Nigerien coup spearheads a popular revolution
Another Sahel comprador regime has fallen to a popular movement led by patriotic army officers. The contagion is bound to spread.
On 26 July, units of his presidential guard arrested Niger’s president, Mohammed Bazoum. The guards proceeded to dismiss the regime headed by Ouhoumodou Mohamadou, and head of the presidential guard General Abdourahamne Tchiani was declared the leader of a new government entitled the ‘National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland’.
It soon became clear that this was no mere squabble between rival factions of the Nigerien ruling class. Actions in the streets showed unequivocally that the coup leaders had mass support – not only in Niger itself but also across the wider Sahel region.
In its first official communique, the new government declared that the deposed President Bazoum had “tried to convince people that everything is going well, despite the harsh reality of a lot of death, displacement, humiliation and frustration. Today’s approach has not brought security despite great sacrifices.” It also denounced the “lack of measures to face the economic crisis and the deterioration of the security situation”.
The coup brought to the surface a myriad issues from which the country has been suffering for decades – and highlighted that the unifying factor behind all these problems is the ongoing role played by French imperialism. This is the case not only in Niger, but in all the nations that won formal independence from France as a result of their postwar anticolonial revolutions.
The genuine mass support gained by the new government in response to its anti-French actions shows clearly that the Nigerien masses understand very well who is responsible for the problems in their country – problems that persist despite the presence of vast deposits of iron ore, gold, uranium and oil. Despite this vast mineral wealth. the Nigerien people remain mired in poverty, with an average monthly income of just $51. While possessing vast deposits of uranium, which is used to power French nuclear plants, only one in seven Nigeriens is connected to the electricity grid. Less than a fifth of the population live in the cities, while the rest are still trying to scratch a scant living out of subsistence agriculture.
This lack of development is also revealed in the obscenely low level of literacy: only 37 percent of the Nigerien population can read.
Meanwhile, the industrial extraction of Niger’s uranium has created a veritable pandemic of cancer cases amongst mining communities, alongside ecological devastation resulting from unsafe extraction practices.
These problems all originate from the deliberately truncated form of independence that the French colonialists granted to their former colonies, which was always designed to choke any economic or political developments that might threaten their domination of these nations – and therefore their ability to extract maximum profit from African resources.
Independence and neocolonialism
Niger received its formal independence from France in 1960, having previously been part of the vast colony known as ‘French West Africa’. This followed a series of wars and uprisings against all the European colonial powers. Inspired by the October Revolution in Russia, the anticolonial revolution swept the Dutch out of Indonesia, the French out of Indochina and the British out of India. While this revolutionary wave was uneven, including some temporary setbacks and defeats for the oppressed peoples, the ultimate rout of the colonial powers was irreversible. In France’s case, it was the war and defeat in Algeria that caused the imperialists the most problems. After more than a decade of the most brutal warfare, the French Fourth Republic actually collapsed, being overturned by a military coup in 1958 that brought the wartime resistance hero General Charles De Gaulle back into power.
De Gaulle was smart enough to know that continuing to fight large-scale wars to prevent the independence of the colonies was too risky a proposition, and so he moved France to a new position whereby she accepted that formal independence was inevitable. This caused a major revolt within France’s ultra-reactionary officer corps, whose members actually attempted to assassinate him in response to negotiations that led to the end of the war and Algerian independence.
The independence of Niger swiftly followed, with the new republic being granted full independence from France in 1960. Even before independence had been granted, however, the French imperialists were suppressing political forces that might threaten their continued exploitation of the country. In 1957, Djibo Bakary of the Mouvement Socialiste Africain was elected to head the government, but was overthrown and exiled by the French in 1958. The socialist and pan-Africanist movement was then suppressed by regimes whose leaders had been handpicked by the French. As a result of its people’s constantly frustrated attempts to realise true independence, Niger has been plagued by economic and political instability, with the latest coup being the sixth in its turbulent history.
Clearly, French imperialism was not willing to give up the very profitable exploitation of the African nations in which they had been freely engaged for over a century. As former French presidents François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac observed, without being able to exploit the wealth of the African nations, the French ruling class “is nothing”.
