The establishment of military rule in Niger represents a turning point in the Sahel. Considered an important bastion of stability by western powers, the rapid fall of the French-backed government in Niamey is only the latest in a series of anti-French coups in a region beset by instability and imperialist interference. Whilst using anti-colonialist rhetoric, which is echoing powerfully across Africa, these new regimes are turning to Russia for support, setting up a new, important front in the clash between western imperialism and Russia.
The detention of Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, on 26 July, followed by the announcement of military rule, has provoked an immediate escalation in tensions across the region. Having suffered setbacks across the so-called “coup belt”, stretching from Guinea in the west to Sudan in the east, western imperialism and its local allies are clearly in a state of panic and are looking for means to defend their interests in the region.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), headed by Nigeria and backed by the West, immediately announced heavy sanctions and even threatened military intervention if Bazoum is not restored to power by the end of this week. Nigeria has already cut off the supply of electricity to Niger, amounting to 70 percent of the country’s power, in an attempt to apply further pressure.
This in turn has provoked the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso to announce that “military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war” against those nations, while Guinea has come out in support of the coup and has refused to carry out sanctions. Two regional blocs have now effectively emerged, threatening further conflict and instability.
Should the coup regime firmly establish itself, then Niger’s former colonial overlord, France, stands to lose the most. France has retained a tight grip over Niger’s economy, even since formal independence was won in 1960 and it has 1,500 troops stationed in the country.
French president, Emanuelle Macron, was full of sound and fury, warning that he would “not tolerate any attack against France and its interests”, and vowed “immediate and uncompromising” action in any such event.
But despite the fiery rhetoric, so far, the response of France and the EU has been limited to the cessation of financial aid and the evacuation of European citizens. The French Foreign Minister has denied any intention of military intervention.
The protests and lamentations in the western media in the name of ‘democracy’ in Africa ring hollow. In reality, it is precisely the centuries of imperialist exploitation and meddling in the region that has prepared the ground for the present crisis.
Since Niger became a French colony in 1922, it has been kept forcibly in a state of extreme poverty and economic dependence. More than 41 percent live under the World Bank’s absolute poverty line of $2.25 per day. Only 11 percent of the population has access to basic sanitation, according to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index.
The vast majority of Nigeriens live an extremely precarious existence, based on nomadic pastoralism and subsistence farming in the countryside, or work in the ambiguous ‘informal sector’ in the towns. Slavery can still be found in parts of the country, with 7 percent of the population thought to be subjected to forced labour.
At the same time, Niger is the seventh-largest producer of uranium in the world. It also exports gold and oil. And yet, as is always the case with poor, dominated nations, not a single cent of this wealth ever reaches the people of the country.
The overwhelming majority of Niger’s uranium mines are owned and controlled by foreign corporations, of which France’s Orano is a major player. Meanwhile, international development ‘aid’ amounting to almost $2 billion a year is consumed by a bloated and corrupt state bureaucracy in the capital, which effectively forms a dependent elite that governs the country in the interests of its paymasters.
To the dire poverty of the masses has also been added the creeping desertification of the country as a result of climate change and the scourge of Islamist banditry, a monster born out of, and fed by imperialist interventions in the Middle East and North Africa.
NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which was pushed above all by France – in defence of ‘democracy’, of course – dragged the country into barbarism, characterised by clashes between rival warlords and slave markets on the Mediterranean coast.
But the destabilisation wrought by western imperialism did not end there. The collapse of the Libyan state injected arms and fighters across the Sahara, directly into the Sahel region. The Islamist terrorist outfit Boko Haram has established a permanent presence in Northeast Nigeria, while groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda have swarmed across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
In 2013, the ‘Socialist’ government of Francois Hollande sent 1,700 French troops to Mali at the invitation of the Malian government, established in a coup a year before. In the following years this became a permanent occupation force amounting to roughly 3,000 troops, operating alongside American forces across five countries.
And yet, far from quelling the terrorist threat, western imperialism has only worsened the problem. The poverty and instability in the region provides a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist groups, which offer destitute young men “money, women, meat and a motorbike” according to one former Islamist fighter, interviewed in The Economist. Meanwhile, French and American troops are seen as only protecting their own imperialist interests, and not without reason.
