Conference Hall at the ECOWAS Commission Head Quarters, Abuja, Nigeria. Conference Hall at the ECOWAS Commission Head Quarters, Abuja, Nigeria. Photo: UK Mission to the UN New York / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Chris Nineham talked to a Nigerian socialist about the deepening crisis in West Africa

What is behind the recent coup in Niger?

The coup of the 26 July 2023 in Niger was precipitated by the stated desire of former President Bazoum to remove the head of the presidential guard. Irrespective of the reasons for the coupists seizing power, the coup, to gain legitimacy, has tapped into a festering resentment against the ex-colonial power, France. French control of Niger’s economy through fiscal and monetary means using a regional version of the Franc (CFA Franc), with the collaboration of elements of Niger’s elite, has meant that France has the scope and access to pillage the country’s resources relentlessly.

As Niger has no control over its currency, it is unable to embark upon any form of meaningful development to lift or transform the living standards of the people. The CFA Franc and the fiscal and monetary control that France has over its ex-colonies is a scandal. It represents the rawest form of neo-colonial domination.

An ex-president of France is on record as stating that in the 21st century, without the wealth of Africa, France is nothing. Other issues plaguing the nation that the putschists have tapped into are the failure to to combat the threat posed by the Islamist insurgency in the Sahel.

The insurgency, which gained traction after the Nato-led overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, has proven to be impervious to military solutions. The Islamist insurgency can only be solved through developmental means: the judicious investment of resources geared towards reversing decades of neglect, inherited from the French colonial regime. Under colonialism, “development” only took place around centres of accumulation where the French were able to extract wealth.

Regional powers have clearly seen the coup as a threat. Why is that?

The regional powers grouped around the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) of which Nigeria is the dominant partner and currently holds the chairmanship of the organisation, view the coup as a threat to the democratic dispensation in the Sub-region. This is despite the fact that democracy in most of these countries is both a scam and a sham. Democracy in the Sub-region is a fig-leaf for increasing authoritarian rule and exploitation benefitting a very thin layer of the elite.

Despite Western interests lauding these nations as showcases for democratic rule, many of the leaders have dubious legitimacy. Elections are rigged, opposition candidates are embroiled in all sorts of legal shenanigans which prevent them from participating in the electoral process and vote buying is rife. The situation is similar to the period of British history when “rotten boroughs” existed before electoral reform was initiated and “old corruption” was vanquished.

In Nigeria, for example, only 27% of registered voters bothered to cast their votes in the last election. This is the lowest turn out since the return to democratic rule in 1999. The eventual winner of the election, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was noted for using thugs to intimidate political opponents and engaged in a visceral form of ethnic scapegoating.

Mr. Tinubu was declared the eventual winner of a flawed election by the electoral authorities in the wee hours of the morning, possibly to prevent protests by disaffected opponents. Cases concerning electoral fraud and stolen mandates are still in court awaiting adjudication.

The West African Sub-region is a tinderbox waiting to explode. West Africa suffered very little during the financial crash of 2007/08 due to minimal integration of the sub-region into global financial markets. The economic situation was assisted by the fact that China required access to African raw materials for its state capitalist developmental model. This created the illusion of prosperity (the Western media described this as “Africa rising”) that benefitted a thin layer of the population, mainly the ruling elite and its hangers on. Low interest rates meant that during this period many of the government’s of the Sub-region accumulated debt.

Bourgeois social science, noted for its obscurantism of real social relations in society, prematurely proclaimed this period as the end of coups and coup plotting in West Africa and the emergence of democratic rule akin to the same kind of nonsense spewed out by Francis Fukuyama after the collapse of the USSR.

The triple whammy of the pandemic that shutdown the global economy, the inter-imperialist proxy war being fought in Ukraine and the move of chancelleries across the overdeveloped world to combat inflation by raising interest rates has hit West African countries very hard.

West Africa is rotten-ripe for the re-emergence of military putschists (and resistance by working people from below). It is the fear of the replication of Niger-like coups across the Sub-region that has led to the need for Ecowas to quarantine the coup so as to strangle it at birth. 

The Western Powers also appear to be panicked, what is the reason for this?

The coup is a massive set back for Imperialist interests in the Sahel region. Frank Gardiner, the BBC security correspondent, described Western interests as ‘…shrinking like a water pool in the dry season.’

Ex-President Bazoum was seen as a safe pair of hands for Imperialist interests in the region. Niger recently backed a resolution at the UN condemning Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine when other African nations were more ambivalent about this, some even backing Russia. This is a fall back to the Cold War period when the USSR openly backed African independence struggles and national liberation movements.

France, the ex-colonising nation, has a large military base in Niger. Germany has trained soldiers of the Nigerien army. The US has two drone bases in the country, one of them located in the desert city of Agadez. The last time this correspondent passed through Diori Hamani Airport in Niger, there was a Hercules C130 troop transport plane on the tarmac with US troops milling around. With the coup, Western interests perceive themselves as losing the geo-political battle for influence in Niger. The idea was to extend influence in Niger to keep out rival imperialist powers like Russia and China.

For France, this is a massive setback for a country that sees Africa as its own backyard and has pillaged African resources relentlessly. Niger produces 5% of the world’s known sources of Uranium and it exports everything to France. France generates 75% of its domestic electricity needs from nuclear power. The downside of this is that whilst France is fully electrified and enjoys constant power, the process of electrification of towns, cities and villages in Niger is in its infancy. In a population of 25million people, 75 to 80 percent of people have no access to electricity.

It is no wonder that the French establishment are foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs at the insolence of the putschists. The regime has also banned the sale of Uranium to France and the US.