The same problem confronted all the imperialists who had been obliged to end direct occupation of their colonies. They needed a new system whereby they could retain their ability to extract superprofits from the hyperexploitation of the workers and resources of these countries. As VI Lenin noted in his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, one of the key features of the imperialist system is that the advanced capitalist nations become overwhelmingly engaged in the export of capital rather than of commodities. In the period after the anticolonial revolutionary wave this remained the case, but the approach had to be modified now that the imperialists were locked in a battle against forms of revolutionary nationalism and socialism that were inspiring uprisings across the globe.
The imperialist powers used the domination that they still exercised over the economies of the newly-independent countries to keep a stranglehold on their development. What imperialism requires of countries such as Niger, Kenya, Mali or Burkina Faso is that they continue to act purely as sites of resource extraction. As Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (who is certainly no communist) pointed out in his recent speech to the Russia-Africa summit, the imperialist powers seek only to take raw materials and agricultural produce out of Africa, which they can turn into marketable commodities elsewhere. What this means is that the African states are paid very little for these raw materials, either in terms of the prices set or the wages that are paid to the hyperexploited workers. President Museveni’s point was that this system keeps Africa poor by ensuring it remains underdeveloped and is unable to build up a strong industrial base. Whether Museveni knew it or not, he was actually reflecting the work of the great Guyanese Marxist historian Walter Rodney, who wrote in his seminal work How Europe underdeveloped Africa: “What was called ‘the development of Africa’ by the colonialists was a cynical shorthand expression for ‘the intensification of colonial exploitation in Africa to develop capitalist Europe’” (1972).
Not only was this true in the high period of colonialism, but it has remained the case, albeit in a modified form, throughout the modern neocolonial period. The concept of neocolonialism was developed by the anti-imperialist pan-African leader Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first president of Ghana after leading a long campaign against British colonialism. When confronting the difficulties faced by the new nation in escaping imperialist control, Nkrumah pointed out the mechanisms by which the former colonisers retained their ability to exploit the newly independent nations: “The essence of neocolonialism is that the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, 1965).
Nkrumah’s definition certainly applies to nations such as Niger, whose natural resources continue to be controlled by and sold to the imperialists. A look at the uranium mining industry in Niger reveals just how this works. A 63 percent stake in Niger’s uranium mines is currently held by the Orano corporation, with the remainder being owned by the Nigerien state mining company. Orano’s biggest shareholder is the French state, which owns 45.2 percent of the shares – enough to dictate all the company’s decisions. According to data from the World Nuclear Association, Orano is one of the top three producers of uranium in the world. The company’s most recent profit report shows revenue of €4.2bn, which is predicted to rise to at least €4.3bn this year. The uranium mining business is plainly a very profitable one for the French state and Niger is a crucial part of this.
French state energy company EDF also depends upon Nigerien uranium to fuel its nuclear reactors, with 20 percent of the uranium it uses every year coming from Niger’s mines.
Such a profitable business being controlled almost entirely by the old colonial power after more than 60 years of ‘independence’ reveals how right Comrade Nkrumah was regarding the power of the neo-colonial system when he observed: “If Africa’s multiple resources were used in her own development, they could place her among the modernised continents of the world. But her resources have been, and still are being used for the greater development of overseas interests” (Ibid).
Niger’s independence (and that of many other former French colonies) has also been compromised by the imposition of the CFA Franc. This currency was launched in 1945 following the devaluation of the French franc after it was pegged to the dollar. In essence, use of the CFA Franc ensures that French goods can be exported without any trade barriers to the former French colonies, whilst raw materials (such as uranium) are sent back to France.
Controlling their currency also allowed the French government to control the monetary policies of its former colonies. With the launch of the Euro in 1999, this control passed to the European Central Bank, an institution that is even further removed from any influence by the Nigerien people.
Another condition imposed on the countries using the CFA Franc is that they have to deposit 50 percent of their foreign assets in the French Treasury. The system is structured in such a way as to ensure that these supposedly independent governments are in effect stuck with a situation in which it is easy for French capital and goods to flow into Niger and also easy for resources to be exported out. Combine that with continued French control over monetary policy and you have a strong system of neocolonial control that has kept Niger poor and underdeveloped – with devastating consequences for the Nigerien proletariat and peasantry.
