by Brecht Jonkers (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 7, Safar, 1445)
The overthrow of the French-backed government of Mohamed Bazoum in Niger on July 26 can perhaps be compared to the defeat of Apartheid in South Africa nearly 30 years ago. Bazoum not only held the post of president of Niger but was also chairman of the neoliberal agenda-pushing West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA). Its disapproval rating among Niger’s population was very high.
That did not mean he fulfilled a special role in the West African political constellation. In many ways, Bazoum could be seen as a typical exponent of mainstream politics in many former French colonies in West Africa.
Criticism of his government ranged from the rising cost of living, continued high levels of poverty and gross incompetence. The failure of successive rulers in Niamey to suppress the Wahhabi-takfiri insurgency by groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda only added to public discontent.
When Chief of Staff Salifou Modi visited neighboring Mali last March and agreed on joint anti-terrorist measures, Bazoum promptly sacked him. With earlier anti-imperialist movements, particularly anti-French sentiment, taking over in both Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger became one of the last explicitly “pro-French” pillars in the region, one that France but the United States made eager use of in the ongoing charade known as the “War on Terror”.
Nearly 1,100 US soldiers and a full-fledged CIA base were stationed in Niger by the time the July 26 coup occurred. This further enraged most Nigeriens to a level eventually leading the new commander of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani to step in.
Bazoum was deposed and imprisoned. Rule in Niger passed to a new transitional government named the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP).
Not unexpectedly, the western mainstream media went berserk condemning the “military takeover” in Niger. It has tried to spice things up by pointing to the “role of Wagner and Russia” in fomenting instability in the Sahel, and warning against “further instability” in the region. The question is, whether a region targeted by Wahhabi insurgents for years causing several thousand civilian casualties under the watchful eye of French and US “military support” could ever be called “stable” or peaceful. But even this does not get to the crux of the matter.
Lingering French neo-colonialism
Much of West Africa is sick and tired of French neocolonialism, of the “Françafrique” stay-behind project and the CFA franc monetary system that ties local currencies to that of the French franc (and afterwards the euro) and to the influence of the French treasury. Mali is sick of the massive exploitation of its gold by France. Paris has accumulated 2,500 tonnes of gold reserves without a single gold mine in France while Mali, with approximately 860 operational gold mines, has merely 881 tonnes of gold reserves. Similarly, the new government in Niamey is highly critical of the way in which France has profited from the abundance of uranium in Niger. The yellow cake is highly sought by the French energy market that is dependent on nuclear power for over 71% of its needs.
The bloody history of France in Africa, including the continuing imperialist legacy has lingered on the continent even after ‘independence’. Western, especially French neo-colonialism is so blatant and well-known that even the western mainstream media cannot deny or obfuscate this fact. They offer vague excuses like “Russia not being any better”, “improvement being on the horizon” and the often-heard “this is not the way”. “This” here means the involvement of either (or both) the military stepping in or the masses rallying in the streets.
For European pundits, people in the Sahel region should simply take the “civilized” path by copying Europe. They should elect a politician that will negotiate his way to a better future for his country, without any negative repercussions for western business interests, of course.
Condemning revolutionary developments in countries like Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger as mere “military coups”, simply because the direct action of removal of the previous elite was taken by personnel of the armed forces, is a simplistic and naïve interpretation of events.
It shows a lack of understanding of the political situation and the recent history of the Sahel region in particular, as well as the deeply entrenched nepotism and the firmly exclusionist and foreign-controlled stability of the ruling elite that has existed in these countries.
Whining that “the transition of power should happen democratically” disregards the fact that a democratic transition was nearly impossible in any of the aforementioned countries. The ruling cliques in countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso closely resemble a form of modern aristocracy, in which the possibility of rising through the ranks often hinges on who you know and whose palms you grease, rather than on who you are or what you can do.
The maxim “it’s a big club, and you ain’t in it” applied to the political elite in these countries, much like the United States. In the US, political outsiders have no chance to “make it” within the system, unless they completely sell out. And even those who are championed as “outsiders” like Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, turn out to be either low-level insiders from the beginning, or have been astroturfed and groomed from the beginning to give a semblance of revitalisation while keeping the rotten core of the system intact.
