Africa  •  International

Coups challenge French hold over former African colonies

08 September 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. It is rumoured that the trigger was Bazoum’s plan to replace the heads of the presidential guard and the army.

The rest of the army soon supported the coup, which was welcomed on the streets by demonstrators, some organised by the M62 alliance of political and social movements which was formed during last year’s street protests against fuel price increases. Demonstrators waved not only the flags of Niger but also of the Russian Federation and carried placards saying, ‘France get out!’ Speakers called for Russia’s Wagner Group forces to come to Niger as they have to neighbouring Mali, where they helped the 2020 coup leaders speed up France’s withdrawal of its military forces from that country.

The Niger coup joins a series in sub-Saharan Africa—Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan and now, scarcely a month after Niger, Gabon in equatorial Africa. All, apart from Sudan, were former French colonies in which France has maintained strong economic links and often military forces, under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’. Gabon is also a member of the British Commonwealth.

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, and Jerry Rawlings in Ghana. They were both motivated by pan-Africanist ideals and influenced by the Cuban revolution. But there are few signs that today’s coup makers are motivated by any such radicalism. They belong rather to another tradition, ‘praetorianism’ i.e. revolts by the privileged presidential guards against their masters.

Indeed, the ‘democratic’ presidents they replaced were often corrupt and their elections and re-elections deeply flawed. But it is highly unlikely that the coup makers will prove less corrupt, let alone any more democratic than the men they replaced. The idea that calling in the Wagner Group, Putin’s Russia or Chinese investors will help the states of the region achieve any fuller independence is a complete delusion.

Equally false are the claims of France, the EU, and the USA that they, by contrast, are champions of meaningful democracy or will ever raise the pitifully low standard of living for the people of these countries. Niger has one of the lowest Human Development Indices (HDI) in the world, with 41% of its population living in absolute poverty, only 11% able to access health care, and 17% with electricity.

France, the former colonial power, condemned the coup, not solely because Bazoum was their man, but because Niger had been designated as the centre for a reordered French and US military domination of the region after the setbacks in Mali and neighbouring countries. Emmanuel Macron threatened that ‘any attack against France and its interests will not be tolerated’. France still has 1,500 troops in Niger, the USA has 1,100, and they are refusing to recognise Brigadier Tchiani’s request for their withdrawal.

The Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas, immediately imposed sanctions, including a no-fly zone and border closures. Its dominant state, Nigeria, which supplies 70% of Niger’s electricity, immediately cut off the power supply, and with the borders closed, food supplies are being blocked. The cost of staples like rice rocketed in Niamey within days of the blockade. The aim is to starve the population into accepting the reinstatement of France’s man.

Ecowas defence ministers, meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja, also threatened military intervention if Bazoum were not restored to power. In fact, this would mean the Nigerian army, which makes up the bulk of Ecowas military forces. This in turn has led Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso to promise to come to Niger’s aid if Ecowas does invade, a development which could lead to a full scale regional war. French ministers have indicated support for such a move, but US administration figures are far more cautious and seem willing to instead seek links with the military governments of the region to prevent Russian advances.

A regional war would prove a gift to the multiple islamist organisations active across the region. These include the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Murabitoun, Ansar Dine, Katiba Macina and Boko Haram. They have proved remarkably resilient to attempts by regional armies and their French ‘trainers’ to eliminate them, terrorising parts of the local population but receiving support from others. The brutality of the ‘anti-terrorist’ forces helps them recruit unemployed and disoriented youth.

Colonial exploitation

Underlying the hostility to France in all these states is not just a heritage of the brutal colonial past, nor even its repeated military interventions in the former colonies to ‘preserve order’ or ‘rescue French civilians’, but rather the economic exploitation of the rich natural resources of the region, combined with 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% 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 ranks 189th among 191 countries in the 2022 United Nations’ Human Development Index.

The Niger takeover is another major blow to France (and by extension the US, UK and countries like Germany and Italy, which have aided French forces in Africa in the name of the ‘war on terror’ and re-ignited popular hostility to France and its allies) because of the failure to either bring the promised security, or to alleviate poverty. These conditions have favoured the Wagner Group’s penetration of the region, with Russian mercenaries 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 twelve countries across Africa before Yevgeny Prigozhin’s assassination, and he welcomed the Niger coup shortly before his death.

Niger’s Bazoum was a particularly close ally of France, so his overthrow 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 new strategy was to replace the discredited and hated Operation Barkhane (2014–2022) which at its peak involved 3,500 French troops. France had engaged in a nine-year military campaign in Mali against islamist guerrillas, and also posted thousands of troops in Niger and Burkina Faso. Their presence angered local populations. Amid mounting strikes and protests against them, French troops were forced to leave Mali, and a large UN peacekeeping force was also forced to withdraw.

The entire state system of the region is a semi-colonial replacement of parts of the French Empire that gained nominal independence around 1960, known as Françafrique, i.e. France’s ‘backyard’. Its components have fallen like dominos over the last five years. However, France’s banks and extractive corporations still dominate the West African countries’ economies. These very weak states, despite repeated attempts, have been unable to create a common monetary system independent of the Banque de France. The CFA Franc is still the common currency of the 14 African countries, including Gabon, and this requires each member state to keep half their reserves in Paris.

This naked and exploitative semi-colonial system and the economic hardship it engenders explains the initial popular enthusiasm which the coups receive. But turning to Russian (or Chinese) imperialism will prove no solution for the region’s underdevelopment, which is driving hundreds of thousands to risk crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

It is likely, too, that the assassination of Prigozhin and the Wagner Group’s core leadership and their replacement by Russian generals will make them far less effective than they have been hitherto. Nor will new military regimes themselves prove any more resistant to corruption and bribery by Western, Russian or Chinese governments and businesses. Neither of these rival camps can bring development, let alone independence, to this part of Africa.

In the event of a French, US or Ecowas military intervention, workers and youth should defend their countries by joining the armed struggle and seeking to come to the head of the national liberation movement. However, they should not give any political support to military rule by the coup leaders, who are in bed with Russian imperialism and no friend to the working class.

Such a liberation struggle could lead to the creation of workers councils to defend democracy, women, trade union and minorities’ rights and act as the organisers of elections to sovereign constituent assemblies, with recallable delegates. But free elections alone will not be sufficient to solve the glaring economic and social inequality. For this, the great foreign companies that control the extractive industries and trading bodies must be expropriated, under workers control, and brought into a plan of development.

For this to become a realistic prospect, the working class in Niger, and all of West Africa, needs to build revolutionary parties to fight for the goal of a socialist federation across the entire region. This will involve forging unity across the artificial colonial borders, across the Francophone / Anglophone divisions, a fight to take control over the enormous natural and industrial resources of these lands and a plan to utilise them to massively raise the living standards of the people. In short, a genuinely anti-imperialist revolution must inevitably become a struggle for socialism, based on the democracy of the workers of the cities and the countryside and the rank and file soldiers.

Right now, the workers of sub-Saharan Africa need the aid and solidarity of the workers of Europe and the US. In these countries, socialists need to oppose any Ecowas invasion of Niger, any involvement of French, EU or US forces, and fight for the lifting of all sanctions imposed by them.

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