On 26 July 2023, news filtered out of Niamey, the capital of Niger Republic that there was an attempted coup underway.
The president of Niger, Mohammed Bazoum, who was elected in 2021, was placed under house arrest by his own presidential guards. It is important to note that Bazoum’s presidency marked the first democratic transition in Niger since the country won its independence. The rumours were confirmed the next day when the Nigerien Army Command announced that it would back the new military government. This development made Niger the fourth West African country to fall into the control of a military government that positioned itself in direct opposition to French imperialist interests in the Sahel. The other three, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea-Conakry have all organized themselves into a sort of sub-regional collective with Mali and Burkina Faso announcing that they were exploring possibilities of a merger.
While all three countries are currently under sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for the disruption of constitutional democracy in these countries, ECOWAS, under the new leadership of Nigerian President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, decided to take an even more hawkish stance on Niger.
On 30 July ECOWAS held an emergency summit in Abuja and agreed to give the new military junta in Niger 7 days to restore Bazoum to power or face dire consequences which “may include the use of force.”
An intimidating list of sanctions was announced and the backlash did not end there. The European Union immediately paused aid to Niger. France also announced that it would suspend its so-called development aid to Niger. Britain also suspended its aid to Niger. All this was in addition to ECOWAS Member States closing their borders with Niger, imposing a no-fly zone, freezing all financial and commercial transactions between ECOWAS nations and Niger, and Nigeria cutting off electricity to Niger. Nigeria used to be Niger’s main energy supplier under an understanding that assured that the River Niger would not be dammed in Niger.
To make its threat more real, President Tinubu officially wrote to the Nigerian senate asking for permission to deploy Nigerian troops to Niger.
This prompted massive outcry, particularly from West African people, movements, and civil society organizations. A coalition of major civil society groups in Niger known as the M26 Movement, mobilized thousands of protesters to demonstrate in Niamey, in opposition to foreign military intervention in Niger. The protests were explicitly anti-France and anti-ECOWAS. Protesters burnt European-owned cars and tried to destroy the French embassy in Niamey prompting France to begin evacuating its nationals.
In a matter of days, the anti-war outcry reached a fever pitch, starting with a raucous showdown in the Nigerian senate where senators refused to even listen to the senate president who allegedly tried to convince his caucus to authorize the use of force against Niger. It was an immediate and unpragmatic NO! on the question of using military force on Niger. A Nigerian group followed up by approaching the ECOWAS Court and asking it to restrain ECOWAS from intervening militarily in Niger. The Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa (RECOWA), a body that comprises all West African Catholic bishops, also warned that a military intervention in Niger was unacceptable. The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), led by the Sultan of Sokoto, also issued a similar statement, warning the Nigerian government to immediately retrace its steps. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) also announced its opposition to any attack on Niger, as did the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF).
Mass-based organizations have been more forceful in their condemnation of ECOWAS, with many calling for the immediate lifting of all sanctions on Niger. Organizations which have condemned ECOWAS military intervention plans against Niger include the Socialist Movement of Ghana (SMG), The West African People’s Organisation (WAPO), The African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), The Communist Party of Benin (PCB), the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), among many others. International anti-war groups and movements have also joined in calling for restraint.
In contrast, western countries like the U.S. and France have shown support for ECOWAS efforts to reverse the coup with force if necessary. France especially has been very forceful in its demands, stating that it will protect French national interests in Niger.
It accused the new president of Niger, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, of inciting anti-French sentiments. General Tchiani has gone on to suspend exports of Nigerien Uranium and Gold to France. France still has about 1500 troops stationed in Niger.
The United States which has a massive military base in Niger continues to maintain 1,100 troops in Niger. And in the case of an invasion, ECOWAS military forces hope to get intelligence and air support from them as they wage war against another African country.
As the ultimatum neared, Burkina Faso and Mali released a joint communique stating that they would consider any attack on Niger as a declaration of war against them. The ultimatum has come and gone. All diplomatic ECOWAS delegations to Niger to negotiate the return of Bazoum to power have failed. ECOWAS has ordered the mobilization of a standby force and selected a D-day for a possible invasion. And in the second half of August, Algerian state media announced that the Algerian government had refused France’s request to use its airspace in a potential invasion of Niger. Mali and Burkina Faso have deployed warplanes to Niger.
And so the question remains why have the same ECOWAS and France which have watched sit-tight rulers continue in power, and overlooked coups such as that in Chad by a French stooge, taken on an holier-than thou stance against the coup in Niger? Why are external forces keen to reinstate a government in Niger that its people are jubilant to have been overthrown?
Can we actually consider the illiberal civilian regime of Bazoum which lacked legitimacy in the heart of the people democratic? Is democracy not supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people? Why can it be considered acceptable to sacrifice the lives of oppressed African people to preserve such an illegitimate government?
The separate question is, what is going on in the Sahel? Are we actually witnessing a regional confrontation against imperialist forces? Are we witnessing a renaissance of the pan-Africanist struggle? This question has become important as people try to decide what stance to take. So much has been said about the unacceptable horrors of military dictatorships, especially from the Nigerian elites. But are we to assume that all military governments are the same by default, and automatically inferior to civilian governments? Was the leadership of Thomas Sankara really worse than that of Shehu Shagari, on the metrics where comparisons can be made?
Furthermore, what right does an organization such as the ECOWAS of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, an ECOWAS of Faure Gnassingbé, who has been president of Togo since 2005 have to make itself the moral arbiter of democracy? What sort of democracy do you have to literally invade and impose with an external military?
A lot of mobilisations are in motion now, as several radical African organizations, rally around these military dictatorships. It is surprising though not so unexpected that these regimes now constitute a sort of de facto leadership of the pan-Africanist revolt against Western imperialism, particularly French colonial strangulation that has held the peoples of former French colonies shackled in poverty, while the local elites benefit from their collaboration with western capitalists. So much opposition has been gingered up against these governments based not on any established policy declarations or actions but solely on being military governments.
So much of the response from Nigeria has positioned itself against war while calling for the use of other tools of economic war that impoverish Nigeriens. A lot has been said about Russia and how friendly these regimes are to Russia without any further analysis of what exactly a country that is cornered from all directions is supposed to do when confronted with the real threat of foreign invasion. If Niger was not under threat of invasion, would it be deepening ties with Russia? And is this even the pertinent question at a time of impending war? It is indeed true that we can walk and chew gum.
Africa has bled and bled under Western hegemony and we are wary of simply trading oppressors. But these are all unimportant ideological questions in the presence of the question of national defense. In fact, this poses a great danger to the pan-Africanist revolution. If any country that breaks from Western countries has no allies to turn to but enemies of the West whose priority might not align with ours, it creates room for reaction and leads to defeat even before the struggle has gone a distance. Because of this, the most important priority for all African people must be to intensify our resistance against war, especially when our country is the aggressor, the way Nigeria is in this case.
While military war has not yet been unleashed on Niger, war is already ongoing. A very political and economic war is ongoing and if we do not stop it, it will inevitably lead to a physical one, intentionally or not.
We cannot allow war to break out in West Africa, a war that would deepen the divide between our peoples, crush our economies and make us weaker and easier targets of imperialist plunder. The people of Niger need grains, they need water, they need electricity, technical experts, doctors and nurses. And to the extent that ECOWAS seeks to starve it out, it is our moral responsibility to “desire the defeat” of ECOWAS’s objective and to mobilize grassroots support that provides sufficient safety for the internal class struggle whipping the Sahel to begin to be resolved in the favour of the masses.
by Kayode Somtochukwu ANI