By Owen Schalk – Aug 16, 2023
The coup speaks to the disadvantaged and impoverished victims of neocolonialism.
Events in Niger have been moving fast. After overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, the military government of Abdourahamane Tchiani established itself as an independent and anti-Western force in the region, joining the ranks of Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso. French President Emmanuel Macron was reportedly “furious” over a perceived failure to predict Bazoum’s ouster. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigeria, immediately took a hardline against the Tchiani government, threatening a military invasion to restore Bazoum by August 6. Mali and Burkina Faso declared that they would defend Niger from any such invasion.
Amidst popular demonstrations in support of the coup and against foreign intervention, Tchiani’s government closed Niger airspace to stave off interference from ECOWAS or France. The August 6 deadline for ECOWAS invasion passed without incident, in part because the Nigerian Senate rejected President Bola Tinubu’s plan to deploy soldiers to Niger. Consequently, the region evaded open war. That same day, approximately 30,000 supporters gathered in a stadium in Niamey to express their enthusiasm for the military takeover.
On August 7, US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Niger to pressure military leaders to restore Bazoum, who had been the US and France’s man in West Africa since early 2021. Nuland expressed “grave concern” about the coup and emphasized “the economic and other kinds of support that we will legally have to cut off if democracy is not restored.” Again, Niger’s new rulers didn’t cave.
Faced with sanctions and further threats from ECOWAS and the West, the junta revealed a new cabinet on August 10, led by Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine. The cabinet includes many civilian members, including Zeine. According to analyst Beverly Ochieng:
This is “very unlike what happened in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the military took most of the posts in the interim cabinet. It’s one way of showing a bit of goodwill and demonstrating that they are willing to work with civilians and that they do want a transitional government, but it’s also another way of saying ‘when you come to negotiate with us it’ll be on the terms of a transition, not on the terms of restoring the [Bazoum] government…” There are very short odds of Bazoum being reinstated or… being seen legitimately.
During this diplomatic impasse, a delegation of Islamic scholars from Nigeria held talks with the Tchiani government on August 13. In the meeting, Tchiani said that Nigeria and Niger “[are] not only neighbors but brothers and sisters who should resolve issues amicably.” He added, “the coup was well intended,” meant to “stave off an imminent threat” to the region. He also revealed that Nigeria’s threat of invasion to restore Bazoum was “painful,” and he regretted that his neighbors seemed uninterested in “their side of the matter.”
Invasion threats and the consolidation of power
On the day of the scholarly delegation, the Tchiani government announced that Bazoum would be prosecuted for “high treason and undermining internal and external security.” Washington and ECOWAS condemned the decision. ECOWAS announced that it would meet on August 17 and 18 to once again discuss a military intervention against the Niger government.
The renewal of invasion talks is worrisome, but an actual intervention seems unlikely. If ECOWAS and its backers were unwilling to roll across Nigerien borders in the heady days immediately after the coup—when public support was uncertain and the military’s stability unknown—why would they risk it now, when public support is obvious and the authority of Tchiani and the interim government has solidified?
Bizarrely, ECOWAS and its Western backers seem unaware that their hardline anti-coup position is only helping Niger’s military leaders consolidate power. The coup is popular, backed by 78 percent of respondents according to the first poll taken after the junta’s seizure of power. Reuters reporters found that “residents of Niamey… were strongly supportive of the coup and said joining forces with Mali and Burkina Faso would strengthen all three countries in the fight against Islamist insurgents.” The threat of foreign invasion will only rally more supporters to the junta’s cause.
Invasion threats are also helping Russia increase its soft power in the region, something Western governments are ostensibly highly concerned about. In contrast to bullish statements from the US, Europe, and ECOWAS, the Kremlin stressed “the importance of settling the situation in the Republic of Niger solely through peaceful political and diplomatic means.” After a meeting between Malian leader Assimi Goïta and Vladimir Putin, Goïta posted on X (Twitter) that the Russian president emphasized “the importance of a peaceful resolution of the situation for a more stable Sahel.”
J'ai eu un entretien téléphonique avec le Président Poutine. Nous avons évoqué la situation du Niger. Il a souligné l'importance d'un règlement pacifique de la situation pour un sahel plus stable. pic.twitter.com/po6U2meRw1
— Colonel Assimi GOITA (@GoitaAssimi) August 15, 2023
Yet the invasion talks are continuing. They will only strengthen the Nigerien military’s grip on power. As an example, the Zelensky government was deeply unpopular when Russia invaded Ukraine, but Ukrainians have fought courageously, suffering enormous casualties. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that Nigeriens would do the same, especially when their government is actually supported by a large majority of the population and backed by regional players like Mali and Burkina Faso?
Moreover, wouldn’t it be worth interrogating why an anti-Western, pro-Russian military government, one that took power outside the framework of elections, is so popular? Aren’t Western governments curious why the rhetoric of Tchiani, or Mali’s Goïta, or Burkina Faso’s Ibrahim Traoré, resonates with so many people in the region? Don’t they know that NATO’s destruction of Libya fueled the jihadist insurgencies in these countries? Don’t countries like the US, France, and Canada feel some responsibility for provoking anti-Western sentiments given their history of colonialism and political meddling, their huge military presence in the region, their backing of widely disliked governments, and the fact that they expropriate billions in resources like gold and uranium while ordinary Nigeriens, Malians, and Burkinabè suffer in abject poverty? The answer is: evidently not.
