Articles and Commentaries |
September 2, 2023

Niger leads fight for African assertion

Written By: Sandhya Jain

The war for uranium and oil now looms over Niger. An invasion by the France- and US-backed Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is only a matter of time, possibly as early as the conclusion of the 15th BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, from August 22-24, 2023. The new military government urged citizens to stand up and defend the Motherland, and in response, thousands registered as Niger Volunteers in Niamey (August 19, 2023).

Timofey Bordachev, Program Director, Valdai Discussion Club, suspects that Paris and Washington may indirectly support the ECOWAS nations as French and American contingents have a sizeable presence in the country.[1] ECOWAS countries have been reluctant to get into the fray, arguing that the military regime in Niger enjoys considerable public support, but their acute dependence on the West has overruled their qualms.

The NATO aggression against Libya and brutalisation of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has had a sobering effect in Africa, hence the West wants the cover of its regional partners in the military action. Gaddafi created Africa’s best welfare state with Libya’s oil wealth, with huge gold (140 tonnes) and foreign exchange (US$ 150 billion) reserves, zero debt and one of the world’s strongest currencies. His advocacy of the gold-backed African dinar proved his undoing.

Chad’s President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno attempted to mediate the crisis at the behest of ECOWAS (July 30, 2023).[2] The organisation gave the military regime a week to restore the ousted Prime Minister Mohamed Bazoum, a deadline that expired on August 6, 2023. The West African regional bloc also sent a delegation led by former Nigerian military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar to Niger on August 2, 2023 to negotiate with the military coup leaders. Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, then said, “The military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality.”[3]

Niger’s coup leaders have maintained that the civilian government was overthrown because of poor governance and public unhappiness over its inability to tackle security threats from groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS (ISIL). The citizens of Niger are not enthused at the prospect of restoring the pro-Western president Bazoum, an ethnic Arab from the migrant Ouled Slimane tribe that aligns with France in the Sahel region and is embroiled in a long conflict with the ancient Tuareg tribes, Berbers who dwell in the Sahara from Libya to Algeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria.[4]

The coup leaders immediately banned the export of uranium to France. Niger holds the world’s seventh-largest uranium deposits, and has hitherto supplied France 15% of her total imports and one-fifth of the European Union’s imports. Uranium is a critical element for powering nuclear reactors.[5] In 2019 alone, two mines operating in Niger extracted nearly 2,982 tonnes of uranium. Unlike Germany, France did not accept rapid deindustrialisation on account of US-imposed sanctions on Russian oil and gas, and instead scaled up its nuclear power plants. Its other suppliers, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, rely on the Russian state nuclear power company Rosatom to transport uranium to Europe, putting France in an awkward position.

Political scientist Bertrand Badie of the French Institute of Political Studies, observed that France has failed to “get rid of all its colonial history.” France, he said, “doesn’t know how to turn the page, … France, since independence by the African states, has pursued a schoolteacher diplomacy based on the temptation to give lessons and distribute punishments.” This approach is out of sync with the evolution of African societies.

Diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar observes that Western powers do not understand that the African people have a highly politicized mindset on account of their violent and bitterly fought national liberation movements. This history explains why Africa quickly gravitated towards the emerging multipolar world, in order to negotiate with the ex-colonial masters from a position of strength.

The present crisis escalated when Niger’s new president General Abdurrahman Tchiani banned the export of gold and uranium to Paris, on July 30, 2023, in response to France’s decision to suspend aid to Niamey after its military coup. As various West African nations took sides, the now popular military regime appears to have triggered the Dark Continent’s fight for self-respect and agency, by asserting control over the rich resources that have powered the wealth of the Western industrial nations.

The toppled President M. Bazoum, deposed on July 26, 2023, invited France to attack Niger and restore his government, and warned the West against Russia gaining a foothold in the Sahel region via its private military vehicle, Wagner.

