By: Wilson Honorio da Silva, from the Formation Secretariat of the PSTU Brazil
At the end of July, Niger, the second largest country in West Africa and one of the poorest in the world, was shaken by a military coup that deposed Mohamed Bazoum who was elected in 2021. General Abdourahmane Tchiani, known as Omar Tchiani, assumed power with the support of the presidential guard, which he had led since 2011. While Tchiani had been tasked with protecting Bazoum, the former president is now being held under house arrest.
Tchiani and his coup allies cited the country’s growing insecurity and the government’s many problems as the main motivations for the coup. However, the situation is much more complex, which makes it even more difficult to draw hypotheses about the development of the ongoing process.
So far the facts that have been established since the coup occurred are that the Constitution has been suspended, the military controls all institutions, and protests (for and against the coup) have taken to the streets on a daily basis. And, as if that were not enough, the country is now the object of dispute between different capitalist powers.
On the one hand, France (which colonized Niger between the late 1800s and 1960s), all the countries of the European Union, the United States, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are exerting pressure (and even threatening to intervene militarily in the country) to bring Bazoum back to the presidency. On the other hand, Russia has acted both directly and via the infamous Wagner Group, in support of the coup plotters.
Clearly, none of these bourgeois and capitalist sectors either inside or outside of the country can offer a favorable solution to the suffering people of Niger. On the contrary, they all want exactly the same thing: to ensure that power remains in the hands of those who best represent their interests, particularly when it comes to extracting and commercializing Niger’s rich mineral resources.
In the context of this situation, and although the immediate task is to defeat those who plotted the coup, Niger’s workers, peasants, and youth cannot trust foreign powers or even the deposed president.
For this reason, the International Workers League – Fourth International (LITC-CI) defends the struggle for socialism as a necessary and urgent means of restoring the democratic freedoms confiscated and trampled upon by the coup d’état. Only socialism can guarantee freedom, justice, security and, above all, dignified living conditions for the working, oppressed, and exploited people of Niger.
From pre-colonial prosperity to the misery imposed by imperialist exploitation and its accomplices
Niger has a population of about 25 million inhabitants (the majority of which are Muslim), living in a country where more than 80% of its territory is covered by the Sahara Desert. According to United Nations criteria, two out of every five Nigeriens live in conditions of extreme poverty with an income of less than $2.15 dollars a day.
Most of the population barely survives thanks to subsistence agriculture in the country’s scarce fertile areas. While the ability to farm the land has become increasingly difficult in recent years due to the effects of climate change caused by capitalist greed. The brutal consequences of global warming that have devastated the planet are accelerating the desertification process in the region, making access to fertile land even scarcer.
While the majority of workers and people suffer misery and hunger, a small bourgeois elite, strongly linked to imperialist interests, has been enriching itself. They have been busily extracting and exporting mineral resources such as gold, oil, and, in particular, uranium, the country’s most important natural resource.
However, things were not always like this. In the pre-colonial period, the region was the cradle of successive empires and civilizations which, despite their contradictions, ensured enormous prosperity.
For instance, at the time of colonization around 1500, the territory of Niger belonged to the Songhai Empire, which stretched from the Atlantic to the Sahara. It boasted important communities of higher learning (the region was home to one of the oldest universities in the world, located in the Sankoré Mosque which was founded in 989 A.D.) and it was quite prosperous. This was due to the fact that the country’s modern day capital, Goa, was an important crossroads for the trade routes that cut through the desert.
All this changed radically with the arrival of Europeans, slavery, and in particular the results of Niger’s incorporation into the French Empire during the infamous Partition of Africa (finalized at the Berlin Conference in 1884/85). The country did not gain its independence until 1960. Today, in addition to being one of the poorest countries in the world, Niger has one of the worst literacy rates on the planet.
