The recent coup in Niger has brought attention to the intricate dynamics of power, influence, and sovereignty in Africa once again. Although coups are often perceived with apprehension due to their potential to disrupt stability, it is crucial to delve deeper into the context and evaluate how this occurrence could act as a trigger for African nations to redefine their relationship with the West. The struggle for independence, which characterized much of Africa’s recent history, may discover renewed impetus in the aftermath of the coup.
To comprehend the contemporary implications of the coup in Niger, it is imperative to revisit the historical background of Africa’s struggle for independence. The mid-20th century experienced a surge of nations freeing themselves from colonial powers, reclaiming their sovereignty, and forging their paths. This era engendered aspirations of self-reliance and self-governance, although numerous African nations have since encountered challenges in completely extricating themselves from the hold of Western economic, political, and cultural influence.
The dilemma of neocolonialism persists as a major obstacle for numerous African countries despite their official independence, as Western nations maintain significant sway over their economies and politics. The presence of multinational corporations, foreign debt, and unequal trade relationships are among the various expressions of this reality. Instead of being perceived solely as an isolated incident, the Nigerien coup has the potential to serve as a symbol of resistance against threats to national autonomy.
The coup that deposed Niger’s “West friendly” President Mohamed Bazoum, who now faces a looming threat of prosecution for high treason, is a major geopolitical moment for West Africa. The coup came as a major blow to the West which saw Niger as a partner, having investments worth millions as well as a strong military presence. As the ECOWAS threatened to carry out a military intervention, ordering an activation of a stand-by force, neighboring countries Mali and Burkina Faso have extended support to the military junta, citing a military intervention tantamount to a declaration of war against them. Russia and Algeria have also issued warnings against the move.
The coup has received public support owing to the anti-colonial sentiment prevalent in Niger, a country long exploited by the West, especially France. The inception of French colonialism in Niger was marked by a notoriety that stemmed from a ruthless military operation that was undertaken in 1899 to augment France’s dominance in the West African region. Niger’s history witnessed a series of uprisings challenging France’s control, such as the 1916 Tuareg Rebellion. However, it was not until 1960 that Niger gained its independence. The French still did not release Niger from its clutches and courted Nigerian elites in a new form of colonialism, signing lucrative mining deals and providing military muscle.
The present crisis in Niger may be attributed to the reconfiguration of previous colonial relationships as Françafrique, an imposing neocolonial network spanning sub-Saharan Africa, which encompasses economic, political, security, and cultural bonds and partnerships that revolve around the French language and values. Charles de Gaulle, the preeminent president of France during the postwar era, encapsulated the paramount significance of the country’s relationship with Africa by stating that “French world power and French power in Africa were inextricably linked and mutually confirming”. De Gaulle and his successors, (not so) ironically were committed to preserving their strategic military bases, access to energy resources, advantageous trade agreements, and financial dominance, while acknowledging the legitimacy of self-determination movements. This formed France’s pre`carre` policy, establishing Africa as its area of action and backyard.
Being the seventh largest producer of uranium, Niger is of particular interest to France which relies on nuclear power for 70% of its energy needs and hence is the biggest importer. Orano, formerly known as Areva, has major stakes in Nigerian mines, having operated there for the better part of half a century. The colonial uranium expedition has had smoldering consequences for Niger. According to environmental watchdogs, there have been several incidents of release of dangerous levels of radioactive material left among populations. The release of 20 million tons of waste from a depleted mine endangering 100,000 lives is only a recent example. The transaction has also been unequal Oxfam pointed out in 2013 that, “In France, one out of every three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerian uranium. In Niger, nearly 90% of the population has no access to electricity”, with the former Avera enjoying several tax advantages. The renewal of the deal with Orano became a David and Goliath affair marred with corruption as Niger demanded an increase in royalties.
However, things are taking a turn. The Niger junta allegedly threatened to suspend the supply of uranium to France. While France claims to be minimally impacted by the move because of its “diverse supplies”, EU-level consequences are possible as the EU imports a fifth of its uranium from Niger. This will be a major blow to the EU’s efforts to phase out its dependency on Russia, another major exporter of uranium to the EU. This will further curb the EU’s attempts to sanction Russia in the nuclear sector, which is still not subject to sanctions according to energy expert Vinh Ngyuen. This could pave opportunities for Russia to get concessions in natural resources as it is already strengthening its foothold in the continent. Just before the coup, Niger was already exploring new investment options, including a new mining deal with China.
Niger has also been the West’s key security ally against Islamic militancy and in efforts to balance Russian influence in the region, a move dating back to the Cold War era. The country hosts around 1000-1,500 French troops, US and French bases, and has been the largest recipient of US military assistance in the region. However, these dynamics are shifting as the military government revoked five military agreements with France. The West will need to reevaluate its security policy in the future.
The coup in Niger heralds the inception of major geopolitical transformations. It offers the African nations the opportunity to shift the balance of power while forging new alliances and thrashing the neocolonial designs of the West. As China and Russia are already making inroads into the region by grabbing rare earth metals deals through BRI and PMCs respectively, they are presented with a golden opportunity to exploit the West’s fall. However, the region also faces the threat of instability unless it attempts to forge unity in the divided West African bloc.