Loss of resources

Angered by the loss of natural resources that secured its international status as a leading economic power, France nudged the ECOWAS to intervene in Niger. After a meeting of the Chiefs of the General Staffs of the Armed Forces of the ECOWAS in Accra, Ghana, on August 17-18, 2023, Abdel-Fatau Musah, Commissioner for Peace and Security, said the date has been set but ECOWAS will not announce it.[6]

Musah said, “Let no one be in doubt that if everything else fails the valiant forces of West Africa, both the military and the civilian components, are ready to answer the call of duty.” He added, “Meanwhile, we are still giving diplomacy a chance and the ball is in the court of the junta.” Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria are expected to contribute troops to the force mandated to invade Niger.

ECOWAS has already applied trade and financial sanctions on Niger while France, Germany and the United States have suspended aid programmes. Germany is pressing for EU sanctions on the coup leaders. The European Union has announced its willingness to support a military operation against Niger if requested by the pro-Western governments in ECOWAS.

Despite misgivings in some member nations, only Cape Verde and countries led by military governments resisted the proposed military action against Niger. The remaining countries in the 15-member bloc agreed to contribute to the regional force, namely, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

The pressure to act is largely due to the fact that Niger is the fourth West African nation since 2020 in which a coup has taken place, following Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. The Sahel region is also plagued by armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) and this violence partly contributed to the military takeovers.

An important reason for the secrecy involved in the proposed military action includes possible repercussions for Nigeria that is struggling to control the activities of several armed groups in the country. There are fears that armed groups in Niger could spill into Nigeria in the event of a military intervention.

Burkina Faso and Mali have deployed combat aircraft to “respond to any form of aggression against Niger” and threatened to withdraw from the ECOWAS if it invades Niger.[7] The Burkinabe and Malian authorities also rejected ECOWAS’ “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane sanctions against the people and authorities of Niger”. The sanctions include a halt in all financial transactions and a national assets freeze. Algeria and Libya joined them, denouncing the sanctions as “inhumane and immoral.”

The office of Guinea’s President Mamady Doumbouya, in a social media post on August 14, 2023, said the sanctions “would not be a solution to the current problem but would lead to a humanitarian disaster whose consequences could extend beyond the borders of Niger”. It urged

ECOWAS to “reconsider its position”.

Gearing up for the conflict, however, Niger has arrested senior officials of the toppled government, including the interior minister, transport minister, a former defence minister, mines minister, oil minister and the head of the (formerly) ruling party.

Trans-Saharan gas pipeline

Besides uranium, the future of a Trans-Saharan gas pipeline from Nigeria to Morocco to Europe is now at stake. Niger is on the transit route and has refused to host the pipeline (30 billion m³ of gas per annum) which Europe needs to make up for the loss of Russian gas.

Burkina Faso has launched a new state enterprise to sell domestically produced raw materials like gold. It has resumed diplomatic ties with North Korea and terminated the Tax Treaty for Non-Double Taxation between Ouagadougou and Paris, which denied Burkina Faso tax for wealth earned in the country.

Moreover, in Guinea, that is rich in gold, diamonds, iron, bauxite (used to produce aluminium for the motor vehicle and goods industries), President Col. Mamady Doumbouya in October 2022 ordered foreign mining companies to refine resources locally and share the revenue fairly with the country. At a meeting with stakeholders in Conakry, he asked all foreign companies to submit proposals and a timetable for the construction of bauxite refineries by the end of May 2023.[8] A ban on unprocessed raw materials is now on the anvil as Guinea begins cracking down on defaulting companies.

Doumbouya said, “Despite the mining boom in the bauxite sector, we have to admit that the expected revenues are below expectations, and you and we cannot continue this game of fools that perpetuates great inequality in our relations.” Guinea has the world’s largest reserves of bauxite (7.4 billion tonnes), and is also the second largest producer. China imports nearly half of its bauxite needs from Guinea. Tanzania banned the export of minerals in raw form in 2017.

ECOWAS announced the closure of the region’s borders with Niger. Nigeria disconnected the high-voltage line transporting electricity to Niger, which relies on Nigeria for 70 percent of its power. As the World Bank, France, the European Union, the US and the ECOWAS regional central bank controlled by France suspend aid to Niger, its internal situation is unclear, though the popular reaction favours the coupists, with protesters chanting outside the French embassy in Niamey, “Long live Russia”, “Long live Putin” and “Down with France”. They set fire to the walls of the embassy compound.