Furthermore, the Nigerien coup is the fourth coup in Francophone Africa in recent years following Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, led by soldiers increasingly taking a nationalistic line, angered by the presence of imperialist troops on their soil. They are also angered by the permanent economic crisis, foisted by Imperialism, on their respective nations.

Is military intervention imminent?

The situation is very much up in the air at the moment. Ecowas has given Niger a 7-day ultimatum, which ends on 6 August 2023, to restore ex-President Bazoum to power. This is unlikely to happen. There have been massive protests in Niger in support of the regime and against military invasion, pointing out that Nigeria is conducting itself like an Imperialist Power.

The Nigerian President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, wrote to the Senate asking for permission to place the military on a war footing: the prelude to intervention. He has been rebuffed by the Senate, especially by Senators that represent constituencies in the north of Nigeria that share a border with Niger. They understand that they will be the first casualties in any invasion of Niger.

Seven states in Northern Nigeria share an estimated 1,608-kilometre border with Niger. In each of these states, communal relationships and intermarriages occur with their brethren in Niger. As one wag humorously put it, ‘in a family, the husbands house may be in Nigeria but the wife’s abode is in Niger.’ Thus, what affects Nigeriens along this border automatically and simultaneously affects Nigerians.

The frightening thing is the armed stand-off that these threats by Ecowas have precipitated in the region. The military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso have declared that in the event of any invasion of Niger, they will come to her rescue and fight on her side, possibly calling upon the assistance of Wagner Mercenaries.

Algeria, that also shares a border with Niger, has gone from initially condemning the coup and advocating that a solution be found to the imbroglio through the auspices of the African Union, to declaring that it will not stand by and watch an invasion take place. Algeria is obviously worried about internally displaced persons fleeing from war across its borders.

The scenario is beginning to resemble the Balkans and Sarajevo prior to the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Any invasion of Niger will not only suck in regional powers but also the imperialist powers like France, the US Russia and China. We could also be looking at situation of endless war similar to the 30 years war in the Great Lakes region of Africa that was precipitated by the Rwandan genocide and snowballed on to the fall of Mobutu in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) with all the regional powers getting involved.

Nigeria has massive security challenges in the North Eastern part of the country with the Islamic insurgency led by Boko Harem who are incidentally better armed than the Nigerian army! We are still looking for the Chibok girls who were kidnapped from their school and taken into the Sambisa forest by Islamists.

The Nigerian army does not have a good record of dealing with internal insurgency. The invasion of a neighbouring country, albeit poverty stricken, will be well beyond the army’s current fighting capacity. The idea of an invasion is a dangerous illusion propagated by the politicians who are prepared to fight to the last drop of other’s people’s blood.

The institutional capacity of ECOMOG that brought peace to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990’s no longer exists. It must be remarked that it will be working class rank and file soldiers that will bear the brunt of the fighting in any invasion, sent to fight their class brothers in Niger, whilst the ruling elite cheer them on. This is one of the main reasons why we are against any form of invasion. The enemy is at home in Nigeria not in Niger.

How is the left responding in Nigeria and what should be the response internationally?

The Nigerian left is quite small. We are currently grappling with coalition building and resistance to the IMF inspired anti-people policies that the Tinubu government has imposed on the Nigerian people causing massive hardship. The trade union centres in Nigeria launched protests the government’s anti-people policies on 2 August 2023 that were largely successful as in they took place in many parts of the country albeit they were uneven.

It takes a great leap of the imagination to understand that foreign policy is an outgrowth of domestic policies imposed on working and oppressed people at home. In essence, the Tinubu Government is waging war against working people at home and abroad.

The government is slavishly pro-West in orientation, currently implementing a self-imposed IMF structural adjustment programme that includes removal of petroleum subsidy, currency devaluation, increase in tuition fees for students and tackling what it describes as the high cost of governance which will result in mass redundancy of workers in the public sector. Workers are already reeling from the high cost of living that these measures have created. Workers also suffer from stagnant wages. War and invasion is the last thing on their minds.

Some groups on the left are clearly understanding the dangers that the situation poses and are attempting to awaken public opinion to this. Incidentally, some members of the Nigerian elite and retired military officers have come out boldly against the government and against any form of invasion.

Amongst the general public there is little support for the grandstanding of the Tinubu Government. The general consensus appears to be: how can the government find money for war when it cannot even meet our basic needs. For certain if, and it is a big if, invasion takes place, there will be no flag waving patriots in the streets urging soldiers into battle. The urgent task facing the left is to shape and form these inchoate thoughts in the minds of the working and oppressed people and mould them into a mighty material force against war. The left must also explain that the enemy is at home. It is not Niger that is imposing IMF structural adjustment programmes on working and oppressed people: it is the Nigerian Government.

For Comrades internationally, there is the need to explain these issues to their public and expose the complicity of what their governments are doing in their name. The liberal press in Britain is one of the biggest offenders. The Observer/Guardian newspaper is a classic example of this mendacious attitude. Jason Burke’s Observer article on 6 August is a case in point. It is headlined ‘From the Red Sea to the Atlantic, the Sahel is in chaos. Niger’s coup may be a turning point’, he quotes Nigeria’s President Tinubu as saying ‘without democracy, there is no governance, there is no freedom, there is no rule of law.’ He continues ‘we will not allow coup after coup in West Africa.’

The working people of Nigeria will probably be surprised to hear that their President has such enlightened views, especially those from the wrong ethnic group that were on the wrong end of his political thuggery during the run up to the last election.

In conclusion, there needs to be solidarity with the peoples of West Africa in their struggle against war, against injustice and inequality. The left must stand for peace and for the building of a just, equitable, democratic and sustainable society where the mass of working people have access to the requisite resources to live civilised lives.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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