NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s military rulers for the first time have given their public approval to a multi-billion dollar Chinese oil deal signed by the former president, who was ousted by the army in a February coup.
Former President Mamadou Tandja signed a $5 billion production-sharing agreement for the Agadem oil block with Chinese state-owned CNPC in 2008. However, rights groups have complained the deal lacked transparency and said it should be part of a popular military-led probe of Tandja-era contracts.
But junta chief General Salou Djibo has given his approval of the deal.
“The production-sharing agreement with CNPC allows us, if we manage it well, to guarantee better returns for our country,” he said in a statement on national television late on Monday.
CNPC’s key assets are operated by listed arm PetroChina.
The idea of a probe into contracts signed under Tandja is a popular move but no deals have yet been cancelled and analysts doubt the junta would challenge the Chinese or the French nuclear giant Areva, which also has billions invested there.
China’s ambassador to Niamey said in April that its oil and mining deals in Niger would not be affected by the February 18 coup.
The Agadem oil block has an estimated reserves of 325 million barrels and should come online in three years.
The project is also due to include a 20,000 barrel-per-day refinery, exceeding the country’s 7,000 barrel-per-day needs, and offering the impoverished nation, which imports 80 percent of its electricity from Nigeria, the chance to export fuel.
Djibo made the comments to mark the uranium-exporting nation’s 50th anniversary of its independence from France.
Unlike other African nations that have thrown lavish parties to mark the milestone, Niger is celebrating without fanfare on Tuesday as the country is in the throes of a food crisis that has left millions hungry.
Despite exporting uranium for over four decades, mainly to former colonial power France, Nigerians experience chronic power shortages and most still rely on firewood for fuel.
But Djibo said that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had agreed to support the country’s aims to develop nuclear power-generation at home, giving no further details.
Niger said in February it planned to ask South Africa, the only other country on the continent with a nuclear plant, to help it build a nuclear power station.
Niger is set to become the world’s No. 2 uranium producer when Areva’s 1.2 billion euros Imouraren mine starts production. The startup has been delayed to 2013 or 2014 due to the global financial crisis, Areva said in February.