Accordingly, deep resentment has grown steadily across the entire region, not only due to the failure of French intervention to defeat Islamist insurgents but also out of a deep hatred of French colonialism, embodied in the presence of French troops. Demonstrations have been reported across the region, calling for French forces to leave and often evoking the memory of their countries’ struggles for independence. In Chad last year, for example, protestors chanted, “Chad is Free and France is out!”
These protests were often suppressed by regimes that have been armed and funded by western aid. In Niger, for example, which had been hailed as a “haven of stability” by the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, the ‘democratic’ government, repeatedly used force to clamp down on any anti-French protests.
But as Marx explained long ago, when the armed bodies of men are continually relied upon to guarantee ‘order’, what is to stop them eventually deciding they should rule society themselves?
In this context, mass unrest, political instability and coups were inevitable and represent the direct consequence of French imperialism’s attempt to strengthen itself in the Sahel. First Mali, then Guinea and Burkina Faso, have each experienced several coups since 2020.
In the absence of a revolutionary leadership that could channel the developing mood of anger and hatred towards western imperialism, military leaders have acted over the heads of the masses in the name of preserving ‘sovereignty’ and ‘order’, resting on this mood to elevate themselves to power.
In Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger, the coups have been met with demonstrations in support, with thousands brandishing anti-French slogans. First Mali and then Burkina Faso have evicted French troops from their territory. Mali has even removed French as one of its official languages.
The leader of Burkina Faso’s interim government, Captain Ibrahim Traore, has deliberately taken up the memory of the outstanding leader of the anti-colonial struggle in his country, Thomas Sankara. His Prime Minister, Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, is a prominent ‘Sankarist’, and all MPs have agreed to take a 50 percent pay cut.
Certainly, none of these regimes have broken with capitalism and expropriated the multinationals that continue to exploit the region. But in spite of this, the anti-imperialist rhetoric adopted by these regimes is chiming with the general revolutionary mood that exists amongst large layers of the African masses and their deep-seated hatred towards Western imperialism.
A new and extremely important element in the equation is the ‘alternative’ posed by Russia, which is stepping into the gap left by the West in parts of Africa. In Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, each of the coup governments have combined anti-colonialist rhetoric with statements of allegiance to Russia. Often pro-coup demonstrators can be seen waving the Russian flag. This fact is of the utmost significance for the shift in world relations that has been accelerating since the beginning of the war in Ukraine last year.
The relative decline of US and European imperialism is particularly clear on the African continent. China has become Africa’s single largest trading partner, while Russia has been gradually following a strategy of establishing points of support in a series of countries, particularly ones that are under the influence of French imperialism.
Russia’s level of economic investment in Africa remains low compared to China, but its support in the form of arms and fighters from the Wagner company have gained it some important allies. It is already Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest arms supplier, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
In the Central African Republic, Russia’s Wagner mercenary company has been used to prop up the incumbent regime. In return, it has taken possession of a number of gold mines, most significantly at Ndassima as well as control over logging contracts. Wagner has now been formally invited by the Malian government to assist it in its fight against terrorism.
Fresh from his failed coup-attempt in Russia, the head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, hailed the coup in Niger, calling it “nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers.” He also offered his company’s services in fighting terrorism, although such services come at a very high cost.
The Putin government also maintained friendly relations with Hemedti, the head of the RSF militia which is now fighting the official government in Sudan, allowing Wagner to fly gold out of airports in areas controlled by the RSF to avoid Western sanctions.
The Ukraine war and the response of US imperialism was an important turning point. The attempt of the US and NATO to isolate Russia from the rest of the world has backfired. Rather than drawing Africa around the US and Europe in condemnation of Russia, the US has provoked a dramatic shift on the continent.
Russian imperialism in turn has pivoted to exploit this situation to the best of its ability. Putin has cynically made a great show of his newly found ‘anti-colonial’ credentials. In a speech in September 2022 he linked the war in Ukraine to the struggle against western colonialism, highlighting its role in “the slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India, of Africa…”
At the recent Russia-Africa summit in Moscow, which took place as the coup in Niger unfolded, he quoted Nelson Mandela and listed a number of famous figures from Africa’s struggle for liberation against imperialism, including the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered with the involvement of Belgium and the USA.
