By Yanis Iqbal – Oct 24, 2023
On October 13, 2023, Burkina Faso’s military government, which has been in office since September 2022, signed an agreement with Russia to build a nuclear power plant. This plant will provide energy to a nation where less than 23% of the population has access to electricity. The agreement extends to the use of nuclear energy in industry, agriculture and medicine. Burkina Faso’s energy minister Simon-Pierre Boussim stated: “We plan, if we can, to build nuclear power plants by 2030, in order to solve the problem of the energy deficit… Our challenge is to double our electricity production by 2030, which will allow us to boost the industrialization of Africa.”
Russia’s plan to build a nuclear power plant in Burkina Faso carries geopolitical significance. Instead of confining itself to unilateral aid, Moscow is committed to the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects. The nuclear power plant in Burkina Faso, involving billions of dollars, will transform an extremely impoverished former French colony into a regional exporter of electricity. Mali’s Energy and Water Resources Minister, Bintou Camara, pointed out that Russia, which had no African colonies, is setting a new standard for Western companies. They “will now know that when they come [to the continent], it will now be a negotiation, a win-win partnership for both sides.”
It is hard to find any reporting in Western media on the transformative tendencies that have been unleashed in Africa due to the multipolar direction of the new world order. Regarding the French media’s coverage of military takeovers in Western and Central Africa, Ramzy Baroud elaborates the silent presupposition at work in those narratives: “Africa revolves or should always revolve in France’s orbit, and an alternative understanding must be developed by policymakers in Paris to cope with or catch up to the new, globalized African politics.”
The diversification of foreign relations being pursued by Burkina Faso is reduced to how the vacuum of Western presence is being exploited by the Russian Wagner Group (whose services Burkinabe President Ibrahim Traore has eschewed till now). Against this ideological discourse, it is essential that we examine the structural background that accounts for the choice of non-Western partners by Burkina Faso.
Aid as an imperialist tool
On July 26, 2023, Niger’s military carried out a coup d’état against president Mohamed Bazoum. Niger is a strategic chess-piece for the Global North, supplying uranium to France and serving as a military base for the US and Canada. When the pro-West Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a threat of military intervention in Niger to restore the deposed president, the military governments in Burkina Faso and Mali asserted that such action would not only be perceived as a “declaration of war” against Niger but also against their own nations. Thereafter, France suspended its development and budget aid to Burkina Faso.
According to a report released by the African Development Bank Group in March 2011, Burkina Faso is extremely dependent on Official Development Assistance (ODA). In opposition to the global trend towards the reduction of aid, in 2009 ODA represented 14.5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Burkina Faso, higher than the ratio of 12.1% in 2006.
Aid dependence in Burkina Faso is a product of neo-colonial machinations. During the socialist period headed by Thomas Sankara, the national government steadfastly avoided its ensnarement in the structural adjustment programs that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was propagating. But the 1987 coup resulted in a government eager to secure an aid pipeline. In 1988, the government requested IMF assistance for an agricultural loan. It was in March 1991 that a $31 million agreement was signed. This was subsequently complemented by $80 million from the World Bank and an additional $18 million from France.
The financial re-orientation of the Burkinabe government coincided with its entry into the architecture of standardized, bourgeois political “democracy.” Backed by the ideological credibility of a structural adjustment agreement, the administration of Blaise Compaore (who served as president until 2014) received bilateral financing from Western donors. Burkina Faso emerged as the favorite recipient of imperialist powers. The period 1991‒95 saw total aid receipts amounting to $450 million annually, with France accounting for roughly one-fifth. During Compaore’s final year in power in 2013, the cumulative sum of foreign grants amounted to $658 million.
Donors stipulated a set of uniform policies for Burkina Faso’s economy—reduction of budget deficits and the pursuit of “sound” fiscal policies. For this, the tax base had to be widened (through the implementation of regressive value-added tax), public sector wage bill had to be narrowed (through the weakening of trade union power), and “non-essential” state spending had to be slashed (through the gutting of social services). The uniformity of economic policies implied a loss of internal decision-making capacities on the part of the state. Instead of facilitating the cohesion of society, development work promotes the construction of disarticulated and segmented political structures directly opposed to national development initiatives. Isaline Bergamaschi notes: “Bureaucrats are demotivated by the impossibility to negotiate better terms of aid with donors, by the presence of externally funded “technical assistants” in key public entities, and by the involvement of ad hoc foreign consultants in the drafting of national development strategies.”