The situation in much of the Sahel is quite similar. Of all the former colonial powers, France has pursued the most hands-on approach. In many respects, France never left its former colonies. French military bases still dot the landscape; France takes away the gold reserves and stores them in Europe, and Paris controls the currency of these countries through the CFA franc, leaving them no financial sovereignty.
“Democratic transition” simply wasn’t feasible. There was barely any capacity to vote for an alternative. The political system was rigid and rigged, not to mention highly static with little option for vertical social mobility (meaning, a chance to “rise in the ranks” or “make it big” coming from the bottom).
Fussing about change in Niger
The west has made huge fuss about the military take over in Niger, and earlier in Mali and Burkina Faso. One is constrained to ask why the military coup in Egypt (on the same African continent) with the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians aroused little or no concern? In Africa, the memory of Thomas Sankara is still fresh in the minds of many people. Not surprisingly, the people of Niger came out in very large numbers to support the overthrow of Bazoum.
Sure enough, their rise to power did not occur in the “traditional” western, liberal-“democratic” way. But the question can be asked: is that particularly relevant? The fact is that there is no universally applicable litmus test for government legitimacy worldwide, no matter how much the mainstream media and political elites in the west would have us believe otherwise.
It is strange that spatial distance and cultural sovereignty are not treated with the same legitimate concern as temporal “distance” in contemporary politics. Nobody seems to care much about the lack of democratic legitimacy of hallowed western historical figures such as Napoleon, Otto von Bismarck or Queen Victoria, to name but three figures from relatively recent European history. None of them was elected according to liberal democratic principles, nor did any of them particularly concern themselves with keeping up appearances. But it doesn’t seem to matter because “those were other times”.
Granted, different times have different standards but Queen Victoria’s crimes are far more fundamental than mere lack of democratic representation (the colonization and enslavement of 23% of the world’s population being a major contestant). However, contemporary political pundits and ideologues in the west seem to be far less lenient when it comes to fundamental differences in culture, political history, economic situation or any other form of specific identity of different countries.
Western norms not universal
They never even bother to explain why others are supposed to expect a near identical political system in such countries as the United States, Niger, Venezuela, Iran or Russia. Presumably public opinion expects such political similarity as a dogmatic necessity, about which no questions are even supposed to be asked. If one were to demand that the same cultural identity or the same religious beliefs must be shared by all countries of the world, such a person would be declared crazy. Yet demanding such near-uniformity and unipolar supremacy in terms of the political dimension is supposedly considered logical.
This ludicrous attitude does not end there. Imperialism is hypocritical, unipolar and expansionist. The insistence to copy the west’s liberal “democratic” systems and values apparently only applies to opponents of western global supremacy. Allies of the west can do what they want, as the cases of non-democratic states and entities like Saudi Arabia and “Israel” show.
Closer to the topic at hand, there was never any threat of an ECOWAS invasion or NATO intervention when International Monetary Fund banker Alassane Ouattara violently overthrew the government of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast in 2010. On the contrary, both France and Ukraine militarily participated in the overthrow of the Ivorian government, and ECOWAS pushed for the recognition of Ouattara as president.
The darling of the IMF cartel has ruled over Ivory Coast since then. The fact that he managed to run for re-election and win a third term in a highly controversial election, despite the fact that the country’s constitution does not allow this, seems not to bother the elites of either ECOWAS, France or the United States. In return, Ouattara has shown himself a reliable asset to France, vowing that Ivory Coast will be sending troops to attack Niger if ECOWAS decides to push ahead with the invasion plans.
In a similar vein, there is little to no foreign condemnation, either by ECOWAS or by the “democratic” west, of Senegalese president Macky Sall, despite his decision to ban the second-largest party in the country, the Pan-African Socialist PASTEF, and imprison its leader Ousmane Sonko. The subsequent deadly crackdown on opposition protesters, in which several people were killed by police, also didn’t seem to ruffle any feathers in the “pro-democracy” camp. Like his Ivory Coast colleague, Sall also promised that Senegalese troops will take part in the fight against the revolutionary government of Niger.