A number of countries felt uneasy over military action in Niger, and public protests broke out in Senegal. The Military Council in Niger withdrew its ambassadors from France, Nigeria, Togo, and the United States and announced the closure of the country’s airspace until further notice.

Russia

Russia has said that military intervention by ECOWAS against a sovereign state would be unhelpful.[9] The Russian diplomatic spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said Moscow considers it essential to “prevent a new degradation” of the situation in the country.

At the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July 2023, President Vladimir Putin had stated that Russia has signed agreements for military cooperation with over 40 African countries, for “bolstering the defence capability of the continent’s countries.”[10] The agreements cover military-technical cooperation and supply of a wide range of armaments and hardware. Soon after tensions escalated with France, Russian cargo planes were seen landing at Niamey Airport in Niger.

Moreover, after terminating the wheat export deal through Ukraine, Putin assured the continent that Russia would remain a reliable supplier of grain. He promised to provide Zimbabwe, Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Eritrea and the Central African Republic with 25,000 to 50,000 tons of grain for free, without any conditions and with free delivery, in the next three to four months. The Russian embassy in Burkina Faso was reopened after 31 years.

At the United Nations on August 4, 2023, Russian diplomat Dmitry Polyanskiy said,[11] “Russia has never considered Africa, Asia, or Latin America as a space for the extraction of profit… we have and will build factories, schools, hospitals and universities so that you can use your natural resources to manufacture finished goods with added value, instead of exporting raw materials.”

The rebellious African nations are not without friends. Iran has an long standing anti-imperialist agenda. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan endorsed Niger’s suspension of gold and uranium exports to France, calling it the result of ‘years of oppression’ by Paris.[12] “What France did in Algeria in the past, what it did in Rwanda, what it did in Mali, all these are in all the archives of the world. And especially Africans know this very well.” Erdoğan said Turkey would assist in securing grain exports from Russia to Africa and ‘underdeveloped countries.’

Wagner

Niger’s General Salifu Modi requested help from the Russian mercenary group Wagner, during a visit to Bamako, Mali, on August 4, 2023, where he discussed the situation with leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso.[13] Wagner representatives reportedly arrived on August 5, 2023.

Giving his views about Niger’s problems, the late Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said, “I will answer what is the basis for the change of power in Niger. The basis is the economy. The population of Niger has been driven into poverty for a long time. For example, a French company that extracted uranium sold it on the market for $218, while paying Niger only $11 for it. You can work with investors on a 50-50 or 30-70 (%) basis, but it’s impossible to give back to the indigenous people of the country, who were born in this country, who live in this country, and who expect that the natural resources of this country belong to them, and according to the Constitution, they belong to them, only 5% of the wealth you receive.”

Pointing a finger at the Western powers, Prigozhin said Niger was flooded with terrorists “to cover up these economic crimes.” The ousted president served the old colonial powers, facilitating the extraction of Niger’s natural wealth, hence the military coup was “a liberation movement for the independence of this country, and God grant them success.” Prigozhin endorsed the coup and said the situation had been brewing for a while. “The former colonisers are trying to keep the people of African countries in check,” he added in his audio message on the Telegram app.[14]

Nuland

The US Deputy Secretary of State and veteran colour revolution instigator, Victoria Nuland, rushed to Niger on August 7, 2023, the day after the deadline to reinstate the ousted president expired (August 6). She told CNN that she held “extremely frank and at times quite difficult” talks with General Moussa Salaou Barmou, the new chief of defense, and three colonels. Her request to meet the former president Bazoum was denied.[15] In fact, the coup leaders threatened that they would physically eliminate Bazoum if she pushed the envelope.

CFA Franc

Regardless of the outcome of the impending war, it is only a matter of time before the West African nations abandon the CFA franc (France of the Financial Community of Africa) imposed by France on its former colonies, which are also forced to hold their foreign-exchange reserves in the French Treasury and the Bank of France.[16]

In fact, Paris decides on what and how they spend their money. French companies have the first right of refusal on any major projects. The Bank of France prints their CFA currency and largely determines the broad framework of economic and monetary policy. The commanding heights of most African Francophone economies are controlled by France. French mining interests call the shots with regard to their natural resources.

