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As French embassy closes in Niger, West Africa charts a new course

Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are charting a new course—one of increased economic and security sovereignty

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French embassy in Niger. Relations between the two countries have broken down since a July coup d’état overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum. Photo courtesy France24.

Over the past few years, numerous West African states have taken steps toward greater economic and security sovereignty, often in opposition to Western (specifically French) designs on the region.

The anti-imperialist reforms have taken place under unelected military governments which, unusual to many Westerners, enjoy far greater public support than the ostensibly democratic governments they overthrew. This is because the preceding governments, often backed by the West, were only democratic in rhetoric; most people in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger viewed these “democratic” states as in fact anti-democratic, corrupt, and ineffectual against the threat of jihadist insurgency.

As I have documented in these pages, there has been a string of successful military coups in West Africa in recent years: in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Gabon. The coups have occurred in the context of deteriorating security situations, which the Western policy of backing jihadist forces in Libya did much to enflame.

Western-led military operations like France’s Operation Barkhane (2014-2022), the European Union’s Takuba Task Force (2020-2022), and the UN’s MINUSMA in Mali (2013-2023) did little to alleviate the security threats. Consequently, the militaries in various West African countries became disillusioned with the US and Europe as security partners.

In August 2020, a military coup led by Colonel Assimi Goïta successfully seized power in Mali. The junta has asserted its sovereignty in numerous ways, including by leaving the European-funded G5 Sahel organization and booting out French forces.

In Burkina Faso, a September 2022 coup brought to power the 35-year-old captain Ibrahim Traoré, overthrowing the previous military junta of Paul-Henri Damiba, which had removed the ineffective civilian government of the banker Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in January 2022. In addition to refusing Western military aid, Traoré appointed Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla as prime minister, a Marxist and pan-Africanist who supported Thomas Sankara’s efforts to build socialism and economic self-sufficiency in the 1980s.

And in July 2023, the Nigerien military overthrew US-backed President Mohamed Bazoum, who had offered Niger as a base for US and European troops after the anti-Western coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. The military takeover, led by Abdourahamane Tchiani, caused a regional earthquake, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led by Nigeria threatening an invasion to restore Bazoum to power. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron was reportedly furious over a perceived failure to predict Bazoum’s ouster.

The military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso vowed to defend Niger from any invasion, and Tchiani remains in power. Now, the region has largely faded from the headlines. This does not mean these countries are no longer struggling against insurgencies or taking more steps to recover their economic and security sovereignty from Western powers. As recent developments show, events in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger continue to move quite quickly.

On December 12, France announced the closure of its embassy in Niamey, Niger, claiming the embassy is “no longer able to function normally or carry out its missions.”

The closure follows a tense confrontation at the French embassy in August-September of last year. After the coup, the Nigerien government expelled French Ambassador Sylvain Itté, giving him 48 hours to leave the country. Macron disobeyed Niger’s government and kept Itté in his post. The government responded by blockading Itté inside the embassy, while Nigerien protestors threatened to storm the building if French personnel continued to resist the Nigerien leadership’s orders. On September 24, Itté was finally recalled to France.

On military agreements, too, France was quick to dismiss the legitimacy of the Tchiani government and defend the status quo—either blind to the tsunami of anti-French sentiment sweeping the region or unconcerned by it. This was evidenced by the fact that when Niger ended its military agreements with France, the French government refused to accept reality, claiming that Nigerien leaders had “no legitimate authority to do so.” It took several months for France to agree to withdraw its troops. French soldiers finally left Niger in December.

One likely reason for Macron’s hesitancy to cooperate with Nigerien authorities was the forced withdrawal of French troops from Mali in August 2022 and Burkina Faso in February 2023. Niger was the final holdout of France’s military influence in the region. With Niger’s expelling of the French military, the future of France’s neocolonial domination of West Africa—the Françafrique system by which France manages the currencies, budgets, and many of the resources of the region—hangs in the balance.

One cannot expect France to quietly accept the popular resistance to neocolonialism in West Africa. They did, after all, support the overthrow and murder of Burkina Faso’s beloved anti-imperialist leader Thomas Sankara in 1987. The French government has taken various measures to try to contain or roll back the anti-French uprising in the region over the past several years.

In 2021, France allegedly interfered in the European-funded G5 Sahel organization—a coordinated military force involving Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad—to prevent Chad from passing the organization’s presidency to Bamako. Mali responded by leaving the G5 Sahel (Niger and Burkina Faso left the G5 in early December, effectively ending the alliance).

In Niger, the French government supported ECOWAS’s invasion threat against Niger. The Nigerien government responded by saying Macron’s support for a military attack on Niger “aim[s] at perpetuating a neocolonial operation against the Nigerien people.”

On December 1, meanwhile, Burkina Faso arrested four French passport holders, accusing them of “espionage,” as they went to the French embassy for a “computer maintenance operation.” Even if the espionage charges have no merit, the arrests are indicative of West Africa’s suspicions toward French actions in the region—suspicions that are well-founded given France’s past and present interference.

In the security sphere, the actions of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger go far beyond the G5 Sahel. On September 16, the three nations announced the creation of the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defence pact signed in the context of France-backed invasion threats from ECOWAS. The member states assert that “any attack against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracting parties will be considered as aggression against the other parties.” There are even talks of the three West African nations uniting into a federation.

In the absence of France’s coercive security and economic influence, Russia has deftly asserted its soft power in West Africa. Recently Niger ended two security agreements with the EU, repealed an agreement with the EU that criminalized migration through Niger to Europe, and welcomed a Russian delegation to discuss “military and defence issues.” The delegation concluded with “the signing of documents as part of the strengthening of military cooperation between the Republic of Niger and the Russian Federation.”

Russia also dispatched a delegation to Mali, where they discussed Russian exports of wheat, fertilizer, and petroleum products and “development projects for Mali, in terms of renewable energy and nuclear energy.” Notably, Russia also has plans to help Burkina Faso develop a nuclear power plant to meet the nation’s energy needs.

In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, Russian investment is often preferred over French companies, which have profited immensely from the region while contributing next to nothing to the people. However, these nations’ assertions of economic independence go beyond collaboration with Russia.

On December 4, Niger nationalized its drinking water, taking back control of this crucial resource from French company Veolia and its local subsidiary SEEN. Sylvain Itté, the French ambassador expelled in September 2023, had previously sparked outrage in Niger when he told Nigeriens to “stop drinking water, since it is European.”

Mali and Burkina Faso, meanwhile, have taken steps to increase state control over their mining sectors, which are dominated by foreign companies, including Canadian ones. In Mali, these mining reforms led Toronto-based Barrick Gold to get involved.

Barrick CEO Mark Bristow claims that after the announcement of Mali’s new mining code, which allows state and local investors to take a larger share in foreign-owned operations, he spoke with the Malian government and “walked back some of the components of mining code.” Barrick’s efforts to roll back the Malian state’s role in mining, and thus reduce the country’s available tax revenue, comes as one million children in Mali are at risk of acute malnutrition.

Despite sanctions, threats from France, and foreign pushback against the nationalist reclamation of resource wealth, West African states are charting a new course, one of increased economic and security sovereignty. This means increasing control of key resources and the forcible end of French military and economic dominance in the region. Western players, be they French officials or Canadian mining companies, will continue to oppose these reforms, but they remain the popular course in all three countries.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.

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