In 1898, the French government sent a military expedition to West Africa under the command of Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine. Their mission was to explore the area between Senegal and the Chad Lake and compel the state and tribal leaders of the Niger River basin to sign treaties imposing on them the Third Republic’s colonial tutelage.
The imperialist partitioning of Africa was at its peak; France was competing in West Africa with the British Empire, which by then had been established in what is now Ghana and Nigeria. France hurried to seize as much territory as possible in the Sahel region.
Apart from a few French officers, the mission included hundreds of recruited “Senegalese Tirailleurs” and around 2,000 porters, also Africans. Since the expedition only had enough provisions and clean water for 30 days, it had to replenish its supplies from the local population, which was not enthusiastic to accommodate such a large number of unwanted guests.
The slightest attempts at resistance were punished with extreme cruelty. The colonial conquistadors left hundreds of corpses in their wake and slaughtered entire villages, sparing neither women nor children. As Voulet became increasingly paranoid, he sometimes ordered executions even of those not overtly hostile towards his squad.
When the news of the atrocities committed by Voulet and Chanoine reached Paris, the Minister of the Colonies Florent Guillain instructed the commander of the French garrison in Timbuktu, Lt-Col. Klobb, to find the group, arrest the leaders and take command.
Those who wish can easily look up a description of Klobb’s encounter with his fellow conquerors of Africa and find out about the Shakespearean finale of this story and their lives. And a long preface such as this is necessary to comprehend the backstory of French colonial excesses in Niger and to imagine what it may have left in the popular imagination.
The Voulet-Chanoine squad is believed to have met the fiercest resistance in April 1899 at a place called Lougou, where it was confronted by the local queen Sarraounia. Even before the events described, her kingdom had successfully fought off all attempts at conquest by its neighbors and had survived as an island of pagan identity in the midst of Islamized city-states and sultanates. Legendary accounts of the exploits of Sarraounia and her army began appearing in several French sources in the 20th century, and in 1980 the Nigerien writer Abdoulaye Mamani portrayed Sarraounia as the titular heroine of his historical novel, which soon became a staple in the canon of post-colonial African literature in French. The defiant African queen has been a symbol of anti-colonialist struggle, and fighting against France and its domination is now a chief political virtue in Niger and its neighboring countries alike.
Somewhat surprisingly, independence was followed by the emergence of a political elite largely loyal to the former metropoly in spite of this grave historical legacy, which continued to exist quite successfully until very recently. For example, the country’s first president, Hamani Diori, was one of the four founding fathers of the International Organization of the Francophonie, which, among other goals, serves as a tool to protect and promote the interests of France in the countries that were formerly part of its colonial empire.
In 1974, Diori was overthrown in a military coup by General Seyni Kunche, chief of general staff, but the pro-French orientation of government policy remained unchanged. The early 1990s saw, as in much of Africa, democratic experiments routinely interrupted by coups d’état and interim governance.
After the center-left Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism and its leader Mahamadou Issoufou (again, a pro-French politician) won the elections in 2011, the “Seventh (!) Republic” regime was established in the country. There was a perception, however, that it was there to stay. Early in the last decade, military coups were falling out of fashion, most countries experienced stable economic growth and it seemed that the continent was moving towards a democratic culture after an epoch of political turbulence. A milestone event occurred in Burkina Faso in 2014 when a genuine popular uprising toppled the regime of Blaise Compaoré who had been in power for 27 years and had attempted to reset his terms and run again in elections. A year later, an attempted coup failed to restore his regime as a result of mass protests and union strikes.
In 2017 in the Gambia, one of the most notorious and eccentric African autocracies of the 21st century collapsed after an electoral upset and the intervention of Senegalese troops that reinforced the victory of the oppositional nominee. The last country of the ECOWAS community resisting the trend was the small hereditary republic of Togo. After the death of the dictator who had remained in power for 38 years, the office was passed to his son, but even Togo had been making cautious attempts at political liberalization. The process, however, was then reversed.
The fall of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government in Mali in 2020 was a turning point. Its popularity and legitimacy were undermined by a radical Islamist insurgency growing in the north and spreading to the center of the country. The military officers who carried out the coup, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, accused the deposed president (as well as his Western allies) of corruption, incompetence and failure to provide security and protect the territorial integrity of the republic. Six months later, they carried out another coup, this time removing the president they had previously appointed from power. From that moment on, Goïta concentrated all power in his hands, and his new administration, dominated by military officers, has been openly referred to as a junta.
The new leadership’s approval ratings immediately skyrocketed, thanks in no small part to a foreign policy U-turn from cooperation with France to an alliance with Russia. Their subsequent anti-French moves (inviting the Wagner PMC into the country, expelling the French ambassador, etc.) only strengthened the colonels’ positions. At present, no Malian party, except for the Tuareg separatist movements of the North, dares to oppose the “transitional government”. Demonstrations with Russian flags are regularly held in Bamako, and the portrait of the Russian president can now sometimes be seen painted on local buses alongside Che Guevara, icons of Pan-Africanism and Muslim preachers.