Another facet of the neocolonial system everywhere has been the weaponisation of debt. According to the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, Niger’s total government debt for 2023 amounts to 51.3 percent of GDP, or $4.9bn. For the imperialists, the indebtedness of poor and underdeveloped countries such as Niger provides them with excellent opportunities for exerting pressure over the government. As Thomas Sankara observed in a speech given just before his murder in 1987: “Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skilfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules” (‘A united front against debt’, 29 July 1987).
Another crucial pillar of neocolonialism is the imperialists’ ability to maintain a relatively large-scale military presence in their former colonies. In the Sahel region, French armed forces have reinserted themselves in considerable numbers under the guise of a ‘war against terrorism’, supposedly being waged against the jihadist groups that have conveniently appeared in Burkina Faso, Mali, the Central African Republic and Niger in the last two decades.
Since the destruction of Libya, brutally effected by the US, France and Britain in 2011, jihadist attacks in Niger have become far worse. The region has been flooded with weaponry taken from the stockpiles of the old Libyan army combined with the arms that the imperialists provided to their proxy forces. Under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda and/or Isis, the US also compelled Niger to accept the establishment of a base for its airborne drone fleet, where at least 1,000 personnel are stationed. All of this has been done in the name of ‘fighting extremism’, but despite the propaganda pumped out by bourgeois media in the imperialist countries, the French military presence has not only failed to quell the insurgencies but has, in fact, worsened them. Despite the presence of 1,000 French forces, jihadi attacks continue in Niger, with casualties often numbering nearly 100 mostly military personnel or police forces. The Nigerien masses are plainly aware that the US and French armies are not in the country for their protection but to secure the economic interests of their imperialist masters. Hence the ongoing mass demonstrations outside French bases since the new government took power.
A growing rebellion and the role of Russia
The events in Niger follow similar coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea, which have all seen nationalist military officers take power. Each of these countries has suffered from similar problems to those of Niger, and all have long chafed under French neocolonial control. All three governments have stated their vehement opposition to the proposal that the Nigerian government should lead an invasion of Niger to reinstall Bazoum’s ousted regime. They have been joined in this by Algeria, which, though it called for the reinstatement of civilian government, made clear its rejection of any military intervention.
So far, the countries of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have been divided over a potential military intervention, no doubt influenced by the firm backing for Niger from the more anticolonial governments amongst them. It must be noted that Ecowas is an organisation that consists of former French, British and Portuguese colonies, with the leading economic and military force being Nigeria. Nigerian president Bola Tinubu has been the most enthusiastic about an Ecowas intervention, but even in government circles this has provoked division, with Nigeria’s senate recently voting against military intervention. At the time of writing, the African Union has also voted to oppose military action against Niger. This division amongst African governments reflects not only the weakening hold of imperialism but also the fear that many of the comprador regimes have of arousing the sympathy of their own hard-pressed masses for the anti-imperialist cause.
In the case of Burkina Faso, new president Ibrahim Traore has taken direct inspiration from the unfinished revolution of the great Thomas Sankara. In his recent speech to the Russia-Africa summit, President Traore stated that the Burkinabe government had formed new people’s volunteer units in order to defend the revolution against both the imperialists and the reactionary jihadist forces.
This mobilisation of the masses in defence of their nation is crucial for the development of the fight against imperialism – in Niger as elsewhere. As Mao Zedong pointed out when speaking of the power of the peasant masses in the Chinese Revolution: “They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves” (‘Report on an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan’, March 1927).
What is unfolding in Niger cannot be dismissed as a mere military putsch. It is clear that the great masses of Africa are beginning to rise again. The historic setback that was inflicted on their progress by the collapse of the USSR is beginning to be reversed.
The rise of China and the impending defeat of the Nato imperialist-led forces by Russia in Ukraine has given fresh inspiration to millions of workers and peasants across the world, and particularly in Africa. If Niger is successful in freeing itself from French colonialism, there is every chance that this new revolutionary wave will spread, threatening the hold of the British imperialists in places like Kenya, and the role of the US as the military guarantor of its European underlings will be called into question. A successful African liberation struggle will be a fatal blow to the already weakened, parasitic European and British imperialist powers, and it is for this reason that workers in these countries must stand in solidarity with the Nigerien people in their just struggle for freedom from imperialist domination.