Niger: the spiral of war

22 October 2023

From the journal of our French sister organisation: Lutte de classe n°234 - September-October 2023.

On 26 July, the regime of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger was overthrown by the military.  The head of the presidential guard, General Tiani, surrounded by his offi cers, announced on television that he was taking power.  Since then, this junta has ruled the country.  The following Sunday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, Niamey, in support of the coup, shouting “Down with France” but also, “Long live Russia”.  There were attempts to break into the French embassy.  On 25 September, the French government fi nally announced the withdrawal of its ambassador and the evacuation of other diplomats holed up in the embassy - and also that it would withdraw its remaining 1,500 soldiers by the end of the year.

    The coup in Niger was the fourth African coup d’etat in the past three years - but since then, on 30 August, there was a fifth, when the 56-year-long dictatorial rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba and his family over Gabon - also a former French dependency - was ended by the Gabonese military.

    But the different nature of these two coups has been illustrated by the different approach of the regional economic organisation of West African states, ECOWAS, which acts as an agent and sometime military proxy for the main imperialist powers - in this case, France, but of course, also the EU, Britain and the US.  To date, ECOWAS continues to threaten Niger with military intervention, demanding the return to power of “democratically elected” President Bazoum, who at the time of writing is still held prisoner by the junta.

    ECOWAS has, on the other hand made no threats against the new regime in Gabon - which Made clear from the start that “the country’s internal and external commitments will be fulfi lled”.  In fact the ageing, ill and senile, Ali Bongo has been replaced temporarily with a former second in command of his, apparently pending new elections.

    President Bongo was always reliable when it came to taking care of French interests, not only in Gabon, but throughout the region.  Reassured that these interests would be defended by the new regime, Macron confined himself to a rather weak reprimand against the coup leader, presidential guard commander Oligui Nguema.

Sixty years of pillage by French imperialism

The anger of demonstrators in Niger against France is more than justified.  The entire history of independent Niger has been one of shameless plunder by French imperialism - even after “decolonisation”, leaving only a few crumbs for a tiny local aristocracy which remained in charge of facilitating this exploitation on its behalf.  It’s more or less the same story in all the other former French colonies, of course, but in Niger, this pillage was done in order to acquire uranium.  The French company which has exploited this vital raw material has appeared under several different names: first Cogéma, then Areva, and today Orano.

    When Niger was handed nominal independence on August 3, 1960, its fate had already been sealed by then French President de Gaulle and his Africa advisor, Jacques Foccart, as was the case with France’s other colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.  They got their own fl ags, national anthems, and presidents - in short, all the trappings of independence, but in reality France maintained its stranglehold over their resources.  De Gaulle had learned his lesson after the victorious struggles of the Indo-Chinese and Algerian peoples - where bloody wars against the populations had been fought and where, in the end, France had had to concede its political and economic hold - or most of it.  So he pre-empted this situation in the Sub-Saharan colonies by making pre-independence agreements allowing French imperialism to maintain its hold over their resources.  These stipulated an “obligation to reserve fi rst option to strategic raw materials. . .  for the French Republic”.

    In the case of Niger, uranium had been discovered a few years before independence.  In the case of Gabon, it was oil.  Niger’s uranium mines - known as Arlit, Akouta and Imouraren (also the names of the industrial towns which grew up around them) were located in the Aïr mountain region, 20km from the Algerian border.  For sixty years, the first two mines supplied French nuclear power plants at prices well below the market price.  The company Areva set up local subsidiaries in conjunction with Niger’s government - common practice when it comes to the imperialists’ exploitation of raw materials.  The profits generated by this arrangement went straight into the bank accounts of the country’s leaders, both civilian and military, with no benefit whatsoever to the population.

    Today, having exhausted the reserves of its two main mines, Orano has diversified its suppliers and now imports most of its uranium from Kazakhstan and Canada, although Niger still supplies some of it.  In fact the Arlit mine is nearing the end of its operating life: but the population will continue to suffer from the cancers it has caused for decades, if not hundreds of years. . .  Low wages and an almost total absence of regulation around nuclear safety contributed to the profi tability of Niger’s uranium.

    The second mine, Akouta is closed.  As for the giant Imouraren mine, it is “mothballed” until 2028, until a new extraction process can be tested by Orano and, above all, when it is deemed profitable enough, depending on the future price of uranium.  

    Despite its rich subsoil, Niger remains one of the world’s poorest countries.  Nevertheless, since 2011, it has had civilian governments, first under the presidency of Mahamadou Issoufou, then from 2021, Mohamed Bazoum, who is now a prisoner of the junta.  Macron held up Issoufou’s regime as an “exemplary democracy”.  It’s true that, for the French president, the democracy of France’s former colonies is judged above all by their ability to defend the interests of big business, and Issoufou’s regime did so, up to now. . .