France never took its claws out of Niger
Right after the coup, images circulated around the world showing hundreds of people smashing the windows of the French Embassy and setting fire to the surrounding area shouting “Down with France.” There are many reasons for this. Niger’s deep hatred for France has as much to do with the imperialist past as it does with the present. And the fact that the deposed president identifies with all this is no coincidence either.
France, in fact, has never taken its claws out of Niger. And Bazoum is only the latest in a long series of rulers who have served the interests of the French bourgeoisie.
In sum, Niger is one of the more unfortunate examples of what happened in several other African countries in the post-colonial period, which was marked by military interventions or eventual “democratic” governments that were always supported by different sectors of the modern imperialist powers. Their aims were to preserve their interests and conquer new areas of influence.
Since the 1960s, France has systematically intervened in the few electoral processes and/or supported, more or less explicitly, the different authoritarian regimes that have ruled the country. France has also always maintained a strong military presence in the country. Until the coup there were 1,500 French soldiers stationed in the country, as well as a French air base for attack aircraft and drones.
Moreover, the economic interference in the country, beyond the business related to mineral resources, can be exemplified by the simple fact that, like 14 other West African countries (which make up a bloc cynically called by imperialism “Françafrique”), Niger’s official currency is the CFA franc (an acronym for African Financial Community). There is one other key detail in this economic arrangement: all these countries are obliged to deposit 50% of their foreign exchange reserves in the French Central Bank and the currency is pegged to the Euro, which obviously allows France to exercise control over the economy of the countries using it.
The blatant imperialist arrogance of Emmanuel Macron’s government was evident in his first post-coup speech, when he stated that he would not “tolerate any attack against France and its interests” in Niger. These are the same interests that the now-deposed president had been defending with such servility that the majority of the population strongly identified him with the former colonizers and explorers. And this view is clearly not without reason.
“It is true that French policy in Africa is not a great success at the moment (…). But is France to blame? I think not. France is an easy target for populist discourse (…), especially on social networks among young Africans (…). Its opponents want to project an image of France as a neo-colonialist power. There are those who cling to this cliché, which is not true, but which is very useful for propaganda,” declared the former president to the Financial Times on May 21, 2023. This statement not only denies the past, but it also obfuscates the country’s current reality.
When Bazoum was elected in 2021 in the first transition of power by electoral means since 1960, he ran for the Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), a party whose name in no way corresponds to its actual political-programmatic positions. Since then, he has not only been a loyal partner of imperialism but has also been a fervent advocate for increasing French military presence in the country. He uses the same argument that the imperialist powers love: French troops are needed in order to fight the “war on terror” against radical Islamic groups and Al-Qaeda.
As if that were not enough, Bazoum gave full support to the increased military presence of the United States with the same objective in mind. The US maintains four military bases in the country, two of which are permanent and two of which are “temporary” (although they have been there for years). One of the bases is very technologically advanced and has even been used as a platform for drones.
In addition, between May 2021 and the end of 2022, the president received part of a complement of about 13,000 soldiers of the so-called United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), who had been forced to leave the neighboring country also after a military coup. In addition, it received 3,000 French soldiers from the so-called Operation Barkhane, an “anti-insurgency” battalion aimed at controlling conflicts in the Sahara region.
The dispute over uranium and the control of North Africa
The “war on terror,” “humanitarian aid,” and the “defense of democracy” are all false and hypocritical arguments to justify what is really behind the power struggle and the intervention of international powers (and their various Nigerien partners) in the country. The dispute is primarily for the control of uranium extraction and export and has to do with its geopolitical importance.
Niger is the seventh-largest uranium producer in the world. And, according to the European Community’s Atomic Energy Supply Agency, in 2021 the country was the main supplier of the ore to the European Union, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia. Today, uranium ore mined in Niger accounts for one-fifth of the total uranium imports into the EU, where it is used primarily to generate electricity. In France, where 45% of the electricity is generated with nuclear energy, 15% of the uranium is imported from Niger. The irony is that, while “”Niger lights up the Eiffel Tower, and gives electricity to the French, 85% of its population lives without electricity,”comrades from the Union of the Revolutionary Proletariat of Guinea Bissau, the UPRG Cassacá-64 (a group of young workers sympathetic to the LIT) pointed out in a recent post on Facebook.
