Niger, a country in Western Africa, is probably getting most attention in recent world politics. Because the coup on 26 July 2023 in Niger was succeeded in the impossible, pushing Ukraine off the lips of Western leaders and off the front pages of the Western global press. Niger is now becoming the face of struggle against neo-colonialism.
Neo-colonialism purposes the systematic exploitation which outlived colonialism. It is traced back to the prospect of 'Francafrique' which was introduced by former French president Charles De Gaule. This system which was legitimized under the pretense of decolonization allowed France to exploit its former colonies while granting them symbolic sovereignty.
Niger was a French colony from 1900 to 1960. Over 60 years later, in 2023, the Nigerien economy is yet dependent on its former colonial power. The main demand of the new Tchiani regime is to end Niger's political, economic, linguistic and military dependence on France.
Niger has numerous military defense agreements with France. French companies mine and take away 80% of Niger’s uranium. More importantly, the currency of Niger, the West African CFA, is controlled by the Banque de France. The cynicism of the latter, even as France itself uses the Euro, is not lost on the Nigeriens. Niger’s former president Mohamed Bazoum was backed by Paris and continued the status quo.
Many of the countries are in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), which is allied to France and the U.S. ECOWAS has immediately threatened military action to its own member country, rather than call for diplomacy. This is exactly the position in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as well, where the West argues against diplomacy or a ceasefire. Former President Bazoum, under house arrest, even wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, seeking the return to ‘democracy’ in Niger.
This has had no effect on Tchiani or the Nigeriens. In fact, they showed greater enthusiasm for the ouster of the French, and even if ordinary people didn’t support Tchiani before, they do now. A recent telephone poll by Premise Data shows that 78% of educated Nigerien men support the coup and prefer the involvement of Russians over the French.
A very usual feature of neo-colonialism in Niger is the financial hegemony that France maintained by enforcing the CFA (African Financial Community) franc as an official currency in Niger. The CFA franc was induced by France in most of its former colonies in West and Central Africa. According to the IMF, the CFA franc accounts for 14% of Africa's population and 12% of its GDP.
The CFA franc, which is minted by the Bank of France, was previously pegged to the French Franc, and now to the Euro. In exchange for guaranteeing their currency in Euros (currently, 656 CFA francs= 1 Euro), 50% of the CFA countries' possessions of foreign currencies are to be deposited in the Bank of France in addition to another 20% for financial liabilities, leaving the African countries with barely any liquidity and no monetary/fiscal sovereignty on the little liquidity they have while the French government gains through capitalizing on the surplus deposits in its banks.
Through the CFA franc zone, France maintains the leverage to exercise authority over the money supply, monetary and financial regulations, banking operations, credit distribution, and fiscal as well as economic strategies of African countries. This is best summed up in a famous speech of former French president Jacques Chirac in which he said, We forget one thing, that is, a large part of the money that is in our wallet comes precisely from the exploitation of Africa.
The ousted Bazoum regime had long been a loyal ally of France (and the West generally) in the latter's alleged war on terrorism in the Sahel region. Niger hosts 15,000 French soldiers and 1,100 American soldiers in addition to US Airbase 201 which acted as an outpost to US military interventions in the region at large. While making Niger into a safe haven for Western forces in West Africa under the pretext of fighting terrorist groups, Bazoum long criticized Mali and Burkina Faso for coordinating with Russia and Wagner PMC in their battle against terrorism, despite being more successful than the former.
Coup leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani declared the termination of French military defense agreements and ordered French companies, mining uranium in Niger, to leave the country and the resources for the Nigeriens to manage for themselves.
The French troops stationed there were maintaining the so-called regional security. But in real sense the French troops were guarding the French companies who were extracting Nigerien resources to Paris.
Expelling the French troops will be a set back with probable consequences. France has treated Niger like a cash cow. Former Niger president Mohamed Bazoum was an ally of France. His ousting got France losing a valuable ground in West Africa region. Before Niger, several pro-Paris government was ousted in West Africa.
The coup has unconcealed three truths. The long tail of colonialism is reaching its conclusion; alternatives to the western control and command have arisen; the younger generation in developing countries have neither fear nor loyalty to the old master and nothing to lose in overthrowing the past, even though they know not their future.
The neo-colonialist model of control is replicated many former French colonies in West Africa like Niger, Mali, Cote D’Ivore, Burkia Faso, Guinea, Gabon, Senegal. For some of their leaders, Paris is still the Centre, rather than their own capitals.
These pro-Paris West African leaders, elected or otherwise, have built themselves in the image of their colonizers, and received French support in return. The convenience of having French Franc-controlled economies means that the wealth gained during leadership positions can be transferred to France, Belgium or Canada.
This is enabled owing to lack of air connectivity within Africa but continuing colonial linkages to the former colonial country. Locals would often joke that to visit a neighboring country, their rulers went through Paris – where they could check on their bank accounts and indulge in some fine dining.
A less discussed characteristics of neo-colonialism is Cultural and linguistic dimension. French language is imposed on many of the countries in Western and Central Africa. These countries are a member of a group called Francophone Community, which led by France. Not all members of Francophone community were French colony, but France still exploits them. DR Congo probably the best example of it.
In order to challenge French neo-colonialism, Niger has to use alternative currency of CFA Franc and remove French language's official status. Without eradicating economic and cultural influence of France it is not possible for Niger to perform as a sovereign Nation.
Clearly, the U.S.-Russia proxy war in Ukraine has pushed much of the world to take sides. Some countries in Africa see Russia as an alternative to the West. They see a direct avail from Russia’s forgiving $23 billion in African debt and sending free food grain to the region. In a spontaneous movement, the Nigeriens on the streets of Niamey and other towns have been waving the Nigerien and Russian flags for the cameras.
The repulsion of France is not new but has accelerated in the past year. Mali, which also saw a coup in May 2022, similarly demanded that the French leave their country, and waved Russian flags along with their own. Burkina Faso which also saw two military coups last year. Both Mali and Burkina Faso were suspended from ECOWAS. Both have announced support for the new dispensation in Niger.
Alternatives to the Western model, colonial or the Washington Consensus, are now available and being acceptable in Africa. These include Russia through security and resource engagements, China through its Belt and Road Initiative and extractive industries investments, investments by Gulf countries and in smaller measure by countries like Turkey.
Maybe, as the West repeatedly says, none of these African countries are stable on their own and that ruthless coup leaders will commit atrocities. Almost certainly they will and almost certainly there will be clutter. The coups may continue as outsiders enhance existing religious and fault lines, and even as French control of those economies erodes.