    Before entering politics, Issoufou was director of mines and industry for Niger’s Ministry of Mines.  He was director of operations and then technical director of Somaïr, the Areva subsidiary that manages the Arlit mine.  Until the coup, his son was Bazoum’s Minister of Oil and Energy.  A model of democracy?  On March 15, 2020, he sent the army against a demonstration denouncing a financial scandal at the Ministry of Defence.  Three people were killed in the crackdown and the organisers were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

    In 2021, when Mohamed Bazoum was declared the winner in the elections, 470 of the protesters who took to the streets to contest the result were arrested.  This democratic cloak covers a very real system of corruption, derisively referred to by the population as the PAC (relatives, friends, acquaintances) system.  The secretary of the Confédération Nigérienne Du Travail (trade union) denounces the sumptuous houses “built by civil servants with state money”.  “They have so much that they build these villas without even living in them”, he adds.  The neighbourhood where these villas are built also has a nickname, which translates as: “Who hasn’t stolen? ”

    It is this regime that Macron defends, and that the people of Niger denounce.  They do so by supporting the junta in the streets, expressing a sense of revenge.  But nothing could be further from the truth than to think that Bazoum’s ousters are friends of workers and youth.  Tiani and all the officers who have gathered around him - chiefs of the army, police and gendarmerie – have taken part in all of the violence against the population in recent years.  They have been involved in every corruption scandal and intend to continue to be.  Moreover, they do not even pretend that they will allow the people of Niger to benefi t in the slightest from their country’s meagre wealth.  The most they will do is oust the men of the Bazoum clan and put their own men in their place, while ruthlessly repressing those who wish to stop them or even simply denounce them.  For Niger’s workers and youth, they are mortal enemies.

American imperialism and the debacle of Françafrique

Niger is not an isolated case.  Corruption, repression and pillage by imperialism are the lot of all former French colonies.  This is what has come to be known as Françafrique.  French presidents from Mitterrand to Macron have constantly announced the end of this system, but to no avail.  This system has lasted for 60 years, but since 2016, it’s African governments that intend to put an end to it, and are turning to other protectors.

    In 2016, the French army left the Central African Republic, where it was completely bogged down in the face of rebellions that controlled most of the country.  President Touadera, who was France’s man in the country, asked the French army to stay, but to no avail.  The French government even refused to send him modern light weapons.  Touadera turned to Wagner’s Russian mercenaries for protection.  French imperialism was now persona non grata in the Central African Republic.

    In May 2021, French troops were to abandon Mali.  The military junta led by Assimi Goïta that had seized power left them no choice but to leave their bases and retreat to Niger.  As anti-French demonstrations multiplied in Bamako, the Wagner militia arrived there too.

    A coup against a French “client” dictator in Burkina Faso followed in January 2023.  And now there is the anti-French coup in Niger, the last Sahel country where French contingents had been able to withdraw to.  That’s a lot in just a few years!

    For a long time, France’s leaders have had sufficient contacts in the state apparatus and armiesof these countries, and have been able to benefit from the help of neighbouring states ready to act as mediators in the event of a crisis.  Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta came to power in Mali in 2013, after jihadists seized power in the north of the country.  In Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was elected president in 2015, a year after a popular movement overthrew the dictator Blaise Compaoré, France’s inevitably “damned soul” in the region.  The transitions were carefully managed by Paris, which still had the means to do so.  But today, the mechanism that worked so well for over half a century has gone haywire.  The military, which is the only real power, prefers to rely on the growing discontent of the population, especially the youth, to overthrow their former masters and take over the leadership of these countries themselves.

    This feeling of revolt against the former colonial power, straddled by the military, is strongly expressed in all former French colonies.  In countries hit by jihadist terror, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, the population soon realised that the French army was not there to defend them.  They saw that it supported corrupt regimes at arm’s length, kept silent about the exactions of local armies, and was complicit in the policy of creating self-defence militias on an ethnic basis, thus encouraging deadly confrontations.

    But even in countries less targeted by jihadists, such as Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, this anti- French sentiment is strongly expressed.  In Senegal, for example, supporters of the imprisoned opposition politician Ousmane Sonko are motivated by this same sentiment.  When protests broke out in 2021 when he was fi rst arrested, stores representing French brands Total, Orange, Eiffage and Auchan were looted.  And how could it be otherwise, when the population is living more and more precariously, when prices are exploding, when people can no longer afford to live, and when it’s obvious that the real masters of the economy are these big international trusts, and first and foremost French ones.  In Senegal, fi shermen have had to give up their livelihood because their coasts, once among the world’s richest in fi sh, have been completely emptied of fish by giant trawlers, which take advantage of international agreements.  And when, deprived of their livelihoods, they choose to emigrate, they come up against obstacles put in their way by the same great European powers that have ruined them, sometimes losing their lives in the process.  The leaders of these countries therefore have every reason to fear that the epidemic of anti-French coups d’état will not stop in Niger.

