This isn’t what Western countries wanted to sow in West Africa.
On July 26, the African continent was rocked by news of a military coup in Niger, the fourth in West Africa since 2020. Cooperation between the US and Nigerien militaries has been suspended. The Niger government has withdrawn from its military agreements with France. The over 1,000 US troops in Niger have been restricted to their bases. France has evacuated 600 nationals from the country, while in a veiled threat, President Emmanuel Macron declared he “would not tolerate any attack against France and its interests.”
Meanwhile, a rift has emerged in West Africa, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led by Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu on one side, and the military governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger on the other. ECOWAS is threatening an invasion to restore former President Mohamed Bazoum to power; however, Mali and Burkina Faso have announced that they will consider an operation against Niger to be an attack on them and respond accordingly. At the same time, rallies have brought thousands of Nigeriens out in support of the military government that removed Bazoum. It is clear that an invasion of Niger would provoke a regional war.
Niger closed its airspace in response to threats from ECOWAS and France, but fortunately the Sunday deadline for intervention passed without incident. ECOWAS is planning to discuss Niger later this week.
For its part, Washington is holding off on labelling the military takeover—which has seen US ally Bazoum supplanted by General Abdourahamane Tchiani—as a “coup,” as doing so would necessitate severing economic aid to Niger. Not only that, it would cause bilateral relations to deteriorate further, an outcome feared by the White House given Niger’s strategic importance.
Since the coups in Mali (2020), Guinea (2021), and Burkina Faso (2022), Niger has been the hub of both US and French military activity in the region. The fact that Nigerien military leadership has demonstrated willingness to run counter to its former colonial overlord while establishing good relations with Russia must certainly be of grave concern to Washington.
The Biden administration appears to be walking on eggshells, condemning the takeover but not labelling it a coup in an effort to retain its waning influence in the country. At the same time, however, US officials are openly pressuring the Nigerien military to reverse course and restore their preferred leader, Bazoum, to power. This is not only a matter of regional importance to the US and its allies. The crisis in Niger could have global ramifications as well.
Uranium and Françafrique
For much of the 20th century, the French exercised brutal colonial control over much of West Africa including modern-day Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, underdeveloping their economies to feed France’s own development. While many European empires withdrew from direct control in the 1960s and 1970s, France continues to dominate its former West African colonies, managing their currencies and budgets and stationing troops on their land. The independence gained by these African countries has thus been nullified by France’s particular brand of neocolonialism, known as Françafrique.
Eighty percent of Nigerien territory is covered by the Sahara Desert. Niger has one of the lowest human development indexes in the world and one of the hottest climates. While environmental factors have certainly played a role in Niger’s impoverishment, they don’t tell the whole story. We must also account for the fact that Niger remains one of the world’s poorest nations even though it is endowed with a wealth of natural resources that are of tremendous importance to its former colonial ruler.
Niger is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium. In 2022, the country accounted for over four percent of total world output. Most of this supply is controlled by Orano (formerly Areva), a French-majority owned company. Orano also owns 63.4 percent of Société des Mines de l’Aïr (SOMAÏR), a Nigerien national mining company. For almost 50 years, Orano has exploited the Nigerien uranium that feeds France’s nuclear power industry, which consists of 56 reactors in 18 plants, while giving little back to Niger.
France does not mine uranium on its own territory, but in a variety of countries around the world including Kazakhstan, Russia, and Niger. The percentage of uranium mined in Niger has grown noticeably over the past 10 years. Between 2012 and 2018, Niger accounted for an average of 16.7 percent of France’s uranium supply. From 2019 to 2022, Nigerien uranium averaged 28.3 percent of the total. Moreover, one-fifth of the European Union’s uranium supply comes from Niger. In 2021, Niger was the EU’s top uranium supplier.
The wealth of uranium exports could go far toward relieving poverty in the West African nation, but for decades the French government has maintained an antidemocratic system of political and economic control that allows its companies to send important resources back to France while raking in billions in revenue. In 2018, for example, uranium made up 75 percent of Niger’s total exports but only five percent of GDP. So while Orano generates billions, the majority of Nigerien people live in squalor (similar exploitation by Canadian mining companies can be seen in Mali and Burkina Faso). Anti-French anger is the predictable result of this state of affairs.
Anne Sophie Simpere, Advocacy Officer of Oxfam France, stated: “We calculated the [value-added tax] Areva [now Orano] should pay. Areva could cover the cost of free health care system for vulnerable people and their struggling financial system in Niger.” In the words of Ali Idrissa, a Nigerien activist:
Interestingly, in France, one out of every three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium mining. But in Niger, nearly 90 percent of the population has no access to electricity. African countries should be able to count on fair revenue from French companies extracting their resources… [the] majority of Nigeriens don’t even know that Niger has uranium, and 99 percent never get any benefits from it. We can’t continue with such an unequal partnership.