The militarist, pro-Russian consensus now established in Mali proved to be so politically successful and the international response to the coup so lax that the military communities in the neighboring countries were tempted to follow suit. Coups d’état and juntas once again proliferated in the Sahel.
Anti-French sentiment did not ever really disappear from French-speaking countries even during relatively liberal times. However, it was military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that were considered pro-French, whereas democratic social movements, parties and trade unions resisting them, on the contrary, constituted the “patriotic” camp. Moreover, in France itself, nearly every president since Mitterrand has promised to revamp relations with Africa, and Macron has been perhaps the most ardent about it.
“What Africa needs is not strong leaders, but strong institutions,” Barack Obama once said during one of his African trips. But disillusionment quickly set in as democratic politics failed to produce immediate results, such as achieving prosperity or defeating the Islamists; and so the public opinion in major African cities swung in the opposite direction. The new national hero in the countries of red-code terrorism threat is a camouflage-clad combat officer disillusioned with the corrupt establishment, and anti-French resentment in Africa has a new symbol: the Russian tricolor.
Until July 26, when President Mohamed Bazoum was arrested by his own guards, Niger was essentially the last country in the Sahel (except for coastal Mauritania and Senegal) to be governed by a civilian administration voted into office in general multiparty elections. It was much better governed than neighboring countries where the military were in power.
In Niger, unlike Mali, there was no hostility or even any tension between the North and the South. In fact, Niger had long done away with a North-South divide. The Tuareg tribes, whose irredentism routinely provokes political crises in Mali, are not concentrated in any particular area in Niger but rather are dispersed over its territory. There is a large community in the capital city Niamey, and the famous Tuareg politician Brigi Rafini served as Prime Minister for the entire decade of the former president Issoufou’s rule. The last Nigerien Tuareg uprising ended in 2009 with a peace agreement that proved so durable that even the civil war and foreign intervention in neighboring Libya did not shake the peace in Niger.
There are no radical Islamist bases in Niger, and the terrorist attacks that do sometimes occur there are perpetrated by militants based in the neighboring countries. Even white tourists can travel through remote areas of the country with minimal risk, which has long been unthinkable in Mali and quite risky in Burkina Faso and Chad.
Finally, Niger’s economy has been booming in recent years. At the end of 2022 (considering the recovery from the covid years), GDP growth was a record 11.5%. The capital has new paved roads, hotels, clinics, and a modern airport. Niamey has twice hosted African Union summits in the past five years. An oil pipeline to Beni was scheduled to be launched this fall. In short, the country was far from being in crisis or decline as General Abdourahamane Tchiani painted it to be in order to justify the military coup under his leadership.
That being said, Niger remains one of the poorest African countries and occupies one of the last places on the human development index. Russian propagandists who have barely heard of the country’s existence do not hesitate to exploit this unfortunate circumstance. The propagandists also point to the fact that France is mining uranium there, which is important for its nuclear energy, in an effort to portray the recent events as an anti-colonial struggle, which would ensure the distant African country’s sovereignty over its natural resources. Yevgeny Prigozhin expressed his enthusiastic support for the junta through his Telegram channels, citing figures of profit per kilogram of uranium, which the French corporation Orano and “the people of Niger” allegedly receive.
Some details, however, are worth clarifying. While it is true that the Nigerien government only receives a modest share of wealth from the mining of uranium in the country, it is hardly fair to hold the Issoufou – Bazoum party responsible for this. On the contrary, when the government renegotiated agreements with the French operator in 2013, it was pushing for an increase in the mining tax (from 5.5% to 12%). As a result, such an increase was only envisaged as a future possibility, depending on the profitability of the company. It is worth noting that the 5.5% is not rampant African neo-colonialism either (it is the same rate as in Greenland, for example).
Niger’s revenues from uranium mining are not limited to the royalty tax. The government has the right to purchase at cost price (for the purpose of use or subsequent resale) approximately one third of the extracted ore in proportion to the share of the local state company in each of the mines being developed. Besides, mining only brings about 200-300 million dollars a year, i.e. an amount several times less than the direct financial aid provided to Niger by its Western allies.
All this is not meant to justify French interests in Africa, but rather to show that the issue of the distribution of profits from uranium mines is not fundamental to the socio-economic development of this country and does not explain its poverty.
In fact, Niger’s problem is an unfortunate combination of cultural, demographic, geographic and climatic factors that block its modernization. The country is landlocked and mostly covered by desert. Its population is concentrated in about 20% of the country’s territory, and only 8% of the land is suitable for farming (the main economic occupation of Nigeriens). Moreover, the share of farmable land is declining due to climate change and the spread of the Sahara, while the population is growing.
