By Patrick Lawrence – Aug 15, 2023
How shall we understand the July 26th coup in Niger, in which military officers ousted Mohamed Bazoum, the nation’s Western-tilted president? It is the sixth putsch of this kind in or next to the Sahel in the past four years. Shall we write off this band across sub–Saharan Africa as coup country and trouble no more about it? The thought is implicit in a lot of the media coverage, but how often do our media dedicate themselves to enhancing our understanding of global events and how often to cultivating our ignorance of them?
Do not take this latest development in Africa as an isolated event, if I may offer a suggestion. Its significance lies in the larger context in which it has occurred—its global surround, so to say. The West is besieged by the accumulating coherence and influence of the non–West and its version of the 21st century. Our media cannot bear writing or broadcasting about this. Niger, in my read, has just declared itself part of this historic phenomenon. And mainstream media can’t bear mentioning this, either.
Those who deposed Bazoum are led by Abdourahamane Tchiani, former head of the Presidential Guard, and plainly nurse a deep resentment of the postcolonial presence of the French. There are also reports—in the media, those coming out of the think tanks—that Bazoum was about to give Tchiani the sack, and the events of late July were driven, mostly or primarily, by personal rivalries, resentments, or both.
Everyone has reported, one way or another and more or less well, on the animosities toward the French abroad among Nigeriens. Such sentiments are evident in many parts of Francophone Africa. The past is another country, Nigeriens, Malians, and others seem to say: This is the 21st century, not the 19th.
But history is only part of the story, and I would say not the largest part. We ought not make too much of either history or memory in this case: Those who led the coup are facing forward, not back. And to suggest the coup deposing Bazoum was a question of palace politics, whatever these may be, amounts to serving the salad as the main course. No, we have to think larger if we are to grasp the new reality taking shape in Niger and elsewhere in its neighborhood.
Tchiani and his supporters, who appear to be many in the military and on the streets of Niamey, the capital, have the West as it is now uppermost in their minds, in my read. If they are fed up with the French, they are at this point impudently clear that they equally want no more of what the U.S. has had on offer for the past two decades and some: a klutzy, ineffective military presence and neoliberal economic orthodoxies. As in Mali and elsewhere in the region, Niger now looks set to lean in a distinctly non–Western direction.
Last month’s coup, in other words, reads to me like an announcement that Niger is ready to enlist in the cause of the “new world order” the Chinese have been talking about ever more publicly over the past couple of years—since, indeed, the Biden regime alienated Beijing within months of taking office in 2021. This puts the putsch taking down Bazoum in a larger context, where I think it should be.
This means the U.S. will now find itself in increasing competition with China and Russia for influence across the African continent. Unless it alters course very majorly—and the policy cliques in Washington have no gift for altering course, if you have not noticed—America is almost certain to prove the loser in this rivalry, if that is what we have to call it. The U.S., and in this case the French, are simply ill-equipped. It is a question of appropriate technologies: Americans arrive in Africa with weapons, military assistance, and geopolitical interests; the Chinese and Russians arrive with interests of their own, yes, but also with economic aid, trade flows, and industrial development projects.
For a long time Nigeriens had little choice but to accept forms of neocolonialism as their inheritance, history’s bequest. The mark of our time is that such nations now have viable choices, and they are at last able to make them in their own interests. As I was writing this commentary, Chas Freeman, the distinguished diplomat, recorded a webcast in which he argued that West Asia—as we must learn to call the Middle East—is destined to define its own future now that U.S. hegemony is a thing of the past. There’s a lot of this around, let’s say: Nigeriens have just announced that it is Africa for Africans from here on out.
All the old imperial powers had their different styles of colonization. The Belgians were famously violent and ruthlessly exploitative, the British relied on traditional political structures—tribes, chiefs, sultanates, and so on—and governed by way of indirect rule, as it was called. The French recreated the metropole’s administrative bureaucracy, ruled directly, and, as at home, made everyone speak French.
The same holds for postcolonial styles. The French have made messes in many of their former colonies because in essence they have not yet left behind the colonial consciousness. This point will be plain if we put Paris’s relations with the Francophone nations next to the British Commonwealth. I would not say the latter is one, big, happy family, but you don’t see the sort of calamities we have witnessed lately across the Sahel. There is an arrogance in social relations the French at times seem to insist upon. They still dominate the extractive industries and other spheres of the economy as if independence—Niger claimed its in 1960—never occurred.
Neighboring Mali expelled the French military contingent after successive coups in 2020 and 2021. Ten days after the July 26 coup, the new government in Niamey said it will nullify a range of military agreements with Paris that covered the French military presence. “Without a change in France’s posture, its 1,500 troops in Niger will thus need to depart,” the Brookings Institution reported last week, “significantly shrinking the West’s military capacity in a part of the world with an intensifying, lethal, and churning terrorism threat.”
This raises a question about the fate of the Pentagon’s presence in Niger—roughly a thousand troops and a drone base northeast of Niamey from which it monitors suspected terrorist activity as far as North and West Africa. I have no read on this now. I imagine the back-channeling between Washington and Niamey is at this point nonstop, but the Nigerien coup’s leaders give the impression they are no more enamored of the American troops on Nigerien soil than they are of France’s. There are reports that some Nigerien officers favor a turn from U.S. to Russian military assistance, and specifically to the Wagner group, which is already active in Mali.
Neglect and failure have for decades defined the U.S. profile in Niger and elsewhere in Africa. The radical imbalance between military and security assistance on one hand and investment and economic aid on the other has sent Nigeriens the very worst of messages: Americans are not interested in Niger or Nigeriens; they are interested in Niger only as a site for strategic competition.
