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Coup in Niger Shows France’s Imperialist Decline

The coup in Niger shows that while French imperialism is in retreat, Chinese and Russian influence is growing in the region.

Claudia Cinatti

August 7, 2023
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People in Niger stand atop a building, waving the Niger flag, following a coup.

The coup d’état in Niger has opened an explosive situation in Africa with international ramifications. On July 26, a few days before the 63rd anniversary of the country’s formal independence from France, members of the presidential guard, led by General Abdourahamane Tiani, surrounded the presidential palace and arrested President Mohamed Bazoum. As the hours went by, the putsch turned into a full-fledged coup. After receiving majority support of the armed forces, General Tiani himself announced in a televised message that he was assuming control of the government.

The streets of Niamey, the capital of the impoverished African country, were filled with demonstrators in support of the coup. Many held handwritten signs against the French neo-colonial presence, particularly “La France Doit Partir” (France Must Leave). The French embassy was also attacked. Although some Russian flags were also seen at the demonstrations, it does not necessarily mean that Russia is behind the coup. Rather, the presence of these flags is an expression of the symbolic place that the Russian and Chinese bloc have come to occupy as an “alternative” to the Western powers.

The fall of President Bazoum was a further blow to France’s diminished imperial claims. While President Emmanuel Macron assured that he would “not tolerate any attack against France and its interests,” he was quickly preparing the evacuation of 600 French nationals from the Nigerian capital, whose safety he could no longer guarantee.

In addition to its geopolitical and military dimension, the change of power in Niger has economic consequences. A significant percentage of the uranium produced by Niger powers France’s energy grid. France’s main source of energy is nuclear power, which is at risk if these uranium exports are lost.

Until the day before the coup, Niger was a key player in the United States’ and France’s strategy in Africa. Ruled by an ally to the West, the country was considered a factor of relative stability in a deeply unstable region and a bulwark in the “war on terror,” particularly after NATO’s intervention in Libya and its transformation into a failed state. France has stationed some 1,500 troops in Niger, mostly displaced from Mali after its humiliating expulsion last year. The Pentagon still has about 1,000 troops and two bases in Niger. One of those bases is very important, as it is where drone strikes are launched against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other militia groups, such as Boko Haram, which became famous for kidnapping hundreds of girls from a school in Nigeria.

In addition, President Bazoum was working closely with French and EU efforts to stem the waves of migrants by blocking their access to North African countries, from where smugglers transport migrants to the Mediterranean. The loss of this ally has therefore had an impact beyond West Africa and forces the Western powers to recalculate their imperialist, anti-immigrant strategy.

In a major twist, Niger has now become the latest link in a chain of coups — seven in the last three years — that have shaken the Sahel region. It has become part of the so-called “coup corridor”: a 3,400-mile strip stretching from Guinea on the west coast, through Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad to Sudan at the other end.

What is indisputable is that Africa has entered fully into a strategic dispute between two blocs. On of these is the “Western” bloc, led by the United States and made up of the EU and NATO and its allies. The other bloc is the informal alliance between Russia and China whose main theater of operations is the war in Ukraine. In this turbulent context of rivalries and shifting alliances, other minor powers such as Turkey are also asserting their influence.

African countries’ geopolitical realignment is expressed in a number of ways, including in the heated anti-French (and anti-Western) rhetoric of the governments that emerged from these coups, and their move into the orbit of Russia and China. China in particular has become these countries’ main trading partner and, in some cases, main creditor.

The coup in Niger occurred while the Russia-Africa Summit was being held in St. Petersburg. Attendance was lower than the previous summit in 2019, partly in protest of Russia’s recent withdrawal from the UN-brokered grain export agreement. However, the summit still showed significant support for Russia in the context of the policy pushed by the United States and Western powers to isolate the country in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The summit also served as a way for Putin to assert Russian influence. Among other things, he promised to send up to 50,000 tons of grain free of charge to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea.

Friendly relations with Russia also run through parastatal channels. The Wagner Group, a private militia commanded by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has proven to be a relatively cheap and efficient tool for expanding Russian influence in Africa. The militia has a presence in Mali, the Central African Republic, and other countries where it provides “security” services in exchange for lucrative mining deals.

