By Franklin O’Riordan, Socialist Alternative Leicester
On 26 July, the latest in a string of coups in West Africa occurred when members of the Presidential Guard of Niger arrested President Mohamed Bazoum. The commander of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, then proclaimed himself the new leader.
Niger has witnessed four successful military coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. Meanwhile, much of West Africa has seen successful coup attempts in just the last two years – in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali (all former French colonies). With the coup in Niger, there is now a connected chain of coup-led governments, stretching across the Sahel from Guinea on the Atlantic coast, to Sudan on the Red Sea.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has suspended Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali after their successful military takeovers, and now the bloc is taking a hard line against Niger. After suspending Niger from ECOWAS, the bloc closed the border to the country, freezing all Nigerien assets held in regional banks, as well as issuing an ultimatum to the junta in Niger, ordering them to reinstate Bazoum or face military intervention. The deadline for this ultimatum has since passed without incident, but there is still a risk of conflict emerging.
Inter-imperialist struggle behind the conflict
This recent coup has become the latest chapter in the New Cold War between the US and China, which so far has largely been expressed through regional conflicts between groups allied to one or the other bloc, or forced to choose between them. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it has large deposits of oil and uranium. This makes Niger of strategic importance not only to the Sahel region, but also to the United States, Russia, China and especially France, which has the most extensive network of nuclear power in the world. Over 70% of France’s electricity comes from the 56 nuclear reactors across France, and the uranium supply from Niger is crucial to their operations. France and the EU also expect Niger and other Sahel countries to block sub-Saharan refugees from reaching EU countries.
In West Africa, we see the interests of France and Russia coming to a head as a part of this wider budding conflict, particularly over the question of who can defeat the jihadist insurgents. Since 2007, Al-Qaeda has been active in the region. After the defeat wave of revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East (the ‘Arab Spring’) and the NATO-led overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, violence in the region worsened. An influx of weaponry and fighters from Libya spread into the Western Sahel region through Mali. Now other groups such as Boko Haram and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ have secured a foothold in the region. Despite thousands of French and American troops being sent to the region to quell the insurgency, little progress has been made.
France’s continued military footprint in her former colonies, and the failure to defend them from jihadist insurgents, has created widespread resentment across the region towards French imperialism. This has opened the door for Russian imperialism to fill the space they have left behind. The coup in Niger was accompanied by pro-coup demonstrations outside the French embassy. Demonstrators waved Nigerien and Russian flags and chanted ‘Long live Russia,’ ‘Long live Putin,’ and ‘Down with France.’ The infamous mercenary Wagner Group has now established themselves in Mali fighting the Jihadist insurgents. Burkina Faso has denied any involvement with the Wagner Group, but has established closer ties with Russia.
Additionally, there are Chinese imperialist interests in the region. The Belt and Road Initiative – a programme of infrastructure projects funded by Chinese banks and corporations to generate indebtedness – has built a small section of expressway connecting Algeria to Niger. These recent developments in the region can only be positive news to Xi Jinping, as the Chinese regime attempts, independently and through its Russian allies, to build closer links across Africa.
Since the ultimatum against Niger was issued by ECOWAS with US and French support, both Mali and Burkina Faso announced their intention to defend Niger in the case of any military action. Niger closed its airspace and mobilised its military in preparation for an attack, while many foreign nationals have been evacuated. Nigerien leaders have threatened to kill Bazoum in the event of a military intervention. At the time of writing, this has not developed any further, and while a regional conflict is not certain, it is a distinct possibility. In the event a conflict does break out, it would serve as another proxy in this New Cold War, with disastrous results for Niger’s workers and subsistence farmers.
Only the working masses can end the conflict
Whether it is Russian or French imperialism that holds sway in the West Sahel region, conditions for everyday working people will not improve either way. The US and France cannot be relied upon to defend even fragile and partial ‘democracies’ in West Africa, as evidenced by their record in the region of supporting their own coups and assassinations. Russia and China meanwhile offer only more of the same, albeit under a different banner.
It is the working class, leading a movement of the exploited and poor masses, that remains the only force capable of defending democratic rights and rejecting imperialism. In 2014 in Burkina Faso, mass protests by workers and youth were able to force the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré after 27 years in power. It is these methods of protest, organisation, and mass action, that can defend democratic rights and go further towards breaking with capitalism and all imperialisms. Capitalism has failed countries like Niger. We need socialism to build a society free from imperialism and exploitation, which can deprive the jihadist terror groups of their base, while meeting the needs of the population in Niger, West Africa and internationally