    More broadly, the collapse of Françafrique in the Sahel leaves a vacuum, and for the moment that vacuum is being filled by Wagner’s Russian mercenaries.  This is, of course, a problem for the USA.  American leaders have no reason to get carried away with the debacle of their French allies and rivals.  This was reflected in somewhat different attitudes in Niger.  While Paris, having everything to lose if the junta stays in power, pushed for the fastest possible military intervention by ECOWAS, the USA instead intervened in favour of negotiation.  They have a 1,000-strong base in Niger, in Agadez, ideally placed to monitor an entire part of Africa with their drones.  An American diplomat, Victoria Nuland, travelled to Niamey to speak with the junta’s chief of staff, who was trained in the United States.  For the moment, Niger’s ruling military has not called for the US troops to leave, even though hostile demonstrations have taken place in Agadez.  So, if things could be sorted out, even at the cost of ousting the French troops, the USA would undoubtedly be delighted.  In any case, they’ll do anything to prevent Wagner’s arrival.  In the Central African Republic, in December 2022, the USA offered President Touadera political and security support if he undertook to break with Wagner and work only with the official armies, in this case that of Rwanda, which already has a large presence in the country.

    Today, after the death of Prigozhin and Wagner’s senior officers, we don’t know what the future of this group of mercenaries will be, but among the “good things” that Putin has credited Prigozhin with, is, of course, the development of Russian influence in many African countries, an influence that the USA is determined to put an end to.  The current conflict in Niger is closely linked to this context, and comes on top of the war that the USA and imperialist countries are waging against Russia in Ukraine, with the skins of Ukrainian soldiers.

Poverty and war for the population

The day after the coup d’état, ECOWAS reacted with unusual celerity through its president, Nigeria’s head of state, Bola Tinubu.  It not only condemned the putsch, as is customary, but also implemented economic sanctions against Niger, including the closure of borders and the suspension of financial transactions.  It threatened military intervention, and took steps to ensure that it could take place.

    It is impossible to say today whether this war, which would be yet another disaster for Africa, will be launched.  Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Senegal and fi rst and foremost Nigeria are said to be providing the troops.  Côte d’Ivoire’s president, Alassane Ouattara, was particularly war-mongering, calling for rapid intervention on August 10 on his return from an ECOWAS meeting.  He himself owes his accession to the presidency in 2011 to the intervention of the French army, and perhaps he feels that the situation in Niger could inspire the Ivorian army, which mutinied in 2017.

    On the other hand, Mali and Burkina Faso have declared that they would consider any military operation against Niger as a declaration of war against them, and Niger’s military junta has given them authorization to intervene militarily on its territory.  Staff meetings to coordinate the action of the various ECOWAS armies are taking place, as are attempts at mediation.  Chad has declared itself hostile to any military intervention.  Its president, Mahamat Idriss Déby, is now acting as mediator, whose only merit in terms of democracy is that he is his father’s son and has been endorsed by Emmanuel Macron.  Algeria is also intervening to avoid a military intervention that would destabilise its borders with Niger.  And this prospect of destabilisation also worries a European country like Italy, as Niger is financed by the European Union to stop migrants from all over Africa (in the middle of the desert), on their way to the Mediterranean coast.

The population the victim

But the economic sanctions are already a tragedy for the population.  Niger is a completely landlocked country, with no access to the sea, and entirely dependent on its neighbours for supplies.  It is a poor country, a famine-stricken country, with a large part of its territory in desert, and is in no way self-sufficient.  Many goods arrive via the port of Cotonou in Benin, whose border is now closed.  Many of the foodstuffs sold in the market in the capital, Niamey, come from Nigeria, whose border is just a few hundred kilometres away.  The transporters who used to carry them are now blocked at the border, or have to make long detours to avoid surveillance by the Nigerian army.  The prices of these goods, which were already rising steadily, are soaring as a result, and some products have disappeared altogether.

    Electricity, too, 70% of which comes from Nigeria, is no longer available.  Power cuts were already frequent before the sanctions, due to the dilapidated state of the Nigerian company’s network, but the shutdown is now total.  The only recourse is generators, provided you have access to them and the fuel to run them.  Medicines are also blocked, which is a disaster in a country with virtually no hospital infrastructure and where many children die in infancy for lack of care.  And that’s just the situation in the capital, because in the villages it’s even worse.  Added to this is the fact that Niger is home to tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the jihadist violence in Mali and Nigeria.  This situation affects the population on both sides of the border.  In both Nigeria and Niger, the inhabitants proclaim “We are one people”, and their separation is effectively due only to the colonial treaties that made Nigeria an English colony and Niger a French territory.  Many Nigerian farmers along the border live from their trade with Niger, and often have part of their family living in Niamey.

    The repercussions of the coup d’état in Niger and the reaction of ECOWAS, and behind it the major imperialist powers, are already having a drastic effect on the entire population.  This is not just the consequence of the actions of a handful of generals in Niger, nor of the warlike intentions of their ECOWAS counterparts, but is part of the whole spiral that started with the war in Ukraine.  Africa has already been hit by rising food prices, which are reducing a growing proportion of the population to poverty, and the situation is now even worse.  Today, it is threatened by a new war, while a large part of the continent is already living under the terror of armed gangs, jihadists or others, when it’s not a real war as in Sudan.  This is all capitalism has to offer the world’s poorest continent, which it has plundered for centuries and continues to plunder to enrich the shareholders of its major trusts.


10 September 2023