The situation is fluid, and it is not yet clear whether the coup will end up consolidating power, so any hypotheses drawn at this point are speculative. However, it has exposed the formation of two blocs on the African continent. One of these is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a coalition of 15 countries currently chaired by Nigeria and allied to Western powers. ECOWAS immediately imposed harsh economic sanctions on Niger, suspended energy supplies, temporarily closed borders, and gave the military junta an ultimatum to restore President Bazoum to government or else face retaliation, including the possibility of military intervention. The other bloc, made up of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, has spoken out in favor of the coup in Niger and declared that any intervention in that country would be taken as a “declaration of war.”

It may be that ECOWAS’s threat of intervention acts as a means of pressure, along with sanctions and the suspension of financial aid. However, the dynamics of these events mean that military action cannot be ruled out. The historical antecedents are the interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In fact, some countries, such as Benin, have already announced their willingness to send troops. ECOWAS is supported by the United States and France (and the EU), and therefore serves as a vector of imperialist interference and a possible “proxy” for Western powers in a hypothetical intra-African war.

An Anti-colonial Revolt?

Both as a French colony and since its independence in 1960, Niger has been subjected to extreme poverty, dependence, and plunder. It is one of the poorest countries with one of the highest birth rates in the world. Its social indicators are alarming: 41 percent of its 25 million inhabitants live in absolute poverty, barely 11 percent have access to basic health services, and an estimated 7 percent are still subjected to slave-like conditions. Droughts and land desertification, caused by climate change, are affecting family farming, which around 80 percent of the population rely on for survival.

But this misery contrasts with the fact that Niger is the world’s seventh largest uranium producer, and also produces gold and oil. Most of the uranium mines are controlled by imperialist corporations, with France’s Orano leading the way. As a result of imperialist plundering, not a cent of these riches is left for the vast masses in Niger.

What Niger and, more generally, the coups with anti-French sentiment show is the profound rejection of the neocolonial interference and oppression that continued in the form of so-called “Francophobia” after the formal independence of these countries in the 1960s. France’s “gendarme” role in its former African colonies, the imposition of local elites aligned with its interests, and its military presence have been at the service of plundering these countries’ resources.

Although France is a declining power and China has taken its place as the African continent’s privileged trading partner, it is resisting its loss of influence in what was once its backyard. Even the currency of the African Financial Community, previously tied to the French franc and now to the euro, persists as a colonial hangover, as it is still used by 14 African countries. 

The relationship between the structural misery of these plundered countries and the neocolonial past and present explains the deep anti-French sentiment that runs through Africa, especially among the younger generations. The coups are largely motivated by cliquish disputes over control of the military-state apparatus, rather than being “anti-colonial” (let alone “anti-imperialist”). These groups try to build their legitimacy by stirring up anti-French sentiment and shifting allegiances to China and Russia.

This policy was best expressed by Captain Ibrahim Traore, the current leader of Burkina Faso’s interim government after the coup. At the Russia-Africa summit, Traore invoked the memory of Thomas Sankara, the leader of the anti-colonial struggle in the 1980s and a notable figure of Pan-Africanism. In his speech, Traore hailed the advent of a “multipolar order” and the alliance with “true friends” such as Russia.

The hegemonic decline of the United States and the emergence of powers such as China and Russia that propose a “multipolar order” as an alternative has accelerated with the war in Ukraine. This is the basis of “campist” positions that believe that in order to oppose the imperialist domination of the U.S. and the EU, it is necessary to align with China and Russia. However, these two countries represent equally reactionary capitalist bloc pursuing its own imperial interests. While the Western powers claim to act in “defense of democracy” in order to obfuscate their imperialist objectives, Putin uses “anti-colonial” rhetoric to increase his geopolitical influence for the benefit of Russian capitalism. Both Russia and China seek plunder Africa’s strategic resources. China imposes onerous conditions on loans to African countries in its role as their main creditor. This is in opposition to the interests of the workers, peasants and oppressed peoples of Africa and the world.

Originally published in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda on August 6.

Translation by Molly Rosenzweig

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Claudia Cinatti

Claudia is an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina.

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