Regional splits and the anti-imperialist turn
The hostilities between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso on one side, and ECOWAS and the West on the other, have been brewing for several years. While Mali and Burkina Faso were rooting out European and US influence following their coups, Niger opened its arms to soldiers from the US and Europe, including France and Germany. And while Niger embraced Western troops, Mali made the decision to leave the European-funded G5 Sahel organization.
The G5 Sahel was formed to coordinate an anti-jihadist military force between Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad. It was largely a Western project, set up with European Union money and backed by France. But as some West African countries became more independent, the organization started fraying at the seams.
After the Malian military took power in 2021, France allegedly interfered in the G5 Sahel to prevent Chad from passing the organization’s presidency to Bamako. Even if France was not involved in the freezing-out of Mali, that was how Mali’s leaders interpreted the event, and researcher Boubacar Haidara agreed. “It would be hard not to see the French hand behind this refusal to transfer the presidency,” he said.
These internal divisions, and the alleged French hand in stoking them, contributed to the decline of the G5 Sahel. In May 2022, even the Western-backed Bazoum declared “The G5 is dead.”
France’s Operation Barkhane (2014-2022) withdrew from the region amidst anti-French revolt. The European Union’s Takuba Task Force (2020-2022) suffered a similar fate. The G5 Sahel (set up in 2014) is essentially dead. And what have these Western-backed initiatives wrought? More danger, more insecurity. Malick Doucouré explains:
Before leaving Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, I had known it to be an incredibly safe city. Jihadist terrorism was not a concern on anybody’s mind, and this was true across all sections and classes of Burkinabé society. But with the instability following the fall of [former dictator Blaise] Compaoré, militants from Boko Haram, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Ansar Dine, Ansar ul Islam, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, launched attacks on the capital as well as seemingly indiscriminate slaughters of unarmed rural civilians. The conflict, since 2015, has claimed over 10,000 lives, displaced 1.4 million people, and sent shock waves throughout the country with shootings, car bombings, and attacks in hotels and cafés. A bus carrying school children was blown up after hitting an explosive device. Foreign embassies and restaurants have also been targeted. Outside of the cities, hundreds of men, women, and children have been killed on raids targeting local markets and rural villages.
The security situation has well and truly deteriorated to a disastrous level. Poverty breeds extremism, so the intensive regime of neocolonial super-exploitation maintained for decades by France certainly deserves its fair share of the blame. However, poor leadership has also exacerbated an already critical situation. In November 2021, a mass jihadist assault on a security outpost claimed the lives of 49 soldiers near the northern town of Inata. The soldiers were reportedly underpaid and under supplied by the [elected Roch Marc Christian] Kaboré government; resentment and unpopularity among the civilian population in West Africa is one thing—but in a region with over 20 attempted coup d’états since 2010, there’s nothing riskier than allowing resentment and unpopularity to build up among the military. Burkina Faso president Kaboré was removed from power by Lieutenant Colonel Damiba just two months later, in January 2022.
Damiba failed to stem the worsening security and economic conditions; thus, he was overthrown himself in a September 2022 coup led by the 35-year-old captain Ibrahim Traoré. Refusing Western military aid, Traoré ordered a general mobilization to reclaim the 40 percent of national territory that remains in insurgent hands. He also appointed as prime minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, a Marxist and pan-Africanist who supported Thomas Sankara’s efforts to build socialism in the 1980s. Tambèla still espouses Sankara’s vision for his country, having declared “Burkina Faso cannot be developed outside the path set by Thomas Sankara.”
Traoré has pushed forward an anti-imperialist agenda that has proven to be “especially popular with the masses, among whom anti-imperialist sentiments towards their former colonial power had long existed,” commentator Malick Doucouré wrote in CounterPunch. Doucouré noted that, “France had kept the nation in poverty and assassinated [Thomas] Sankara, seen by many in Burkina as the ‘father of the nation.’”
Anyone with a grasp of the region’s history can understand why anti-imperialist views are so widespread in West African counties. It is easy to understand why governments that speak the language of anti-imperialism garner so much public support. And it is plain to see that the West African military leaders, whether or not they are genuine in their anti-imperialist assertions, are quite popular.
The role of popular movements in Niger
In Niger, a number of popular movements have expressed support for the coup, foremost among them the M62 Movement led by Abdoulaye Seydou. M62 not only opposes the French military presence and French neocolonialism, but also the grim socioeconomic situation imposed on Niger. And the situation is grimmer than most readers can likely imagine. After decades of neocolonialism, over 40 percent of Nigeriens live on less than $1.90 a day, in a country from which French and Canadian companies extract billions in profit every year.
M62’s office in Niamey is named for Thomas Sankara, the legendary revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso during the socialist period of 1983-1987. Seydou describes Sankara as his “idol.”