Talk about “democracy” and “human rights” in the western media, especially regarding Africa or the Islamic world is mere window dressing. The neoliberal elites do not care about democracy or human rights, their primary concern is plunder and profit.
Stealing Niger’s uranium
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, responsible for about 5% of global output of the material needed for running nuclear power plants. The bulk of Niger’s uranium is extracted by the French company Orano, whose major shareholder is the French state. Thus, Paris has an immediate and highly important stake in Niger’s economy, particularly in the open pit mines of Arlit in the country’s northwest. Orano is also directly involved in the development of a new mine in Imouraren, which is estimated to contain one of the largest uranium reserves in the entire world.
Uranium exploitation by French companies has been going on in Niger since 1968, and has proved a veritable treasure trove for western markets. There are no labor rights or environmental regulations. “In the West you need a bookshelf full of permissions and certificates. In Niger, you give someone a spade and two dollars a day, and you’re mining uranium”, wrote journalist Danny Forston in 2010. France, of course, promised its former colony a bright future as a result of this new “partnership” between Niamey and Paris.
Since then, an estimated 150,000 tonnes of uranium has been extracted from Niger by Orano corporation alone (former name Areva). The Akuta mine was shut down in 2021 due to the complete exhaustion of ores. The British charity Oxfam estimates that one third of lamps in France are kept operational by energy generated from Nigerien uranium.
Niger and Orano relations are further complicated by the fact that the state-owned company has the full backing of the French state, with all the military and intelligence service implications that it entails. This results in highly unequal “agreements” in favor of the company, marked by extremely profitable tax exemptions.
The uncontrolled and unregulated exploration of uranium around Arlit has meanwhile caused a humanitarian and ecological disaster. Several studies by the France-based Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radiation (CRIIAD) conducted as far back as 2003 found that radioactivity levels of the drinking water consumed by local mine workers in some cases exceeded World Health Organization safety levels up to one hundred times. A 2009 Greenpeace research found similar results, as well as toxic pollution, in five out of six examined water wells. An Orano corporate spokesman dismissed these findings as “natural contamination”.
The alarming medical consequences of being exposed to around 300 times the normal level of radiation on a daily basis, detailed in a 2017 investigative report by African Arguments, are downplayed or completely ignored by medical care providers, which is not surprising when given that the majority of medical care in Arlit is provided by Orano corporation itself with medical professionals being on its payroll.
Of course, successive governments in Niger since 1968 must also bear major responsibility for these abuses. That is where neocolonialism comes into play. Niger has, at least prior to the recent revolutionary turn of events, been a key part of the “Françafrique” neo-colonial project, in which Paris retained major control over its former colonies in Africa. From the start of Niger’s independence, hundreds of French “advisors” remained at all levels of government. The military was made up exclusively of former members of the colonial militias, and the officers were often Frenchmen who were granted Nigerien citizenship specifically for this purpose.
A total of 1,500 French and 1,100 US troops are still present in Niger, although the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP) has officially terminated the five military agreements with France and ordered all French troops to leave by early September. These agreements were often made under heavy pressure from Paris.
Domino effect in the Sahel
It is clear that recent developments have caught France completely off guard, with 60 years of ruthless exploitation of West Africa seemingly falling apart in a mere couple of years. Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at consultancy firm Eurasia Group, even went as far as calling the anti-colonial developments in Niger that followed earlier changes in Burkina Faso and Mali a “clear domino theory for the 21st century”.
It is noteworthy that the departure of French troops from Niger would leave Chad the only country in the strategically important Sahel region to still maintain a French military presence, although smaller contingents of French troops are still present beyond the Sahel in ECOWAS member states Ivory Coast, Gabon and Senegal.
It remains to be seen how the situation in the Sahel and the wider West African region will evolve. It is unlikely that France will take these losses gracefully. The French elite are fully aware of their total dependence on Africa and their parasitical exploitation of the continent.
Former French President Jacques Chirac had said that “without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third [world] power,” echoing the ominous words of his predecessor François Mitterrand that “without Africa, France will have no place in the 21st century.”
France may “need” Africa in order to keep up the charade of a world power. But the fact is Africa does not need, nor apparently want or desire, any more French ties in the emerging multipolar world order.