Made possible by the sweat and blood of Nigerien workers, the extraction of uranium, in addition to the enormous health risks and its extremely destructive impact (including contamination of soil, water, fauna and flora, which ends up affecting the food chain), exclusively benefits international imperialism and the country’s bourgeoisie.
To give an idea of the enormous profits being made at the expense of Nigerien workers and the environment, the French multinational, the Orano Group, which has been constantly denounced for the high levels of radioactivity in the communities where its mines operate, has a capital investment three times greater than the entire economy of Niger.
Moreover, Niger is in the heart of a strategic region on the African continent. It is in the Sahel, a strip of land about 700 km wide, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and serves as a transition region between the desert climate of the Sahara in the north and the savannahs of Sudan.
Precisely for this reason, it is no coincidence that Niger has been the third country in the region to face coups d’état in recent years, thus becoming the epicenter of disputes between capitalist powers. The same happened in Mali (in 2020 and 2021) and in Burkina Faso (which experienced two coups in 2022).
It is also no coincidence that, in all of them, Russia is at the center of these disputes.
Russian tentacles in Africa
Scenes of Nigeriens carrying (or, literally, wearing) Russian flags at coup demonstrations have circled the globe, causing surprise and raising questions. After all, what would lead the people of Niger to support Putin’s capitalist and authoritarian regime, or see it as an alternative to French imperialism?
The fact is that Putin’s government has long been trying to increase its influence in Africa. And its efforts have largely been successful. In an interview published recently by CNN, Remi Adekoya, associate professor of politics at the University of York in the UK, spoke on the subject.[i] “When people talked about potential rivals to Western influence in Africa, it was always China. In the last couple of years, essentially since the war with Ukraine, Russia has stepped up its efforts and suddenly Russia is back almost as a geopolitical player on the African continent,” the professor noted, recalling how the Russians have tried to use the very justified African hatred of their former imperialist rulers to expand their influence.
For instance, at the end of July, Putin hosted a Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg with the participation of 49 African countries. The main objective was to negotiate political support and better economic relations (for Russia, obviously), in exchange for agreements on grain supplies (something hindered by the war with Ukraine), as well as “military cooperation.”
Putin announced that one of the collaboration’s key goals is “to strengthen the defense capabilities of the countries of the continent.” To that end, he added, “we are developing cooperation in the military and military-technical spheres,” offering “a wide range of weapons and defense equipment” and inviting the countries to join military exercises on Russian territory in order to familiarize themselves with next-generation weapons.
During the event, representatives of Burkina Faso and Mali, whose coups came months after the last Russia-Africa Summit in 2019 (when military cooperation contracts reached the value of US$ 10 billion), reaffirmed their support for the genocidal invasion of Ukraine.
The meeting was also marked by the presence of the notorious Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, which has been operating systematically in Africa. In addition to directly exploiting mineral resources in several countries of the continent in order to finance its mercenary operations, the Group has been militarily involved in coup processes. This includes the one in Mali, where there are numerous accounts of torture and the massacre of hundreds of people at the hands of neo-fascist mercenaries.
This is something that can be repeated in support of the coup plotters in Niger, to whom Prigozhin had already offered his services. The Wagner Group has shielded its operations by an alleged and absurd “anti-imperialist” discourse, as became evident in a recently leaked audio (whose authenticity was not confirmed, but the speech is typical of the Wagner Group leader’s discourse).
“What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger against their colonizers (…) In order to control them, the ex-colonizers fill these countries with terrorists and armed groups, creating a big crisis in security issues,” Prigozhin said.