When the Irish Times visited Niamey to interview Seydou, they reported that M62’s office sports photographs of Sankara, Frantz Fanon, and Nelson Mandela. The Fanon picture includes the quote, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Mandela is also quoted: “Freedom can never be taken for granted. Each generation must safeguard it and extend it.”
Seydou’s interview with the Irish Times offers key insights into the struggles and opinions of ordinary Nigeriens, who have largely come out in support of the July 26 coup:
Seydou repeatedly accused the French military of trying “to instigate some turmoil in the country”, and also trying to “create conflict” with Mali, a country which was a “brother for a long time”.
He said M62 was also protesting the cost of living. “Now they increased everything… life has become very, very, very expensive. They increased the fuel prices and then they increased all products like oil, vegetables, rice… So we are fighting against this so that the government should reduce the prices.”
He accused the previous Niger government of raising prices to get more taxes, but not spending them on “education, health, and other fields that can permit the country to move forward”.
The French, he said, were partly to blame. “It’s like [French forces] become protection for the government so the government can do exploiting, do whatever they want… Even now there is no peace in the country because there is no security.”
He also referred to the death of several people in Tera, western Niger, in late 2021, which took place when protesters confronted a French convoy on its way to Mali. “Nothing happened [as a result], it’s like they’re not human beings or citizens of this country,” said Seydou.
At the time, Seydou said he was surprised that people were not allowed to protest. “This movement is a peaceful movement,” he said. “The [Bazoum] government is very afraid… Most of the population, the people are supporting us. It’s like a popular movement.”
Under Mohamed Bazoum, whom the West frequently described as the lone democratic holdout in the region, M62’s ability to protest was severely restricted. In fact, one day after his interview with the Irish Times, Seydou was arrested by Bazoum’s government. The initial charge against him was “publication of information likely to undermine public order.” That charge was dropped, but as he was leaving court, he was arrested again and “charged with being complicit in burning miners’ sheds on a gold site in Niger’s Say area.”
Seydou was transferred to a high-security prison, where he remained until the military government of Tchiani freed him on August 15, a decision welcomed by M62. The organization’s secretary general Sanoussi Mahaman responded to Seydou’s release with the following statement: “The Niamey Court of Appeal has cancelled the decision of the High Court… which had sentenced our comrade Abdoulaye Seydou to nine months in prison… We have always said that Abdoulaye Seydou’s detention is an arbitrary decision… orchestrated from start to finish.”
On the day of Seydou’s release from prison, the US spoke out to condemn the junta’s prosecution of Bazoum, the man who had imprisoned him. A US government statement reads: “[The prosecution of Bazoum] is completely unwarranted and unjustified… It is a further affront in our opinion to democracy and justice and to the respect of the rule of law.”
In Mali and Burkina Faso, there are civil society groups like M62 that have organized around the issues of French neocolonialism, Western imperialism, and national poverty: Yerewolo in Mali, for instance, and National Coordination of Civil Society Organizations in Burkina Faso, which includes about 20 organizations. Like M62, these groups support the seemingly anti-imperialist orientation of the military governments in their countries.
The spectre of anti-imperialism
The Niger coup has been receiving far more media attention in the West than the coups in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Why? The obvious answer is that Bazoum’s Niger was the final island of Western military influence in the region, and powers like France, the US, and Canada are desperately clinging to the possibility that sanctions and invasion threats can reverse Tchiani’s takeover. But there is also the continental context to consider.
In a recent interview with BreakThrough News, US activist Eugene Puryear said that Africa’s traditional elite is frightened by the prospect of an anti-Western coup. These elites enjoy their status as “interlocutors” between foreign capital and the African labor force. From their privileged positions, they are able to grow fabulously rich off the immiseration of their own people, while their Western-backed militaries and police forces suppress any popular uprising to change the status quo.
The coup in Niger cuts through these elites’ false sense of security. Seemingly out of nowhere, Washington’s golden boy in West Africa was overthrown and imprisoned—at the same time, the new leadership in Niger welcomed the backing of a wide range of citizens who have grown tired of the systemic poverty imposed on them while foreign capitalists and the domestic elite grow richer and richer. That was surely enough to rattle other African leaders.
None of this analysis aims to mislead readers about the political character of West Africa’s military leaders. These individuals speak the language of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, but they have not announced plans to radically reorient their economies along socialist lines. In one way, this is understandable: when large swaths of one’s national territory are controlled by insurgents, the military question naturally predominates above all else. But in another way, it is bothersome, as the possibility exists that the anti-imperialist turn is mainly rhetoric aimed at mobilizing the support of dissatisfied populations.
Regardless of the political orientation of these coup governments, it is obvious that the West and its allies on the continent are irate. It is also clear that, in Niger’s case especially, the coups are speaking to the disadvantaged and impoverished victims of neocolonialism. The future is unclear, but for now, Washington and its allies are trembling with fury and trepidation.
mforinocohttps://orinocotribune.com/author/mforinoco/September 23, 2023
mforinocohttps://orinocotribune.com/author/mforinoco/September 16, 2023