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France, Russia, ECOWAS in Battle for Soul of West Africa

Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey students stage a protest in support of Russia and the coup plotters. Credit: Abdoulaye Hali Aboubacar

Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey students stage a protest in support of Russia and the coup plotters. Credit: Abdoulaye Hali Aboubacar

SOKOTO, NIGERIA, Aug 7 2023 (IPS) - On July 26 2023 a man named Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane, flanked by soldiers with military fatigues, appeared on Niger’s national television to announce the execution of a coup. It was the country’s fourth coup since it gained independence from France in 1960.

“The defence and security forces have decided to put an end to the regime you are familiar with. This follows the continuous deterioration of the security situation, the bad social and economic management,” he said.

The country’s president Mohamed Bazoum, who came to power in 2021 through Niger’s first democratic elections, was removed, and his government, including the constitution, was suspended.

Before the announcement of the coup, President Bazoum had been held captive in the presidential palace. This was unexpected, as earlier in the year, Bazoum had dismissed the possibility of a military coup during an interview. However, he was ultimately overthrown by the very people who were supposed to protect him—the Presidential Guard.

Two days later, the Presidential Guard commander General Abdourahamane Tchiani was proclaimed as the new leader of the country following the army’s support of the sudden military takeover.

The recent military takeover in Niger has reverberated through the international community, shocking those who regarded the country as a bulwark against the encroachment of democratic backsliding in the region.

Niger faced widespread international condemnation following the military coup. The European Union, the United States, France, and the West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), were among those who unequivocally condemned the coup. France issued a stern warning, threatening to respond firmly to any violence directed at its diplomatic mission in Niger or its citizens and interests.

While this may not be the first coup in Niger, and it certainly isn’t the first in the Sahel or West Africa. In recent years, the region has witnessed a series of coups where military officers have seized power from elected government officials, driven by their frustration with the increasing incidents of terrorism, corruption, and political instability in West Africa.

In January 2022, Burkina Faso witnessed two coups, which were triggered by the deteriorating security situation and the President’s perceived inability to effectively address challenges, notably the Islamist insurgency.

Similarly, Mali experienced coups in both 2020 and 2021, indicating the volatility of its political landscape. In 2021, President Alpha Condé of Guinea was overthrown in a coup d’état by the country’s armed forces following gunfire in the capital, Conakry.

These three nations share notable similarities: they are located in West Africa, have unstable political systems, face regular jihadist threats, and were once under French colonial rule.

Analysts argue that these coups represent direct threats to democracy in West Africa, undermining the principles of democratic governance in the region.

“The coup represents a significant setback for the small but crucial developmental strides made by West Africa and the entire African continent towards more people-oriented governance, even if not perfect. It’s disheartening to see these gains being nullified. This unsettling development raises concerns about the potential for more coups across Africa in the years to come, which is a distressing prospect. Moreover, it is likely to exacerbate insecurity, particularly terrorism, as violent non-state actors may seize the opportunity to emerge,” says Timothy Avele, a security expert, and Managing Director of Agent-X Security, based in Lagos, Nigeria.

Ibrahim Baba Shatambaya, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, holds the view that the army’s actions in Niger were motivated by a desire to break free from France’s long-standing control and exploitation of its former colonial territories.

“The coup stands as evidence that democracy is facing challenges in Africa, and it reflects the inability of ECOWAS to ensure that leaders in the West African sub-region meet the expectations of their people,” he adds.

For the Love of Uranium

In French West Africa, there has been a significant rise in anti-French sentiments, which is considered a key factor driving the military coups in the region.

Many people hold France responsible for contributing to the region’s instability through military interventions.

Despite maintaining military bases and promising to combat Jihadism, violence and attacks persist, leading to suspicions that France might have a hand in terrorist activities.

Critics also argue that France has taken advantage of the region’s resources while failing to break colonial ties. For instance, Niger, the world’s fifth-largest uranium producer, supplies nearly a quarter of the European Union’s uranium, used for electricity production. However, despite its resource wealth, Niger remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a poorly diversified economy heavily reliant on agriculture. More than 41% of the population lives in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank’s data from 2021.