For obvious reasons, this discourse resonates with the Nigerien people. For instance, in an interview with the BBC on August 1, a shopkeeper in the city of Zinder, who was dressed from head to toe in a Russian flag and who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, justified his sympathy for Russia in the following way: “I am pro-Russia and I don’t like France. Since I was a child, I have been opposed to France. They exploited all the riches of my country, such as uranium, oil, and gold. The poorest Nigeriens cannot eat three times a day because of France (…) I want Russia to help us with security and food (…) Russia can offer technology to improve our agriculture.”[ii]
Unfortunately, we know very well that this is nothing but an illusion considering the absurd levels of exploitation and oppression occurring in Putin’s own land and against his own people, not to mention the ongoing genocide in Ukraine. Russia’s interests are the same as those of the European Union and the United States: to exploit the African people to satisfy the interests and profits of its own bourgeoisie and its political projects.
Class independence and the anti-imperialist struggle are the only ways forward
However, in the same report the BBC also quotes a small agricultural producer, also from the city of Zinder, who has a different opinion. “I don’t support the arrival of Russians in this country, because they are all Europeans and nobody is going to help us,” says the man, who adds that his only wish is to see his people live in peace.
We cannot disagree with him. However, the problem is not that “they are all Europeans,” but rather that they are all capitalists. And they have the same goal: to exploit the suffering African labor force and plunder their natural resources.
At the present moment, there is no means of guaranteeing workers, peasants, and the people of Niger the security, peace and living conditions they deserve. Not while they are walled in by the pressures of the European Union (particularly France), the United States, the Economic Community of West African States, Russia, or any other capitalist and/or imperialist power.
It is necessary for the Nigerien people to organize themselves with class independence and fight themselves for the control of the State. This is the only way for them to have control of their own lives. And despite the scarcity of information about independent organizing, there have been reports of sectors mobilizing against the deposed president that, in principle, are not aligned with the powers in dispute.
For instance, in August 2022 when Bazoum opened the country’s gates to the French soldiers of Operation Barkhane, a coalition was formed called the M62 Movement composed of social activists, civil organizations, and trade unions. It launched a campaign for the withdrawal of troops and against the rising cost of living and the excesses of the president. The protests, however, were harshly repressed and some of its main leaders were arrested in April 2023.
At the time of writing, Niger’s airspace is closed to the threat of military intervention by its African neighbors, with the aim of restoring Bazoum to power at the behest of the European powers. Meanwhile, Omar Tchiani and his coup plotters were making progress in consolidating the coup, and Putin and the Wagner Group were still trying to tighten their alliances with them.
All these scenarios are terrible news for the people of Niger. Starting with the military dictatorship, which, as they unfortunately know all too well from the recent past, means widespread violence and the elimination of the already fragile democratic freedoms without which it is impossible to organize to fight back.
Moreover, the re-election of a pro-French imperialist bourgeois like Bazoum will do nothing to help the people of Niger find a way out of the misery and insecurity in which they live. Relying on an authoritarian genocidal Putin and his neo-fascist mercenaries is not a viable way out either.
For this reason, we believe that the only path to follow is one of struggle. The first step is to block and defeat the coup, but with a completely different approach than those which have been put forward. It must be done with class independence, in an openly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle, and with the aim of winning power.
Because of the history of crimes against humanity that were committed in Africa, whether through slavery or in the neocolonial period, the struggles on the continent necessarily require an anti-imperialist perspective. This implies demanding economic and social reparations for those crimes. This a necessary condition for a possible livable future for the people of Niger.
In addition, we are certain that workers, peasants, and the youth of Niger will only have peace, justice, freedom, and dignified living conditions when, together with their siblings throughout the African continent, they reunify the continent under the banner of a socialist Africa. This is the way forward that would allow the continent’s enormous natural wealth and the product of the work of its peoples to be appropriated and administered by themselves and for their futures.
[i] https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/internacional/analise-golpe-no-niger-e-dor-de-cabeca-do-ocidente- e-opportunity-da-russia/