Niger’s fertility rate has remained virtually unchanged since the country’s independence and stands at about seven births per woman. The country’s population has grown from about three million at the start of its modern statehood to 25 million today. By 2035, if current trends continue, the population is expected to exceed 40 million. With its extensive farming model, the country’s ecosystem is already unable to provide enough food for the population even in a year relatively favorable for agriculture.
There is no industry that could provide employment for young people with low levels of education, not even assembly plants. The bulk of investments goes into mining and financial industries, which create few jobs, while most urban residents are employed within the informal economy.
With demography eating up all GDP growth, and a conservative society influenced by imams and traditional leaders hostile to attempts to spread family planning programs, Niger, having missed the time for social modernization, is hurtling headlong into the Malthusian trap.
President Bazoum, who was ousted by the coup, had named investment into education a major objective of his government, with a particular emphasis on education for girls. Some may smile at this, but this idea, seemingly betraying a kind of social idealism, may actually be a more promising way to save the country than carving up uranium mines. The calculation behind this is that a Nigerien girl who has received several levels of education not only attains a qualification but also gives birth to three fewer children on average than her compatriot married off by her parents at the age of fourteen or fifteen. It will be sad if the initiated social experiments become a victim of geopolitical battles of the new cold war.
Why did Bazoum lose power after all? Apart from belonging to an ethnic ultra-minority, his major political weakness was that he created an image of an enlightened “philosopher on the throne” for himself (having indeed studied philosophy at university) but failed to establish himself as a charismatic leader. Neither the deposed president nor his predecessor Issoufou were particularly well-liked in the capital city. Suffice it to say that Bazoum received less than 22% of the vote in Niamey during the second round of the 2021 elections, the weakest result across the country’s eight regions.
This failure can be partly attributed to tribalism, but also to political miscommunication. The opposition-leaning residents of Niamey were annoyed by the ruling party’s pro-Western orientation, which somehow did not prevent the authorities from cooperating with China or Turkey. The presence of foreign military bases on the country’s territory was a source of wariness. While the American air force base had been tolerated, the relocation of the French Operation Barkhane, which had been essentially expelled from Mali by patriotic officers, was perceived in the city as a symbol of national humiliation.
For all his reputation as a brilliant public speaker, Bazoum, however, did not seem to make much effort to win over the citizens of Niamey. Just a few months before the coup, the president told the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique that the anti-French sentiment in Niger was merely “an urban phenomenon on social media that only affects a small handful of our population.” His electorate, especially the villagers living in the areas under terrorist threat, still needed security above all, the president argued, and did not care about the means to achieve it or the involvement of foreign troops. His ostentatious overconfidence proved vain. In countries like Niger, decisive political events only happen in capital cities, and now the putschists are mobilizing demonstrations and stadiums of thousands to reinforce their own legitimacy, while the marches and pickets in support of the deposed government take place mainly in Europe.
It seems pertinent at this point to summarize the current situation and try to predict the direction in which it may develop.
Two months after the coup d’état, Niger finds itself in the situation of dual power. The country has a president, elected through a competitive and internationally recognized vote, who does not control the situation, cannot exercise his powers and is held hostage together with his family. Meanwhile, there is the head of a military junta that has formed its own government, including civilian politicians and officials. He rules the country but is not recognized as head of state almost anywhere outside Niger. Is there a way out of this conflict?
The vast majority of foreign countries and international organizations insist on the release from illegal arrest of President Bazoum and his restoration to constitutional rights. France and the West African bloc ECOWAS are the most adamant, going as far as threatening military intervention. While France is primarily interested in a conveniently friendly regime with Bazoum as a democratically elected president at the helm, Nigeria, together with its bloc allies, is concerned with overall political stability and the protection of electoral and democratic consensus in the region.
It is becoming clear to African political elites that the wave of military coups that oust competitively elected governments is not a series of isolated events but a clear trend sucking in more states like a vortex. Each new coup increases the risks of a similar scenario repeated in a neighboring country. Thus, little by little, their political capital is melting away as the idea of modern African constitutionalism is being eroded.
The leaders of ECOWAS countries need a precedent of defeating a coup and forcing its leaders to back down from their demands. Even better if the latter are punished to set an example for sympathizers and potential copycats. What are the chances of implementing such a plan? A hypothetical anti-Nigerien “Holy Alliance” has three basic options to put pressure on the junta: diplomacy, sanctions, and military intervention.
The first of those hardly has any prospects: the coup leaders are now refusing to talk to those who made militarist threats against them early on and turn away one ECOWAS delegation after another. But even those negotiators who manage to meet with representatives of the junta keep coming back with disappointing news: restoration of Bazoum in power is out of the question.