Howard French, a former New York Times correspondent, put it very nicely last week in Foreign Policy:
Washington has mostly dawdled away the decades in Africa, switching around policy slogans every few years according to the tides of fashion but mostly sticking to two messages for Africans. The first: Don’t look to us for any kind of checkbook help in terms of vitalizing your economies. We wish you well as you pursue something called “public-private partnerships,” which usually mean very little of the former and not so much from the latter, either, unless the private businesses are involved in oil and gas.
The other well-worn theme is, of course, democracy. U.S. policymakers profess to love it in Africa, but they’ve never shown much skill at figuring out how to promote it there—nor, as the Niger coup amply demonstrates, defend it when it comes under attack.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, the focus of U.S. aid to Niger has been almost exclusively on counterterrorism operations—its own and by way of training and advising the Nigerien military in the same cause. The Pentagon customarily advances Niger as a valuable outpost in its global “CT” campaigns, sending weapons, advisors, trainers and aid in the amount of $500 million over the past decade. Indeed, at least five of those who conducted the Nigerien coup were trained and advised by the U.S. military. As this suggests, the record of these operations is one of unintended consequences.
Nick Turse, an accomplished Africanist, explained all this in excellent detail during an interview last week with Intercepted. In 2002–03 the State Department counted nine terrorist attacks in the whole of the Sahel—less than 1 percent of the global total. But the numbers have gone up almost every year since. Last year, in Niger and neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso there were 27,000 such attacks. More than 40 percent of terrorism casualties worldwide are now in the Sahel.
The obvious question is why. The answer goes to Niger’s ethnic, social, religious and class divisions, in which Americans are not the slightest bit interested because they are not in the slightest interested in Nigeriens. For the past two decades, ethnic and Islamic minorities have been fertile ground for recruitment in terrorist groups such as al–Qaeda precisely because they have been marginalized. More advantaged social, ethnic and religious groups, dominant in government and the military, have consequently tended to treat all members of these marginal groups as terrorists. U.S. advisers, inattentive to these divisions and animosities, have effectively trained the Nigerien military to run indiscriminate antiterror operations.
The results are measured in the statistics just cited. Never mind Brookings and its cookie-cutter explanation of the Pentagon’s presence. Its operations have backfired badly and Nigerien democracy has greatly worsened.
There have been pictures of Russian flags aloft as demonstrators in Niamey voiced their support of Bazoum’s ouster, and there are reports that some Nigerien officers favor a turn from U.S. to Russian military assistance, and specifically to the Wagner group, which is already active in Mali. These things are to be watched, but I see them as symbolic gestures in the broader context noted above. They are a measure of Nigeriens’ impatience of Washington’s widely detested “rules-based order” and a givenness to the new world order China and Russia promote as a 21st century alternative.
I am tempted to suggest we may witness a new scramble for Africa, but I won’t. There will be no Berlin Conference, which, in 1884, began the first scramble and set the rules for European exploitation (and eventual colonization) of the continent. The U.S., its allies, Russia, and China will compete similarly this time for the holy grails of this century’s international politics—geopolitical influence and resources—but for the two non–Western nations here this is not about exploitation: It is about bringing an age of exploitation to a decisive end.
China is well along in its trade, investment, and development programs across Africa. Its reaction to the coup in Niamey has been strictly noninterventionist—precisely the stance Tchiani and his colleagues want outside powers to take. Beijing has said only that it hopes for a negotiated settlement of the nation’s political impasse. As to Russia, it hosted its second summit of African leaders in St. Petersburg on the two days following the coup, coincidentally. And again, the emphasis was on trade, investment flows, and industrial cooperation. “During the discussions,” the Russian readout noted, “the participants declared their commitment to jointly building a new, fairer multipolar architecture of the world order based on the sovereign equality of states and mutually beneficial cooperation.”
I draw a blank. I do not see how the U.S. has situated itself to respond in any way effectively to these relatively new arrivals in Niger or anywhere else in Africa. It is easy to understand Bazoum’s ouster in this context. Given his gentle treatment while under house arrest, we can surmise he is not considered a grave enemy: He is simply not an agent of change. Bazoum is a committed modernizer and Westernizer who has forged various partnerships with the U.S. and the Europeans. He is Niger’s first Arab president and an Ouled Slimane Arab—a minority within a minority and one of a group traditionally sympathetic to the French presence. If Bazoum has not made Niger a client state of the West since taking office two years ago, he has certainly drifted in that direction. I read his economic policies—to which the coup leaders object—as something close to straight-line neoliberal.
Secretary of State Blinken and other Biden administration officials have reacted vigorously in Bazoum’s defense, threatening to cut off all aid to the country unless he is restored to power. As a measure of the importance Washington attaches to Bazoum’s rehabilitation, none other than Victoria “Cookies” Nuland flew to Niamey earlier this week for several hours of talks with some of Niger’s military officials, though Tchiani and others leading the coup reportedly refused to see her. The State Department’s acting No. 2 got nowhere, even by her own account, having warned again that all U.S. aid to Niger hung in the balance.
“We don’t want your money,” the new government tweeted afterward. “Use it to fund a weight loss program for Victoria Nuland.” I cite this discourteous public riposte for its subtext: In it we can read the new leadership’s determination to reject the Western dominance of Niger’s past.
I am reminded of a similar occasion in 1964, when Sukarno, fed up with the conditions the U.S. attached to its assistance to Indonesia, famously said in a nationwide speech, “Go to hell with your foreign aid.” Sukarno was a politics-in-command man—sovereignty, independence, and dignity his highest values. The sentiment in Niamey this week seems to me an echo of Sukarno’s, reflecting the same priorities. Abdourahamane Tchiani and his colleagues wear uniforms, but they appear to think Washington’s military-first policy toward Niger is the wrong technology. It is Niger for Nigeriens now.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
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