The western media has been quick to dismiss the summit due to the fact that fewer nations attended than the last one in 2019, but this deliberately obscures the fact that 19 African heads of state attended in defiance of heavy western pressure, making speeches that explicitly condemned the West and praised Russia.
Putin must have had to suppress a smile as African leaders hailed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and compared his regime to the Soviet Union, considering that at the outset of his invasion of Ukraine he lamented the creation of Ukraine as the fault of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and said of Prigozhin’s mutiny that a “blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917”.
Beyond rhetoric, Putin has also offered guns, cheap grain and debt write-offs to African states struggling with rising prices and interest rates. In a significant development, the head of Russia’s armed forces, General Shoigu, announced this week that “the Russian Defense Ministry is ready to help improve the combat capabilities of the Algerian armed forces”.
What does this mean?
The coup in Niger represents a humiliating defeat for French imperialism and a major blow to the West in Africa. Niger was considered the ‘last domino’, after France had been forced to move its troops from Mali and Burkina Faso into the country. Now only Chad remains as a base of support, and it is by no means clear that it will remain so, considering the growing anti-French protests taking place there and the war in Sudan to its east.
The loss of Niger would not only threaten European access to gold and uranium in the region; it would seriously imperil the construction of a gas pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria, which had begun last year, further threatening the energy security of the EU.
Further, France and the EU were relying on regimes like those of Niger to try to stop the flow of Sub-Saharan African migrants into Europe. No wonder then that the West and its allies are applying as much pressure as they can to restore the previous government.
However, their room for manoeuvre is extremely limited due to the intense anti-colonial sentiment in the region and the alternative presented by Russia. As an analyst from the Crisis Group think tank put it: “Western countries have to really go easy and try to find ways to collaborate with these countries just for the sake of not pushing them to the other side — which is Russia.”
This has implications not only for Africa but for the global crisis of capitalism. Any expression of the striving of the African masses for freedom from centuries of western oppression should be taken seriously by every worker on the planet, and we should shed no tears for the corrupt sham of western-backed ‘democracy’.
Beyond the Sahel and the African continent, this shift marks a new stage in the crisis of western imperialism and the fragmentation of the world into several competing powers, or ‘multipolarity’ as it is often referred to.
The rise of China and Russia on the world stage has been welcomed by a number of African leaders and in parts of the left, as a means to combat western imperialism and secure genuine independence and economic development for the poor and exploited nations of the Earth. Under such a view, Russia is waging a progressive struggle to assist liberation movements in Africa and should therefore be supported and defended. As Traore put it in his meeting with Putin urging closer economic cooperation with Russia, “We want a multipolar world, and we stand for sovereignty.”
This is a question of the utmost importance for the revolutionary struggle not only in Africa but the world. It therefore requires a serious answer. Is the nature of Russia today the same as the USSR? The only answer that can be given to this question is: absolutely not.
The USSR, for all the crimes and limitations of Stalinism, was a deformed workers’ state, based upon a nationalised, planned economy. Putin’s state is a thoroughly capitalist regime, which ultimately defends the interests of the billionaire oligarchs who made their fortunes looting the carcass of the USSR and robbing the Russian working class. Its interests in Africa are entirely imperialist in nature: access to raw materials, sources of energy, markets, fields of investment and spheres of influence.
Just as the West covers its domination with flowery phrases about ‘democracy’, ‘development’, the ‘rule of law’ and so on, Russia has chosen to present its own ambitions in terms of ‘anti-colonialism’ and ‘sovereignty’. But neither Russia nor China intend to allow the vast natural wealth of Africa to pass directly into the hands of the African workers and peasants.
The deep desire of the African masses to expel Western imperialism is thoroughly progressive and will be a driving force in the African revolution. But to win this fight, they can only rely on their own power and the support of the world working class; not on the allegiance of rival imperialist powers.
Only an independent and internationalist movement of the working class can dismantle the reactionary states imposed on the people of Africa, take the wealth of the continent directly into the hands of society as a whole, and plan the economy democratically for the good of all. In Africa and the world over, the choice is plain: Socialism or barbarism.