Economic sanctions introduced in the wake of the coup along with the transport blockade in the south and the cut-off from Nigerian electricity are certainly already having a negative impact on life in the country. Yet no one expects it to be sufficient to convince the junta to back down. Rather, it is a way for the African coalition to demonstrate its determination in rejecting the junta, while hoping to provoke a split in the ranks of the Nigerien military and compel at least part of the army to switch to Bazoum’s side. There can be hardly much hope for this strategy. First, the transportation blockade is being broken by the military governments of Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso, which are similar to the junta in Niamey in terms of class and ideology. And second, Niger’s economy is so underdeveloped that a blackout would not seriously undermine it. Most of the citizens do not have a single electricity outlet in their homes anyway and will probably not notice any effect at all.
Finally, a military operation against the coup would be difficult to implement. France, on the one hand, acts as the biggest hawk, but on the other hand, makes it clear that it will not participate in a hypothetical intervention as it could be perceived as “new colonialism”. It is still unclear what its soldiers, who are already in the country, will do in the event of an African contingent entering Niger.
As for the prospects of an African-led operation, the first problem is that the idea of intervention in Niger is unpopular in the very countries allegedly ready to carry it out. There have been several protest demonstrations in some of them, and Nigeria’s Senate has already denied President Bola Tinubu the use of armed forces for an intervention. But even if Nigerian combat units somehow become the basis of joint forces, it seems unlikely from the statements of heads of states and military leaders that the coalition could draw more than 25,000 troops to its colors. This will hardly be enough to quickly break the 40,000-strong Nigerien army, which is prepared, equipped and trained within the framework of military-technical cooperation with the US, as well as hardened in battles against Islamists; unless, of course, the ECOWAS forces are able to find allies within it. Moreover, Mali and Burkina Faso have already promised military support to the junta in case of aggression.
Unless the coalition has a secret plan, a military operation will yield predictable results. An attempt at blitzkrieg will fail and the war will take a protracted positional character, cause a lot of suffering and destruction, as political consequences will prove the opposite of the ECOWAS leadership’s original objectives. Instead of protecting political stability, they will plunge the region into bloody chaos, and the hitherto stable and peaceful Niger will turn into a new Libya or Iraq.
These risks of escalation are surely recognized by those who will ultimately make the final decisions, but this does not mean that the trigger of a major African war will not be pulled. When conflict is centered on a matter of prestige and principle, politicians, hostage to their own words, often act irrationally.
Is there a chance for the junta to outplay its opponents and achieve political recognition and some legitimacy? This would not be impossible, especially as some sympathizing statements have already been made beyond the junta’s African allies (by the Turkish authorities, for instance). Moreover, the US is playing a rather complicated game as it insists on the restoration of Bazoum to power while urging France and ECOWAS to abandon their unrealistic threats to use force and sending its representatives to negotiate with the military leaders.
One thing is preventing Washington from recognizing the junta, which has so far refrained from anti-American actions or statements, as the country’s new transitional government. After so much praise for, and so much material and moral investment in the Bazoum administration, abruptly and opportunistically changing the tune would not look very good. In the context of the coming cold war and the proclaimed competition against Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, it would mean dropping its prestige in the eyes of its allies on the continent. Besides, unlike his ousted counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso, Bazoum has not recognized his deposition and refuses to resign. He even somehow transmits messages from detention to the leading American media with an appeal to the West to “protect democracy in Niger from the spreading influence of Russia and PMC Wagner”.
It is worth mentioning that, unlike the propaganda on TV and in the Telegram channels of pro-regime experts on Africa, official Moscow has so far preferred to remain neutral. In fact, at the African summit in St. Petersburg, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined the mainstream demand to restore constitutional order in Niger, and Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov a short while later responded with the formula “African problems — African solutions,” thus effectively washing the Kremlin’s hands of this issue.
To summarize the disappointing results, the current situation is that of a stalemate, in which neither side is willing to back down on its demands while unable to compel the adversaries to meet them. As it is now, everyone seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude hoping that the other loses their nerve first. The ECOWAS claim that the date of a military operation has already been approved but is kept secret. This may very well be just an attempt to buy time while increasing pressure on Niamey.
As things stand, this may prove the best strategy. The coalition countries should probably continue to delay the start of the promised intervention, de-escalating the conflict to a complete freeze under the “no peace, no war” formula. Real negotiations with the military authorities can then begin when tempers cool down and public attention in Africa shifts to something else. Another, more complicated question is what will happen to Niger and generally to African statehood, which is now in yet another crisis. In the current geopolitical context of intensified rivalry and the new “battle for Africa”, the outlook is not great. It is highly unlikely that the local population’s well-being and quality of life will increase. Rather, as a famous African proverb says, they will suffer like the grass in a meadow where elephants are fighting.