Sustained resistance to aid dependence is neutralized by the co-option of social movements through the financial channels opened up by donors. Starting in the 1990s, Western and multilateral aid providers established a practice of involving civil society organizations in the formulation of public policies. When coupled with diminishing public sector employment prospects, international backing for these civil groups has given rise to the sporadic emergence of social movements lacking a solid foundation of grassroots support and legitimacy. These movements don’t necessarily maintain economic and political independence from the state.
Apart from the under-development caused by imperialist donors, it is important to note the specificity of French monetary imperialism and its connection with aid. Due to the presence of the CFA Franc, the foreign exchange reserves of Francophone Africa are centralized in the hands of the French treasury. The French Treasury invests these deposits and generates interest returns. These returns are disbursed back to the central banks of the CFA zones. However, these interest returns are counted as part of the French development aid funds given to African states. This means that the funds provided as “aid” by France consist of the interest generated from the deposits made by the African countries themselves. The amounts deposited by African countries in Paris are double the amount of aid from France to sub-Saharan Africa. Ndongo Samba Sylla writes, “France essentially gives African countries back a fraction of these forced deposits as ‘help.’”
Whereas Western media apparatuses will make it seem that Russia is creating an imperialist empire in Africa in place of the rules-based, liberal system of Euro-Atlantic countries, the reality is different. We need to understand that Russia is a non-imperialist entity that is playing a role qualitatively different from core capitalist nations. At the second Russia-Africa Summit, held in St. Petersburg from July 27-28, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded military-technical agreements with over 40 African countries and provided them with weapons and equipment. This also involved providing aid without any cost, demonstrating Russia’s efforts to support African nations in their fight against terrorism. Putin canceled $23 billion of African debt and promised to increase Russian investment in the continent.
Lastly, Moscow emphasized its dedication to ensuring food security in Africa, drawing a distinction from Western approaches that tend to favor developed nations over developing ones. According to United Nations data, 45% of Ukraine’s food exports, under the Black Sea Grain Initiative involving Russia, Ukraine, the UN, and Turkiye, were directed toward developed countries, while 49% went to developing countries. A mere 6% of these exports found their way to the least developed nations, which includes African countries, accounting for around 1.4 million tons. In 2022, Russia exported 11.5 million tons of cereal to Africa, and 10 million tons were delivered in the first half of 2023.
Along with the strengthening of Russia-Africa ties, the second Russia-Africa summit also saw a fiery speech by Traore. He elaborated on why Russia and Africa share a sense of similarity: “Russia made enormous sacrifices to free the world from Nazism during the Second World War. The African people, our grandfathers, were also forcibly deported to help Europe get rid of Nazism. We share the same history in the sense that we are the forgotten peoples of the world, whether in history books, documentaries or films. We tend to dismiss the key role played by Russia and Africa in the fight against Nazism.”
Traore brings up an important historical point: Nazism was a colonial and imperialist war that aimed at plundering and enslaving weak nations. World War II commenced as a colonial conflict, targeting both existing colonies and regions that the aggressors aimed to transform into colonies. Examples include Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Japan’s aggression in China, and Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, albeit under the guise of the Munich treaty. Waging a massive colonial war, Nazism and other fascist forces aimed to reduce vast swathes of population to the status of slaves and semi-slaves laboring for a supposed master race. “The struggle of an entire people to avoid the fate of enslavement to which it had been condemned,” comments Domenico Losurdo, “cannot but be characterized as a class struggle. But it was a class struggle that took the form of a national, anti-colonial war of resistance.”
