Putsches in the Sahel are emancipatory

Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani

Niger coup leader Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani attends a demonstration held by his supporters in Niamey on Sunday. 

Photo credit: Coutesy of Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Africa teeters on the precipice of a multi-national war sparked by a recent military coup d’état in Niger. On July 26, the commander of Niger’s presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, a fervent pro-France leader in the Sahel region.

The continent is sharply divided on the coup, the ninth in the ‘coup belt’. Russia is prepared to defend Africa’s new military junta, but the United States and Nato are maneuvering to reverse the putsch and reinstate Bazoum. 

Response to the military takeover in Niger by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has been untypically drastic and draconian. Faced with successful coups in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso in the 2021-2022 period, Ecowas routinely suspended the juntas from its membership and dispatched mediators.

In contrast, the bloc has given Niger’s junta one week to hand over power back to Bazoum or face international sanctions, including force. On July 30, it enforced a no-fly zone over Niger and announced a slew of sanctions against its military leaders.

Niger’s coup brings to mind the polemical debate on ‘good’ and ‘bad coups’. Coups in the Cold War era mostly perpetuated authoritarianism. They were bad coups. Obviously, even as all coups have a dark cloud, resurgent coups in Africa have a silver lining.

Africa has witnessed eight successful coups in the 2020-2023 period, about 90 per cent of them occurring in French-speaking Africa — mainly in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Niger.

This calls to mind Napoleon Bonaparte, whose power grab in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire on November 9, 1799, left an enduring legacy of what political sociologist, Robin Luckham, dubs as “French militarism”, now unravelling in Africa”. Arguably, the new wave of anti-French military insurrections is an inexorable counterweight to the militarism of the French African policy.

Coups are finishing the unfinished anti-colonial liberation agenda in French Africa. They are sounding the death knell for Françafrique, France’s vice-like grip on its former colonies, now wilting. The coups are chipping into the three pillars of French subordination of former colonial dependencies in Africa: (1) permanent military presence in Africa; (2) monopolistic control over African natural resources; and (3) financial subjugation by common regional currencies undergirded by the French central bank.

Niger’s military junta exemplifies the wider rebellion against French monopolistic control over natural resources in its former colonial territories. Niger produces about five per cent of the world’s output of uranium. A French multi-national controls 90 per cent of Niger’s energy-producing mineral! While Niger’s high grade uranium has been lighting French homes and powering its industries, Niger has remained dark and poor. Moreover, despite its heavy military presence in Africa, France has failed to curb the proliferation of weapons, armed fighters, Islamic insurgents and inter-ethnic conflict in the Sahel, the impact of the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011.

Islamic insurgency

A medley of deteriorating security, contested legislative elections and allegations of corruption triggered months of anti-government protests that precipitated the Malian coup on May 24, 2021. The army, led by Vice-President Assimi Goïta, the head of the military junta that led yet another coup in 2020, ousted President Bah N’daw.

Under pressure from the new rulers, France closed its bases in Mali and moved them to Niger. Captain Ibrahim Traore, who toppled President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in Burkina Faso on September 30, 2022, also accused the French-backed government of failure to contain Islamic insurgency. As in Mali, the Burkina Faso junta also asked France to remove its 400-strong special forces from its soil.

On September 5, 2021, the commander of Special Forces in Guinea, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, deposed President Alpha Condé, blamed for the democratic sliding and authoritarian turn in Guinean politics. However, by the time Condé fell, he had already fallen out with France, which left China, Egypt, Russia and Turkey as the foremost partners of the world’s second-largest producer of bauxite, the main source of aluminium.

In Chad, President Mahamat Déby also came to power through a “coup” after his father, Idriss Déby, was killed by insurgents in Northern Chad on April 20, 2021. France publicly defended the power grab in Chad — Africa’s tenth-largest oil reserve holder, also rich in gold, silver, diamonds, quartz, bauxite, granite, tin, tungsten and uranium — as necessary under “exceptional circumstances”. As one of the last bastions of Françafrique, Chad is expected to join Ecowas’ invasion of Niger. But Déby has distanced himself from the plan after meeting General Tchiani in Niamey.

The influx of foreign mercenaries is exacerbating insecurity in countries affected by coup d’états in the Sahel. Military juntas in the Sahel are increasingly turning to these “white hands” to checkmate possible Nato or French-backed counter-coups.

Mercenary outfits such as the French agency Secopex; the British group Aegis Defence Services (ADS); the American private military contractor Academi, formerly known as Blackwater; or Russia’s Wagner Group, are the white knights in geopolitical competition in the ‘new Cold War’ that pits the United States and NATO against Russia and China. 

In the aftermath of Wagner’s recent high-stakes feud with Russia’s top military brass in Ukraine, the Group has pivoted back to Africa. It has positioned itself as being “on the side of those who fight for their sovereignty and for the rights of their people.”

The Group has about 1000 operatives in Mali, about 1,200-2,000 in the Central African Republic (CAR) and undisclosed fighters supporting Burkinabe forces. In Burkina Faso, supporters cheered as Traoré entered Ouagadougou from the Russia –Africa Summit on July 29, 2023, some waving Russian flags. He has reopened the Russian embassy, which was closed in 1992. 

Niger, too, is leaning towards Russia, and courting Wagner’s support. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s leader, recently urged Niger’s leaders to “give us a call.” About 1,000 pro-coup demonstrators took to the streets, flying Russian flags, voicing support for Wagner and denouncing the presence of French and other foreign bases in the country. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Wagner of “taking advantage” of instability in Niger where US troops are now holed since Mali closed French bases. As the clock ticks down to the deadline Ecowas gave to Niger, it is time for Nigeria and other African powers to soberly listen to the continent’s cry for economic liberation. Niger’s putsch is emancipatory, not authoritarian.

Prof. Kagwanja is former Government Adviser, the Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API) and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University (NDU), Kenya.