People look at Russia to bolster opposition to the West
ByANURADHA CHENOY *
12 Aug 2023
A military coup in the West African Republic of Niger, on July 26, that deposed its President, has vaulted this fragile country to the centre of global geopolitics and the people of Niger into a period of instability.
The international community condemned the coup, but Niger is too important to be ignored. So the geopolitical narratives are hardening as is the threat of military intervention that can spill over to regional conflict in this Sahel region of Africa.
Why this interest? Niger, a former colony of France, is amongst the poorest amongst the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). Given Niger’s resources it should not be so poor.
It has oil, gold mines and is the fourth largest producer of uranium in the world which is essential for nuclear energy, power and fissile materials.
The uranium mines of Niger are predominantly controlled by the French state nuclear power company Orano (earlier Areva). It mines and exports the uranium to France who enriches, processes, uses and sells,with enhanced profits whereas uranium sales account for only 1.2% of Niger’s budget.
As people in Niger say: “Our uranium lights up much of France, while only 20% people in Niger have electricity.” This perceptible exploitation and uneven development is no longer acceptable to the people of Niger. This is the reason for public dissatisfaction and the coup.
The coup has set off distinct narratives that characterise the deepening multipolar geopolitics. First, the military Junta claims that deposed Niger president Mohamed Bazoum has been far too close to the French, and compromises with French neo-colonial interests.
Recently, Bazoum allowed an increase in the presence of international forces, and the French military that had been asked to leave Mali, are being welcomed to Niger. There has been popular civil dissent on this decision. The military Junta says they have to reclaim Niger for the people and are backed by huge demonstrations of support.
The second narrative led by US and France, says that the democratically elected and now deposed president of Niger should be reinstated. The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed that the US will ‘ensure full restoration of constitutional order’. France has said similar words indicating threats of intervention.
The Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) comprised of: Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Benin, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Sierra Leone, Mali, Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Senegal, Cabo Verde, in the region. The ECOWAS has demanded restoration of the status quo and given a deadline after which they threaten military intervention in Niger.
This grouping, where neighbouring Nigeria is influential, is known for following Western positions in Africa and is likely to be backed by the West in case of intervention. This will be another proxy war, with conflict spill over to the entire Sahel region.
As it is, this commodity rich region is beset with radicalisms, is terror prone where identity/ethnic conflicts remain subliminal. At the same time intervention is not that simple either.
Member countries of the ECOWAS group are divided about intervening. Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu declared intent for military intervention, but his own Senate opposes this and wants a negotiated settlement.
Tinubu had previously been indicted in the US on drugs related charges. He is on the edge in the factional politics of Nigeria, despite the support he gets from the US. For example separatists of the Nigerian-Biafra region have expressed support for Niger.
Other ECOWAS countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, led by post-coup military Juntas themselves, have stated that they will militarily support Niger in case of external military intervention. Libya and Chad have also expressed support to the Niger junta.
Algeria’s president Tebboune has rejected any military intervention in Niger arguing that this would ‘ignite the whole Sahel region’. Algeria is an ally of Russia, and amongst the more stable countries in the region. Algeria has signed a military agreement with Niger.
The third Narrative is from China, India and others of the Global South that want domestic negotiations, return to stability but non-intervention from any external force.
French President Macron has evacuated French citizens, but his army of 1,500 remains, as do the 1,100 American troops who are engaged in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa. This terrorism increased after NATO and French intervened and bombed Libya and removed president Gaddafi for ‘democracy’ in 2011. Libya remains an unstable, shattered and conflict prone country.
The ECOWAS community says it is preparing for military intervention but probably negotiating with the West on what support they would get for being proxy. Beyond the uranium, oil and other commodities, Niger is important for the geopolitical interests as the US and others maintain their armies and bases.
Russia has officially stated that it ‘opposes a military solution’ to this conflict and has no plans to use its armed forces in Niger. President Vladmir Putin has opposed violent regime change in Niger as elsewhere. But reports claim the newly instated Niger Junta has asked for help from Wagner Russian mercenary group, that operates in neighbouring Mali.
The US conversation on Niger and Africa as a whole is peppered with the Russian threat and unfair Chinese competition. The US deputy national security secretary Victoria Nuland landed in the Niger capital and warned the Niger junta of the dangers of aligning with Russia.
The US tags the Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group, as a terrorist outfit but many in Africa want a Russian presence to bolster their politics against the West.
The reasons for anti-French sentiment in the former French colonies besides the stagnant economic development, deep poverty, presence of external military control, is the continuation of French neo-colonial policies that go beyond ruthless commodity-resource extraction.
The French continue to control and have veto over the monetary policies of these eight countries including Niger that use the CFA Franc. France sets the exchange rate and convertibility to the Euro is guaranteed.
There is a centralisation of foreign exchange reserves- whereby 50% goes into the French treasury and these reserves must exceed money in circulation. In sum there is no monetary sovereignty and all kinds of devious neo colonial control.
There is a popular surge against French neo-colonialism in West Africa. For example, the Economist shows that over 70% of people in Niger support the anti-French policies announced by the new government.
There have been 10 coups in the last five years in the various Sahel countries. Leaders vie for power on the basis of anti-French, anti-colonial sentiment. This attracts the mass of poor people who can see this exploitation and back populist and even military juntas.
But once in power, the leaders fail to deliver and fall into the same trap. In order to get foreign exchange for food and fuel they are forced to negotiate with the French State or MNCs that exploit resources for profit, whilst development issues or promises like the SDGs remain a slow and measly trickle down, barely touching the wider population.
This is why the mass of people are asking for a return of Russia, who they see as an ally against neo-colonial exploitation.
Any outside military intervention will light up the entire West Africa- Sahel in a regional war. As the conflict spills over, attrition, migration, and increase in radicalism that already plague this region will only rise.
So ECOWAS needs to prevent itself from falling into a proxy war for the West. The African Union must intervene and stop any intervention. It is clear that there is a nationalist surge against neo-colonial French policies in West Africa. Niger and its people alone should decide their future.
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