’s contacts with Niger from the U.N., which interviewed him in Baghdad, but the U.N. refused to disclose any information that had not already been made public.
One of the unanswered questions that Jeffrey posed to the U.N. was: What did Zahawie say Iraq hoped to import from Niger? This caused me to wonder about Niger’s export economy. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries; what, exactly, might it have to sell that Iraq would want to buy? Bearing in mind, of course, that there is no question that Iraq bought large quantities of uranium from Niger in the 1980’s.
Here is what the World Bank tells us: In 1991, Niger’s exports totaled a minuscule $270 million, of which $199 million was uranium. By 2000, exports had crept up to $283 million, of which $90 million was uranium–the decline largely the result of falling prices. Other than uranium, the only exports substantial enough to merit mention by the World Bank were livestock products, at $49 million.
Atlas Marketing Services sheds additional light with this narrative:
“One of the poorest countries in the world, Niger’s economy is based largely on subsistence crops, livestock, and some of the world’s largest uranium deposits. Drought cycles, desertification, a 3.3 percent population growth rate and the declining world demand for uranium have undercut an already marginal economy. Deteriorating terms of trade due to persistently high domestic wage levels and currency devaluations in Nigeria have also contributed to economic decline. Many of the modern sector’s private and parastatal industries have shut down, leaving only a handful of companies engaged in light industry….
“Of Niger’s exports, foreign exchange earnings from livestock, although impossible to quantify, are second only to those from uranium; actual exports far exceed official statistics, which often fail to detect large herds of animals informally crossing into Nigeria.
“The persistent uranium price slump has brought lower revenues for Niger’s uranium sector, although uranium still provides 68 percent of national export proceeds….Niger’s two uranium mines (SOMAIR’s open pit mine and COMINAK’s underground mine) are primarily owned and operated by French interests.”
OK, let’s put this together. Apart from livestock that cross over into Nigeria, it is hard to find any reference to an export product other than uranium. Iraq had bought uranium from Niger in the 1980’s, and in 1999 one of Iraq’s principal advocates of nuclear weapons development was sent on a trade mission to Niger. (He was also accredited as Ambassador to Niger.) If he wasn’t trying to buy uranium, then what was he trying to buy? The French, who would be in the best position to know since they operate Niger’s uranium mines, apparently told the British that he was trying to buy uranium. Would someone please tell me what known facts have “discredited” the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger?


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