Africa  •  International

Coup in Niger exposes acute crisis of Sahel region

07 August 2023

By Dave Stockton

ON 26 JULY, Niamey, the capital of the West African state of Niger, saw the presidential guard, led by Brigadier General Abdourahmane Tchiani, arrest and depose President Mohamed Bazoum. After brief hesitation, the rest of the army followed suit.

The coup was welcomed by demonstrators, many organised by the M62 alliance of political and social movements which was formed during last year’s street protests against fuel price increases. They waved not only flags of Niger but also of the Russian Federation and carried placards saying, “France get out!”. Speakers called for Wagner forces to come to Niger as they have to Mali. It seems the trigger for the coup was President Bazoum’s plans to replace the heads of the presidential guard and the army.

There is a tradition of anti-colonial politics amongst the junior officers in West African armed forces going back to figures like Thomas Sankara, who ruled Burkina Faso from 1983-1987 or Jerry Rawlings in Ghana. They were both motivated by pan-Africanist ideals and influenced by the Cuban revolution.

It is unlikely that today’s coup makers are motivated by any such radicalism. Indeed, the idea that turning to Wagner or Putin’s Russia will help the states of the region achieve independence or development is a total illusion. But so, too, is the idea that France or the EU/USA represent democracy. They oppose the coup because Bazoum was their man.

No wonder, then, that his main hope of restoration comes from abroad. France, the former colonial power, condemned the coup immediately and suspended all aid to Niger. 40 per cent of Niger’s budget comes from foreign aid. Emmanuel Macron threatened that “any attack against France and its interests will not be tolerated”. His condemnation was closely echoed by the European Union and the United States.

The Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas, imposed sanctions, including a no-fly zone and border closures and its dominant state, Nigeria, which supplies 70 per cent of Niger’s electricity, cut off the power supply, plunging the country into night time darkness.

Ecowas defence ministers, meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja, threatened a military intervention if Bazoum were not returned to power by August 6. The deadline has passed but thus far there are no signs of any attack. In response to the threats, however, Niger’s neighbouring states, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, promised to come to its aid if it is invaded, thus threatening a full scale regional war.

France has 1,500 troops in Niger, and the USA has 1,100. Ostensibly, they are there to train and arm the Nigerien armed forces to fight Islamist rebels. Brigadier Tchiani has revoked all the military agreements with France

Underlying the hostility to France lies not just its brutal colonial past, nor even repeated military interventions in the former colonies to “preserve order” or rescue French civilians, but the economic exploitation of the region and the failure to bring about any serious economic development.

France currently has around 30 companies or subsidiaries in Niger, including the Orano conglomerate which operates the huge Tamgak uranium mine. Niger is the seventh-largest producer of uranium in the world and its product has long been vital to France’s nuclear industry, which produces 68 per cent of the country’s power. There are also major lithium deposits, which are becoming ever more valuable due to the rapidly expanding electric vehicles industry.

Yet, despite, or rather because of, this immense natural wealth, and who exploits it, Niger still ranks189th among 191 countries in the 2022 United Nations’ Human Development Index and 40 per cent of its population live in extreme poverty.

The Niger takeover is a major blow to France and the US, UK and countries like Germany and Italy, which have aided French forces in Africa in the name of the “war on terror”. Since the US-led interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the centre of the Islamist guerrilla movements has moved to the regions around the Sahara.

These troops’ presence has re-ignited popular hostility to France and its allies, both because of the failure to bring the promised security and French companies’ continued exploitation of the region where poverty has increased and climate change (desertification) has fomented frictions between farming and nomadic populations.

These conditions have favoured Russia’s penetration of the region, in the form of the Wagner group of Russian mercenaries, who are already operating in neighbouring Mali, as well as the Central African Republic, where they are also exploiting the country’s gold mines. Wagner had an estimated 5,000 operatives in Africa before the Ukraine War. It is noteworthy, too, that the organisation’s maverick leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, immediately welcomed the Niger coup, though Putin more cautiously just warned against a military intervention by Ecowas.

Niger comes as a particularly hard blow to Macron. After being forced to abandon the “anti-terrorist” joint operations with the five nations of the Sahel and the humiliating expulsion of his troops from Mali, he had designated the country as the centre for a scaled down operation, based on West African military proxies with French “trainers”. This was to replace the discredited and hated Operation Barkhane. (2014-2022) which at its peak involved 3,500 French troops. The strongly pro-French Bazoum, was to be the obedient agent of this policy.

The entire state system, that used to be called Françafrique, France’s “backyard,” has fallen apart over the last few years. France’s banks and extractive corporations, however, still dominate their economies. The West African states, despite repeated attempts, have not been able to create a common monetary system independent of the French central bank. The CFA Franc is still the common currency of the 14 African countries and requires each to keep half their reserves in Paris.

What the coup in Niger and those in the surrounding states show is the semi-colonial system at its most naked and exploitative. But turning to Russian (or Chinese) imperialism is no solution to the region’s underdevelopment, which is driving hundreds of thousands to risk crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Nor will military regimes prove resistant to corruption or being suborned by Western or Russian imperialists.

The youth and the working classes of these countries need to unite across the artificial colonial borders, across the Francophone/Anglophone divisions, and fight to take control over the enormous resources of these lands and plan them to massively raise the living standards of their peoples. In short, a genuinely anti-imperialist revolution must become a socialist one, too, but one based on the democracy of the workers of the cities and the countryside, and the rank and file soldiers, not their officer corps.


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