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Niger: Is The Coup Tackling or Exacerbating Legacies of Colonialism?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Opinion Piece

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The recent coup in Niger has shocked and appalled the African continent. Despite receiving limited coverage in Western media, there is plenty to uncover and dissect about the current crisis in Niger, and where the coup sits within greater international power structures and histories. Most relevantly, the legacies of colonialism are not a mere curse that African countries must break out of - there must be some recognition of the fact that the hierarchies which suspend geopolitical events also contribute and exacerbate these histories. It is within this context that the Niger coup must be understood; such grabs for power are an attempt to interrupt an already unequal political playing field, through any possible means.

Niger was under French colonial rule until 1960, but it is naïve to assume that relations between the states did not remain hierarchical. Neo-colonial policies and tactics plague the relationship between the states; Niger is still unable to print its own money, is responsible for paying a colonial tax to France and it is estimated that approximately one-third of France’s electricity is generated by the uranium that is sourced in Niger, whilst 80% of the Nigerien populace goes without electricity. Additionally, France has undertaken military measures in Niger to maintain its political hegemony which has lasted years, and which are rooted in its former colonial rule. This inordinate relationship, whereby Niger powers France’s consumerism, must remain a factor which informs how and why the coup occurred.

There have been several military coups in Niger’s post-independence history, but it was Mr Bazoum, who became president in 2021, who finally led Niger’s transition to democracy. His alignment with France during his presidency is what drew notable opposition from the military, who were averse to Western presence in the their state. This adversity was exacerbated by France’s inadequate efforts in the fight against armed violent groups around the Sahel, despite publicly possessing the means to help, which further fuelled anti-Francophone sentiment in the military. The separation from France since the coup was clearly demonstrated by the military junta ordering the withdrawal of French troops from Niger, conveying the divorce from its previous colonial power that the military leaders desired.

One of the first calls of action after the coup was the criminalisation of Mr Bazoum. The charges against him are twofold – for undermining state security and “high treason”. Although no date is set for trial, taking this approach of punishment demonstrates how the

military junta is striving to dismantle any colonial patterns from repeating. For now, it appears that the coup has been successful at doing so, which is a sentiment that Gérard Araud, the former French representative to the UN, echoes due to France’s inability to intervene immediately. The divergent approaches of Barzoum and the military junta towards France convey very different methods for tackling and addressing colonial legacies, in which the former attempts to work alongside and within the hierarchical structures in our international landscape, whilst the junta attempts to eliminate this logic as a way of conducting domestic politics. In this way, the Niger coup is an opportunity to explore how colonial legacies should be challenged and how international power structures continue the unequal relationships between states, which have characterised colonial history.

International responses to the coup have been varied. Alongside France, the US is another ally of the Niger government, which played a key role in forming the Western security bloc in the Sahel. This includes Operation Barkhane, an attempt spearheaded by France to control Islamic insurgency in West Africa, which required military engagement and drone bases for surveillance in the region. However, the recent chain of military coups in the region, such as Mali and Guinea, raised doubt about the efficacy of French foreign policy, undoubtedly demonstrating the growing anti-Westernism sentiment in West Africa. Not only has France had to reconsider its policies in the Sahel, but the Niger coup has most definitely concluded to the US that the military government will not step down. Additionally, with the rise of Pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism is now perceived to be a legitimate campaign for seizing power, thus as a response to this coup new policies must be developed.

Both France and the US have threatened to withdraw their aid to Niger, calling the coup “illegitimate” and an “extra-constitutional attempt to seize power”. Undoubtedly, the Western states are embarrassed for not just being the cause of further destabilisation in sub-Saharan Africa, but the coup in Niger is another nail in the coffin for the French-driven regional foreign policy. President Macron’s military personnel were asked to withdraw by Niger’s junta, putting those involved in Operation Barkhane in a quagmire – either the West sticks to the supposed democratic values it represents, which would not allow its military bases to remain in a state with an un-elected government, or it allows for security to deteriorate in West Africa. Although the Biden administration has sought a diplomatic solution to force Niger into a democracy once again, the adamance of the coup demonstrates the junta’s commitment to erupting the systems by which the West steers and directs African countries.

It is often assumed in international politics that when the West fall out of favour, the power vacuum is filled by strategic rivals such as Russia or China. In the case of Niger, since the military junta has taken power, there has been an alignment with Russia, with some supporters of the coup waving both the Niger and Russian flag alongside one another. The Wagner Group has also conveyed support for the junta, describing the coup as a “triumph”. Generally speaking, there has been a rise in Russian influence over West Africa, due to the decline in Western influence as a result of the string of coups that have occurred in recent years. As a result, there is now an assumption that Russia is the liberator of Africa, not only because the state has suggested that it opposes neo-colonialism, but more so because of the bipolar understanding of international politics left by the Cold War. However, it is incredibly unlikely that Putin holds the answers to Nigeriens’ over sovereignty, and rather the turning to Russia in this context exacerbates colonial logic that implies that Africa must be tied to a great power.

The dichotomy between Russia and the West is often bastardised. Ideas of a domino effect, although telling of how great powers control and impact the international arena, are not telling of the motivations of the military junta and the bigger picture for Africa. Erupting neo-colonial tendencies and the increasing anti-French sentiment cannot be ignored as an incentive behind the coup. The assumption that the West or Russia will dictate events on the African continent inflames the hierarchies that deny a chance for states to break out of them. To decolonise Africa is not to trade one colonial power for another, or to aggravate the geopolitical playground between Russia and the West any further. The background of the tensions that arose into the Niger coup remains a “down with France” purpose, and the intricacies to address the effects of colonialism on government and democracy must be the centre of analysis.

The coup in Niger is not exceptional; it is the 9th attempted power grab in Africa since 2020. Although this appears as a pessimistic statistic, dooming Africa into a chokehold of weak democracies, military rule and outdated Cold War logics, the reality is far more “complicated, and perhaps even oddly hopeful”. This coup is an example of how African states are demanding more of a geopolitical presence in the international arena; Africa will not be a secondary region any longer. This begins by addressing inequalities, primarily the political and economic interference that still endures by the colonial powers in Africa, which had ignited the Niger coup, and many other uprisings in the continent. It is not productive or academically well-founded to connect every grapple for power in Africa with the dialectics of domino effect and great power politics, which although may play a role, often reinforces the international hierarchies without recognising how much retaliation to this is actually occurring. Neo-colonialism is not a process that African states are tolerating any longer, and it can be confidently predicted that the future of geopolitics and dismantling international hierarchies will be in Africa.

Although other factors such as the climate crisis, weak state infrastructures and a poor economy also inform the military takeover in Niger, it would not be an overstatement to say that the junta capitalised on anti-France feelings to conduct its takeover. The issue we must first figure out on a political level, is how do we make space for centring African politics for what it is, without the noise of great powers and international hierarchies. This must begin by making African politics the initial focus, with all its details and complexities, to inform how the domestic informs geopolitical and international relations with other states. Not only does this stop fatalistic conclusions that stereotype Africa with cycles of violence and the Moscow/Washington bipolarity, but it is also the most accurate approach to understanding the rising number of coups in Africa. Breaking out of colonial legacies begins by addressing the intricacies and methods taken to do so, which is the level to which the Nigerien military junta must be criticised, understood and assessed on.


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