The Soviet struggle against fascism is part of a wider history of Russian struggle against a colonial counter-revolution. Losurdo elaborates: “Russia has been at risk of becoming a colony for a very long time. We all know about the invasions by Hitler, by Napoleon, by Charles XII, by the Mongols. For example, if we remit ourselves back to the beginning of the 17th century, it was the Polish who exercised power in Moscow. Immediately after World War I – after the defeat of Tsarist Russia – Russia was in danger of being balkanized, of becoming a colony.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was again at risk of becoming a colony. Life expectancy rates dropped, Russian military power suffered drastic setbacks, and economic sovereignty got compromised through privatization, which converted Russia into a playground for Western capitalists.
Under the regime of Putin, Russian state capitalist factions controlling large-scale industry—natural resources, energy, metallurgy, engineering—became stronger than pro-Western capitalists dominating banking, consumer goods, and the media. From the early 2000s onward, public funds have been invested in the modernization of agricultural production in Russia. This has led to self-sufficiency in essential food products and a boost in agricultural exports. In the domain of foreign policy, Russia has strengthened Eurasian integration—pursuing a strong relationship with China, India, and its neighbors—while forming alliances with Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and other states opposed by American imperialism.
Despite its anti-imperialist efforts, Russia continues to occupy a semi-peripheral position in global trade, primarily exporting raw materials and agricultural goods while depending on imports for manufactured products. The country’s primary source of geopolitical strength remains its formidable military capabilities. Once situated in the world-historic framework of the imperialist world-system, Russia’s role in Africa can be understood in an accurate manner. Insofar as Russia aims to democratize the world order, its investments in Africa are always geared towards this geopolitical objective. This is manifest in trade packages that “include the forgiveness of outstanding debts, energy-sector investments involving concession agreements with Gazprom and/ or Lukoil, deliveries of military equipment, infrastructural development related to energy extraction, and the renewal of credit lines initiated by the state-owned Vnesheconombank.”
The anti-imperialist character of the Russian social formation—its provision of cheap infrastructure and technology to African countries—doesn’t negate its capitalist drive for profit-maximization. Based on the average trade volumes of 2016–2017, Russia’s exports to Africa were seven times more valuable than its imports from the continent. Except for certain sectors like telecommunications, nuclear energy, and finance, Russian investments were primarily tied to raw material production and transportation. The contradictory co-existence of internal capitalist exploitation and external anti-imperialist material assistance is ignored by Western Marxism, which insists on the purity of resistance. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, decries the military coups in Central Africa as “even worse than French neocolonialism,” since they give rise to “fake authoritarian anti-colonialism.”
Socialism in the Global South is a protracted process that Samir Amin called “popular national construction,” in which a variety of socialistic, statist and capitalist tendencies are used to erase the unequal heritage of imperialism. The coups in Africa, by aligning with the anti-US pole, can potentially deprive the core states of world capitalism of the natural and human resources of the periphery which they have been exploiting to become rich. This a global counter-movement of encirclement, in which the achievement of self-sufficiency and independence in the Third World weakens the hold of USA’s hegemonist strategy.
Does this mean uncritically support for all anti-American regimes? No. But it does mean that the primary contradiction of imperialism has to be recognized so that the working class gains a foothold in the actual movement of history. Traore’s government is hardly perfect—consider, for example, the $302 million loan that Burkina Faso received from the IMF in September 2023. In the name of “domestic revenue mobilization,” the agreement licenses an anti-poor policy of fiscal conservatism. This deal sits in an uneasy relationship with the Sankarist spirit of the Burkinabe government—president Traore and various ministers decreased their salaries upon assuming power. Even though the current government in Burkina Faso may not be the perfect engine for social transformation, its sovereigntist outlook contains potentials for further radicalization. Lassané Sawadogo, coordinator of the Front pour la défense de la patrie, a pro-government movement, said, “Captain Traoré has freed us from the yoke of imperialism. Whether we like it or not, he’s done a lot of work over the past 12 months, and we’re hoping for even more in the months to come”. This spirit of cautious, revolutionary optimism relies on the “weak teleological force of open possibilities”—the belief that the collective struggle of the masses will steer the undecidedness of the world process toward a better future.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey and several countries of Latin America.
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