Military bases

France and the US both have military bases in Niger. The US has an 1,100-strong military presence in the country and a drone base (airbase 201) near Agadez in central Niger, built at a cost of more than $100 million. Since 2018 it has been used for operations in the Sahel. Cameron Hudson, a former US official and Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, believes that Washington will try to retain this facility irrespective of who is in charge in Niger.

A showdown between the regional states seems inevitable, in view of the rising opposition to the French hegemony in Sahelian Africa.

 

Author Brief Bio: Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani.

 

References:

[1] The West’s attempt to create a Ukrainian scenario in Niger is faltering, Timofey Bordachev, August 19, 2023.

https://on.rt.com/cgob

[2] Niger coup: Ousted President Mohamed Bazoum meets Chad’s leader, BBC News, July 31, 2023.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-66358951

[3] Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum gather to show their support for him in Niamey on July 26, Aljazeera, August 2, 2023.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/2/west-african-bloc-sends-mission-to-niger-to-negotiate-with-coup-leaders#:~:text=West%20African%20regional%20bloc%20ECOWAS,day%20meeting%20in%20neighbouring%20Nigeria

[4] How the US and France created a Niger mess for themselves, M.K. Bhadrakumar, August 19, 2023.

https://on.rt.com/cgox

[5] France loses its uranium meal ticket in Niger, Rachel Marsden, RT, 1 Aug, 2023

https://www.rt.com/news/580676-niger-coup-france-uranium/

[6] ECOWAS defence chiefs continue talks on possible Niger intervention, Aljazeera, August 18, 2023.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/18/ecowas-defence-chiefs-continue-talks-on-possible-niger-intervention

[7] Burkina Faso, Mali warn against military intervention in Niger, August 1, 2023.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/1/burkina-faso-and-mali-warn-against-foreign-intervention-after-niger-coup

[8] Guinea: Foreign Mining companies ordered to process bauxite on site, AFP, October 26, 2022.

https://www.africanews.com/2022/04/10/guinea-mining-companies-ordered-to-process-bauxite-on-site//

[9] ‘It’ll not help’ — Russia advises ECOWAS against military intervention in Niger, The Cable, August 2, 2023.

https://www.thecable.ng/itll-not-help-russia-advises-ecowas-against-military-intervention-in-niger

[10] Putin Claims Russia Has Signed Military Deals With 40 African Countries, Daily Trust, July 29, Jul 2023

https://dailytrust.com/putin-claims-russia-has-signed-military-deals-with-40-african-countries/#:~:text=On%20Friday%2C%20the%20Russian%20president,next%20three%20to%20four%20months.

[11] https://twitter.com/upholdreality/status/1687202185682059264

[12] Turkey: Niger’s suspension of gold, uranium exports to France result of years of oppression by Paris – Erdogan, August 5, 2023. https://www.ruptly.tv/en/videos/20230805-002-turkey-niger-s-suspension-of-gold-uranium-exports-to-france-result-of-years-of-oppression-by-paris-erdogan

[13] Niger’s junta asks for help from Russian group Wagner as it faces military intervention threat, AP, August 6, 2023.

https://apnews.com/article/wagner-russia-coup-niger-military-force-e0e1108b58a9e955af465a3efe6605c0

[14] Burkina Faso, Mali warn against military intervention in Niger, Aljazeera, August 1, 2023.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/1/burkina-faso-and-mali-warn-against-foreign-intervention-after-niger-coup

[15] Niger’s junta rejects a diplomatic visit by regional and UN officials over ‘atmosphere of menace’, AP, August 9, 2023.

https://apnews.com/article/niger-coup-victoria-nuland-west-africa-jihadis-4f21ee42f7e87b3747a322709d8d1bbc

[16] How France Underdeveloped Africa, Obadiah Mailafia, February 5, 2019.

https://www.vanguardngr.com/2019/02/how-france-underdeveloped-africa/

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