That was plain to see from the front page of the government newspaper this month. China’s ambassador to Niger, Xia Huang, was prominently shown inspecting the bridge that his country is building here in the capital. About 10 days before, Mr. Xia had proclaimed on state television that China’s extensive oil and uranium interests in Niger had not been “disrupted by the events” — the coup — in February, news agencies reported.
There may still be some small perturbations. The junta has said broadly that it may adjust any deals made by Mr. Tandja to ensure that they sufficiently benefit Niger, a nation rich in uranium and, potentially, oil.
But the junta does not seem eager to upset the Chinese — “checking doesn’t mean calling into question,” said Col. Abdoulkarim Goukoye, a junta member — and for now China appears to be proceeding confidently, sealing its reputation here as the continent’s behind-the-scenes force, ready to do business regardless of who is in power or whatever outrage exists about it.
“They couldn’t care less” who leads the country, Mohamed Bazoum, a former opposition leader recently appointed by the junta to a civilian council, said of China’s investments in Niger. “The Chinese, they were about to destroy democracy. They were playing a very negative role.”
But even Mr. Bazoum did not suggest breaking with China now. In a sign of how desperately Niger needs investment — the nation ranks at the very bottom of the United Nations human development index — Mr. Bazoum said he hoped the old deals would be respected, suggesting how quickly the looming backlash against China here has become an embrace.
“When the international community turns its back on you, you’ve got to find money somewhere,” said Sanoussi Tambari Jackou, the senior member of Niger’s Parliament. After all, he said, “it’s the West that threw Tandja into the arms of the Chinese.”
France, the former colonial power here, has also been criticized by opposition leaders for not speaking out forcefully enough against Mr. Tandja, and the largely state-owned French nuclear engineering giant, Areva, has two uranium mines here, with plans for a third.
But last year, as Mr. Tandja dissolved Parliament and the nation’s highest court, France adhered to the European Union’s suspension of aid to Niger, a penalty enforced by the United States as well. The suspension has hurt the junta, too, because it remains in effect until new elections are scheduled.
China, by contrast, has stayed the course. Cash flowed from a substantial fund established by the Chinese, allowing Mr. Tandja to continue paying salaries as Western support ebbed. Now that he is gone, work has continued on a giant Chinese-built oil refinery in the nation’s east.
China has multimillion-dollar deals all over West Africa, in countries with every shade of authoritarian leaning, according to a 2009 atlas of Africa by Stephen Smith, an Africa specialist. But its interests here are among the most significant, putting Niger easily in the top 10 African countries in terms of Chinese investment, said Deborah Brautigam of American University in Washington, a specialist in China-Africa relations.
As Mr. Tandja consolidated his grip on power, ultimately pushing through a new Constitution that seemed tailor-made to keep him in office indefinitely, the streets rumbled with protests. Yet Mr. Tandja evidently felt buffered by his powerful ally. Chinese cash, Chinese investments, big Chinese projects in oil, uranium and hydroelectric power — potentially worth billions of dollars — had been multiplying in Mr. Tandja’s final years in power in this arid, landlocked country.
“He was counting blindly on the Chinese,” declared a former top official in the Tandja government.
In particular, a crucial “signing bonus” of $300 million, part of a secretive oil deal he reached with China in 2008, has been instrumental in keeping public finances afloat, first for Mr. Tandja and now for the junta that deposed him, Western diplomats here say.
The Chinese ambassador had instant entree to Mr. Tandja’s whitewashed presidential palace, at all hours, people close to the former government said; Chinese executives dealt directly with the presidency, bypassing ministers; and Mr. Tandja’s son Ousmane was firmly ensconced as his country’s “commercial attaché” in China, serving as a go-between.
Buried deep in the secret oil contract was another sweetener: $6.6 million to “allow the state to satisfy its obligations,” without specifying what they might be, to be paid into an account “whose details are to be supplied by the state.”
Jane Hahn for The New York Times
Sanoussi Tambari Jackou, left, a senior lawmaker, has defended Niger’s ties with China.
Jane Hahn for The New York Times
A coup that ousted Mamadou Tandja, whose portraits adorned his party’s offices.
Jane Hahn for The New York Times
Mohamed Bazoum, a former opposition leader, says deals with China must be respected.
Mr. Tandja is now being held without charge by the military junta in a villa near the palace, a prisoner under guard. In his place, a previously unknown army major and squadron commander, Salou Djibo, is running the country, the world’s sixth-largest uranium exporter. He promises a transition to civilian rule and elections but has not said when.
Ultimately, the marriage of convenience was mutually self-deceiving, in the view of diplomats here. Mr. Tandja “lived in a world of dreams,” believing he could continue to “mobilize new dollars,” said one diplomat with knowledge of the country’s resources.
As for the Chinese, they “have no good assessment of the repayment capacities” of the people of Niger, the diplomat said. China is pouring hundreds of millions into developing oil in Niger, but none has been extracted yet, said Malam Brah Mamadou, a member of a local organization that keeps close watch on extractive industries in Niger.
The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment, and the local office of the China National Petroleum Corporation did not answer queries. But the ambassador, Mr. Xia, has vigorously defended his country’s activities here, pointing out China’s investments in health, education and agriculture.
The people of Niger “are eyewitnesses to the benefits of the friendship between the two countries,” Mr. Xia said earlier this month, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency.
In the capital, the Chinese presence is still visible: groups of Chinese working on the new bridge, crowding the departure lounge at the airport, behind the normally closed gates of the sprawling Chinese economic mission downtown.
Mr. Tandja had openly sanctified the presence of his new friends, in a speech that captured their singular position. “Today, we work with the Chinese, and you can easily identify them,” Mr. Tandja told a gathering near the oil fields in December. “Any presence here other than the Chinese should be brought to our attention immediately. Remain vigilant.”
Then, for five days after Mr. Tandja was overthrown, the Chinese companies exploring for oil in the north and east ceased operations, only to resume right after that, workers there said. The symmetry of interests continued, even after Mr. Tandja’s fall