Sevim Dagdelen on the emergence of a new order in West Africa and the threat of a major war
Recent events in West Africa and particularly in the Niger cannot be understood without consideration of the colonial past. In his book “The Wretched of the Earth”, Frantz Fanon gives a compelling description of how French colonialism in West Africa, following defeat against the Vietnamese independence movement, the Viet Minh, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, did everything to set a course for controlled decolonisation. The aim was to avoid a similar disaster and safeguard control over the countries in Africa that were subjugated by France.
Paris relied on three chief instruments in pursuit of that endeavour. First, total control of the countries’ financial and monetary policy was assured through the colonial currency, the CFA franc, which prevented any monetary sovereignty and perpetuated colonial relations of exploitation and exchange that persist to this day. Second, vast depredation of mineral resources by French businesses has resulted in a third of France’s nuclear power being generated using uranium from the Niger while more than 80% of people in that country have no electricity at all. Third, unequal treaties secured French troops the right to intervene in the region against wayward governments.
The rebellion currently traversing West Africa, starting in Guinea and spreading to Mali, Burkina-Faso and now the Niger, is an uprising for those countries’ democratic sovereignty, effected by military forces and mass movements. The aim of the uprising is to end the continued brutal exploitation of the region by France. The rebels in the Niger have already achieved a historic victory. As a result of large-scale demonstrations in the Niger demanding the withdrawal of the 1,500 French troops, France’s President Macron has now been forced to announce that France will withdraw from its former colony by the end of the year.
Regardless of this bitter defeat, the former colonial power will continue to do all it can to maintain its own influence in the region and to re-establish the old neo-colonial order. Although an ECOWAS ultimatum passed without consequences in August, the Economic Community of West African States, led by Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire and at France’s urging, is maintaining the threat of military invasion of the Niger.
Such a war of aggression in violation of international law would not only meet with bitter resistance from the population, who are yearning for an end to outside rule, but would also very probably entail the involvement of Burkina Faso and Mali, which recently formed a defensive alliance with the Niger providing for mutual support in the event of an attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one of those countries. That pledge of support was lately reaffirmed by the representative of Mali at the United Nations General Assembly, when he noted that any invasion of the Niger would constitute “a direct threat to the peace and security of Mali, but also to the peace and security of the region” and would “necessarily have serious consequences”. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune takes a similar position, seeing a military intervention in the Niger as “a direct threat to Algeria” and warning that, in the event of an intervention, “the whole Sahel” would “go up in flames”. At the same time, the conflict would seem set to spill yet further over the international stage since, in the event of invasion, Niamey could turn to Russia – very popular among the general public as an antipode to France – for protection.
While military escalation has been avoided so far, ECOWAS is already engaged, with the support of Washington, Berlin and Paris, in a relentless economic war on the Niger which is seeking to starve the already suffering populace. After the EU put all former support payments for the Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, on ice, it is only a matter of time until the EU countries, at France’s and Germany’s initiative, agree on their own sanctions regime.
The revolt in the Niger is therefore symbolic not only of the growing longing expressed by the countries of the Global South to emancipate themselves from the yoke of neocolonial exploitation and tutelage by the West but also of the Western states’ attempt to maintain their dominance at all costs. When following the desperate attempts being made in Western capitals to interpret what is happening in the Sahel, one is forced to suspect that there is just as little understanding regarding the resonance of developments in West Africa as there is regarding the tectonic shifts in global power structures. Rather than take the anti-Western uprisings as a prompt to fundamentally change their own order of exploitation and subjugation, they are trying to maintain their own geopolitical footprint in the region by violence, in the form of sanctions and military threats, while their rhetoric builds castles in the air promising a seeming transformation of Sahel policy.
The paradox is that this imperialist conduct will only accelerate their own geopolitical decline. After all, it is in large part the Western policy of sanctions and intervention that is pushing more and more countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia to turn their backs on the West and move towards countries like Russia and China. The BRICS countries are attractive to the states of the Global South because they are seen as allies against the continuation of colonialism and against neo-colonialist exploitation. They represent a way out of the tragedy that Burkina Faso’s head of state, Ibrahim Traoré, followed Thomas Sankara in expressing thus: “How can Africa, which has so much wealth, become the poorest continent in the world today?” The future of the Sahel will depend crucially on whether France and its allies allow the people in the former colonies to extricate themselves from neo-colonial subjugation and gain democratic control of their countries’ wealth, without setting a match to the region through military intervention. At any rate, one thing is clear: the uprising against the old colonial order is already irreversible.
Sevim Dagdelen is a German MP.
Photo: U.S. Marines and West African partners (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Gambia) participating in Exercise Western Accord 2012, Senegal / Creative Commons, Defense Visual Information Distribution Service
This article was first published in Liberation Journal, September 2023
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