The recent military coup in Niger, one of the many that have taken place in recent years in a number of West African countries, has become a topic of heated discussion and has developed into a field of political conflict between these countries and their ex-colonialists. What provoked a more forceful reaction of Western governments this time (in contrast to their more tepid reaction to the coups in Burkina Faso or Mali), is that Niger was until before the coup one of Europe’s closest allies in the Sahel (the strip south of the Sahara that runs from the east to the west bank of the continent).
France, Germany, Italy and Spain are organising emergency flights to transport their citizens from Niger to Europe, while the US is emptying its embassy in the country.
The West’s close ally in the region, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), which includes countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, etc., is threatening that if the scope for finding a diplomatic solution is exhausted, it will restore the ousted Nigerien president, M. Bazoum, even by intervening militarily in the country. On the other hand, countries that have broken away from the sphere of Western influence and have been investing in their relationship with Russia, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, threaten to interpret any move against the new military regime in Niger as a declaration of war against them.
The turn to Russia and China
The disengagement of a number of African countries from Europe and the West has been underway for some time, both militarily and economically. About two months ago, as the crisis between the Russian government and Wagner (the mercenary army of Putin’s former close ally Y. Prigozhin) was winding down, Russia declared that Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic and Mali could continue and that the crisis would not disrupt its relations with its allies in Africa.
Wagner continues to operate in other African countries, with its owner stating recently that its forces will not be involved in the war in Ukraine in the near future, but will concentrate on operations in Africa. A number of African governments (Mali and Burkina Faso are perhaps the most ardent), in response to the inability of French troops to deal with the armed Islamist groups that have been murdering, looting and terrorising in many parts of their territory in recent years, have assigned this job to Wagner.
At the same time, China’s economic activity in Africa is expanding, through the Belt and Road Initiative. In this context, Chinese companies are building major infrastructure projects (ports, bridges, railways, etc.) from one end of the continent to the other, in exchange for the exploitation of fossil fuels and minerals, the opening up of markets, the use of cheap labour and the opening up of trade routes. The coup in Niger may be of serious concern to the West, but China does not seem to face any particular change in tis operations, since it is estimated that the agreements on oil and uranium exploitation in the country will not be affected.
Referring to the relationship between his country, and Africa as a whole, with Russia, Burkina Faso’s President, I. Traoré, recently spoke of “family” relations, shared history, common sacrifices, etc. He spoke of what the continent has suffered at the hands of European colonialists, of the slavery still imposed by the West and of the need to resist modern colonialism and imperialism. He also thanked Vladimir Putin for his statement that he intends to send grain to Africa in the near future.
Poverty and anger
These statements are not accidental and the same applies to the recent coups and the turning of African countries to the competitors of Europe and the USA. In the Western media there is an attempt to present the latest developments as being somewhat “accidental”, due to conflicts between different generals. The conclusion that is deliberately allowed to emerge from these analyses, although they do not say so explicitly, is that “corrupt” and “incompetent” African military and political leaders are clashing with each other and that Putin is taking advantage of this situation. But this is a totally insufficient explanation.
The real reasons that have led to these developments are different. The first is the genuine anger of the peoples of the region against those who are exploiting them. African peoples have already endured decades of exploitation by the West and the governments that have acted as its puppets. Decades of poverty, unemployment, extremely limited access to health and education and so much more. In recent years, the armed Islamist groups that have been looting and terrorising towns and villages have acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thus, the ruling classes in the region could either continue to identify with the Westerners and face the consequences, or should find a way to differentiate themselves.
In the case of Burkina Faso, the coups of recent months have been accompanied by mass demonstrations with the main feature being slogans against the West, especially France. In some cases, Russian flags have also appeared in the demonstrations. In Niger, half the population lives below the poverty line, with large sections of the population dependent on food aid programmes for their survival. In response to the coup, the World Bank has announced that it is freezing financial aid to the country, which can only generate even greater anger.
The second reason is that whereas until a few years ago the USA, France and the other Western imperialist countries were the only ones to play a role in Africa economically, another alternative has now presented itself. The combination of China’s economic power and Russia’s military might appears as a tempting proposal to parts of the establishment trying to find ways to stay afloat. The existence of a second pole with ‘superpower’ characteristics has drastically changed the landscape and is leading to the collapse of the West’s monopoly. This process will inevitably tend to intensify. This does not mean that it will be a linear process, as the ‘traditional’ imperialists will undoubtedly find ways to react in a dynamic fashion.
The hypocrisy of the West and the new colonialists
Europe’s sudden interest in “democracy in Africa” is very hard to convince anyone. France, Germany, Portugal, Britain and Belgium, are responsible not only for coups in their former colonies in the last decades. They are also responsible for the extreme exploitation of their natural resources over the last centuries, mass massacres of local populations, immeasurable environmental degradation, which has even intensified in recent years, poverty and hunger for the majority of the population, deprivation of freedoms, repression of movements and all kinds of injustices.
The concern about ‘democracy’ in fact masks the concern about losing their grip on Africa. They are worried about seeing their own mining and energy companies take a back seat to the exploitation of natural resources which until recently they had priority over. They are worried that they will be no longer able to determine the economic policy of these countries which were tied by a thousand threads to the chariot of the West (which meant a constant transfer of wealth).
The attitude of the West’s allies in ECOWAS is also hypocritical, as its member countries are hiding behind a parliamentary cloak but act as puppets of the West and rule by repressing and violating the democratic rights of their peoples.
In the absence of a visible alternative on the part of the Left and the movements, significant sections of society in a number of African countries are turning their expectations towards Russia and China, which are attempting to exploit this situation for their own benefit. This process is well advanced and involves major economic agreements even in countries that maintain their relationship with the West.
The case of the EACOP (East African Crude Oil Pipeline) between Uganda and Tanzania is typical. In recent months, a number of Western companies and banks have been forced to abandon financing the project for fear of a backlash because of the environmental risks involved. Those that do not seem to be concerned, however, are the Chinese companies that will apparently fill the gap.
In the meantime, Wagner is not content with selling military services to African countries, but is also involved in alcohol trade, timber logging and gold mining. These activities have a detrimental effect on the poor inhabitants of the continent, who see the natural resources of their countries change hands, passing from the old to the new colonialists.
Caught between the interests of warring imperialist blocs, the peoples of Africa have nothing to expect from abandoning one dependency for another. Both the military regimes and the elected governments of the continent are in fact serving the interests of the local corrupt elites and the old and new colonialists. The only force that can liberate Africa is the independent struggles of its workers to overthrow capitalist regimes and to lay the foundations for a society in which the inhabitants of the continent can live in dignity.