Thumping neo-colonialists: New type of revolution in Sahel region

Residents of Niger’s capital, Niamey, gather to protest the coup that ousted President Mohammed Bazoum. [Niger Presidential Office, Facebook]

There is serious ‘revolution’ taking place in Africa, mainly in the Sahel zone, which is not the same as regular military coups. The Sahel is a strip of desert countries stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea that is sandwiched between Mediterranean countries in the north and tropical ones in the south. It suffers economic drawbacks, socio-religious upheavals, and political instability with coups among them. Ordinarily, coups are against individual regimes/rulers that appear to be overbearing to other domestic power elites. What is happening in the Sahel is a rejection, not so much of an individual ruler but the international forces of postmodern colonialism that make regimes irrelevant to continued exploitation. There is real idealism, informed by the fact that individual regimes are expendable, which drive the actors to go beyond the regimes and try to tackle the actual masterminds of exploitation.

Tackling the actual mastermind actually means tackling France, the former colonial power in former French West Africa. Like Britain, which dreamt of controlling a North-South Cape to Cairo stretch of land, France seemingly dreamt of a West-East stretch from the Atlantic to the Red Sea/Indian Ocean. The imperial rivalry and confrontation at Fashoda between Britain and France gave Sudan to Britain, and denied the French the direct link to the Red Sea. Thus only Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Ethiopia interfered with this French dream. Sudan is culturally and environmentally similar to Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali in the West. Niger is the current global attraction because its people are rejecting France and those who represent French imperial interest.

The rejection is part of the unfinished decolonisation. Towards the end of World War II, French leader Charles De Gaul sought to reassert dwindling French influence. To ensure continuing imperial presence, he imposed a 1944 and 1947 French Colonial Pact that gave all the power and resources in the colonies to France. When the Algerian revolutionaries challenged that presence and, by 1958, created a political crisis inside France, de Gaul decided to relinquish territorial colonialism in Algeria and force other colonies to choose between French paternalism and independence. When Guinea and Togo chose independence, France punished the two and Togo President Sylvanus Olympio eventually died. The elite in other colonies had no problem with French paternalism and they agreed to ‘colonial pacts’ that gave France ownership and power over finances, minerals, defence, and foreign policies. In those pacts, while retaining ultimate authority, France delegated supervisory roles to local Frenchmen in black skins. Since territorial colonialism was largely racial, delegating the ‘Nyapara’ role to the local black elite to enjoy the trappings of privilege rather than real power temporarily hoodwinked the exploited.

The brazen exploitation affronted African dignity but France liked it. As President Jacque Chirac reportedly admitted in January 2001 during an Africa-France summit in Yaounde, Cameroon, France did more than exploit Africa for over four centuries. He said: “We drained Africa … plundered its raw materials… destroyed their culture … we are picking their brains with scholarships… we are now lecturing.” While none of the assembled African leaders complained, the boasting was annoying to many who had been hoodwinked in the euphoria of independence. The hoodwinked are now in rebellion not so much against the ‘Nyapara’ but against the real ‘bwana’ in Paris.

Subsequently, rejecting the exploitation through ‘Nyapara’ presidents particularly in Niger has sent shivers down the imperial spines and has generated confusion. Youngish officers, great grand-children of those whom France gave independence to, reject the conditional ‘gift’ and demand real independence. This means taking control of Niger’s policy on everything that matters and ownership of such natural resources as uranium and oil. They ousted Mohamed Bazoum with his pro-Euro ‘Nyapara’ mentality that ignored Nigerien concerns and agreed to make Niger a depository of unwanted ‘migrants’ stuck in Libya while on their way to Europe. Deriving inspiration from such idealists as Thomas Sankara, they appear to be daring and ready for adverse reactions from France and the West, and from some African countries. They cancelled military agreements with France; the French ignored because they did not recognise the new players. While willing to talk to all, new Prime Minister Ali Mohamane Lamine Zeine said, they “insisted on the need for the country to be independent”.

The confusion is evident in the conflicting ways in which Niger’s neighbours, other countries in the African Union, and the extra-continental powers reacted to ‘askari kanga’ dumping post-colonial chiefs or Nyapara. Some, like France and ECOWAS, assumed the ouster was a ‘normal’ coup and so they reacted in a knee-jerk manner. They imposed sanctions, threatened to invade if the junta did not reinstate Bazoum, and misread the mood and the times. In Nigeria, President Bola Tinubu created problems in northern states that border Niger. There were demonstrations in Kano to oppose military invasion and accusations that Nigeria had become a French proxy for aggression. Senators from northern states, clergy, and academics, retired military officers, and politicians warned Tinubu of possible explosion in Nigeria itself if he dared invade Niger.

Besides France, other countries took serious interest in Niger’s development. The United States and its Russian power rival have troops and showed interest by calling for ‘diplomacy’. As top American official Victoria Nuland’s effort to persuade the junta to reinstate Bazoum flopped, popular support for the junta and from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso increased. The presence of Russia’s Wagner Group seemingly dumped the initial pro-interventionist. As the general uprising against France and foreign intervention spread across the Sahel, symbolised by the populace burning the French flag, pro-interventionists appeared to lose face in the midst of continental unhappiness with continued external plundering of African wealth, with the connivance of the ‘Nyapara’ called ‘presidents’. Apart from strengthening the junta to accuse Bazoum of treason and pandering to foreign interests, the uprising was actually a regional ‘revolution’ across the Sahel that is upsetting post-colonial socio-political order. It is part of global geopolitical re-orientation to watch.

Prof Munene is a scholar of history and international relations