Furthermore, Orano (formerly Areva), a French state-controlled nuclear fuel producer, faces accusations of leaving behind large amounts of radioactive waste in Niger, posing health risks to local communities. There are also concerns about insufficient protection for workers against radiation. Orano has also been embroiled in bribery allegations in Southern Africa.

The French-backed CFA currency, used by 14 nations in West and Central Africa, including Niger, has faced criticism for enabling France to maintain control over the economies of its former colonies. This currency system requires member countries to deposit 50% of their currency reserves with the Banque de France and is pegged to the euro.

French President Emmanuel Macron has made efforts to distance himself from France’s colonial past in Africa and advocate for a new approach based on partnership. However, deep-rooted suspicions and grievances persist.

Long Live Russia, Goodbye France 

About ten years ago, Mali sought military assistance from France when Islamic militants threatened the capital, Bamako. France’s arrival was initially hailed as heroic, but its presence in the West African nation did not yield long-term improvements. Instead, terrorist groups with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara carried out devastating attacks. Mali even blamed the French for arming terrorists.

Diplomatic relations between Paris and Bamako began to deteriorate following a coup in May 2021 and resistance against democratic elections in January 2022. Consequently, Mali expelled the French and embraced the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organisation, which has gained influence in Africa.

The Wagner Group has gained notoriety for its involvement in the internal affairs of multiple African nations, offering military and security assistance to advance Moscow’s influence across the continent. Disturbingly, it has faced accusations of perpetrating massacres and acts of rape. However, despite these alleged atrocities, many discontented young Africans harbour a sense of indifference towards Wagner’s actions, as their grievances with France and the West take precedence in their perspective.

Burkina Faso also expelled the French, with thousands of people rallying in the capital, Ouagadougou, in support of a military takeover that ousted President Roch Kabore. Russian flags were displayed in the streets, and some demonstrators urged Moscow to replace France in the fight against jihadists.

Even in Niger, celebrations backing the coup plotters have swept across the country, gaining momentum despite calls for a return to democracy. There are also reports of the Niger junta meeting with the Wagner Group in Mali to seek military support.

“Nigeriens harbour deep grievances against France for various reasons, primarily due to the exploitation of our resources, which disproportionately benefits France. An evident illustration of this disparity is the supply of French electricity sourced from our uranium, while we remain 80% dependent on another country (Nigeria) for our energy needs.

“Another major concern is the issue of terrorism. Despite the presence of over a thousand French soldiers in the country with the stated objective of combating terrorists, they seem unable to effectively confront the threat. Instead, our population and soldiers bear the brunt of the attacks, leaving us vulnerable and disheartened.

“As an alternative, many Nigeriens view Russia as a potential saviour in the face of their escalating tensions with France and the rest of the world. Russia’s involvement in the terrorist conflict in Mali, particularly through the actions of the Wagner Group, has further fueled this perception,’’ Abdoulaye Hali Aboubacar, a student at the Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, tells IPS.

ECOWAS Versus Niger

The growing presence of the Wagner group is clear evidence that ECOWAS has failed to do its homework. However, the new government of ECOWAS is poised to make a difference.

After taking over as the Chairman of ECOWAS on July 9, President Bola Tinubu made a firm statement, stating that the region would not accept any more successful coups, as it had experienced five of them since 2020.

A mere 15 days after Tinubu’s resolute speech, the government in Niger was overthrown by officers.

In response to the crisis, Tinubu took immediate action and presided over an emergency ECOWAS summit in Abuja. Several sanctions were implemented, and notably, for the first time in the bloc’s history, it demanded that the putschists restore constitutional order under the risk of facing the potential use of force.

However, there are apprehensions regarding ECOWAS, which has faced criticism for its limited ability to address coup regimes and its alleged neglect of crucial underlying issues like corruption and poverty. Some argue that ECOWAS’s response to the coup might be influenced by how the news of it was received in the Western world.

“It is advisable for Nigeria-led ECOWAS to introspect before escalating the already precarious situation in Niger. The current trajectory could turn Niger into a battleground for foreign powers to settle scores, leading to a dangerous quagmire if not handled carefully by the authorities, especially Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu and his advisers,” Avele cautions.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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