While French uranium extraction in Niger has not yet been halted, the military’s removal of the pro-Western Bazoum presents new challenges for France specifically and Europe as a whole. Russian uranium sales to Europe have still not been sanctioned, and the rise of resource nationalism in Niger would throw another wrench into the economic war on Russia, which has so far been unsuccessful. From Politico:
Tensions in Niger could further discourage the EU from adopting sanctions against Russia in the nuclear sector, according to Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, an energy expert at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris… “It could have consequences at the EU level. Uranium—and nuclear power in general—is still not subject to sanctions. If the situation in Niger gets worse, this would certainly complicate the adoption of sanctions on Russian uranium in the short term,” he said.
Reports that Niger plans to suspend uranium exports to France are thus of global importance. They would not only represent a refutation of French neocolonialism in the country, which has already taken serious blows due to anti-French coups in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Such a suspension would also hinder the expansion of the economic war against Russia, at the same time that “sobering” reports roll in about the failures of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Additionally, the coup in Niger is threatening to disrupt a project that will bring energy from the large gas fields in northern Nigeria into Europe, whose economies are still hurting from when they cut oil and gas supplies from Russia. The Trans-Sahara pipeline would run through Niger, Algeria, and Morocco before linking up to the Spanish or Italian energy systems. But the project’s future is up in the air, since like Mali’s Assimi Goïta and Burkina Faso’s Ibrahim Traoré, General Tchiani doesn’t seem terribly concerned by what Europe feels it should be getting from the region. This independent streak extends to the question of military cooperation as well.
The US and Canadian militaries in Niger
In addition to the 1,100 US troops in Niger, the American military operates a massive drone base in the country. The base, known as “Nigerien Air Base 201,” is the centre of US military activities in Niger. Its construction cost $110 million and it features a 6,200-foot runway for manned and unmanned aircraft, including MQ-9 Reapers, which have a price tag of $30 million each. The base is used for surveillance activities in West and North Africa.
Since the coup, US forces have been unable to use their $110 million base. Jocelyn Trainer of the Centre for a New American Security, an arms industry think tank based in Washington, bemoaned the US military’s inability to operate there. Describing the potential loss of the base as “a detrimental blow to US and African joint efforts to counter violent extremist groups,” Trainer added, “This setback coincides with France diminishing its presence in the region. A reduced US and French presence could create space for Wagner, or other actors, to fill a security vacuum.”
Bill Roggio of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies stated, “If the airspace remains closed, the impact of this [is] incalculable [and] it certainly isn’t positive.”
Like the US, the Canadian military has poured millions of dollars into Niger. Following last month’s coup, a Globe and Mail article proudly proclaimed that “For a decade, Canada has pursued a quiet campaign to stabilize the fragile West African country of Niger, spending hundreds of millions of dollars… to defend an impoverished democracy surrounded by autocratic regimes and Islamist militias.” After the coup, however, they claimed with astounding condescension that Niger “abandoned the democratic gospel the Canadians were preaching.”
According to the Globe and Mail piece, Canada is totally blameless for the turn toward military governments in West Africa. Canadians came to Niger to spread democracy and stability, they assert, with no mention of the decades of underdevelopment imposed on West African nations by Canadian and other Western governments and companies, nor consideration for how these exploitative policies contributed to anti-Western attitudes in these nations. This do-no-wrong attitude will only contribute to the decline of their influence in the region.
Between 2000 and 2020, Canada spent $520 million on “development assistance” in Niger. The Globe and Mail article undoubtedly expects readers to consider this a highly generous donation. It isn’t. For perspective, one Canadian mining company operating in Mali, the Vancouver-based B2Gold, drew $630 million in 2021. This means that 20 years of Canadian “development assistance” to Niger still falls over $100 million short of matching the yearly revenues of one Canadian mining company in West Africa.
Canadian troops were also on the ground in Niger as part of Operation Naberius, a mission that included leadership training. According to the Globe and Mail, “One senior Canadian officer said the training included Canadian military values, such as respect for democracy—a value that was seemingly ignored when the coup was launched last week.”
Following Tchiani’s coup, the Canadian government suspended military cooperation and aid to Niger. Canadian diplomats have unequivocally condemned the military takeover, as they did with Mali and Burkina Faso. Like Mali and Burkina Faso, however, the Niger coup appears to have a large degree of public support, as Nigeriens themselves have grown sick of pro-Western governments that continue to inflict poverty and underdevelopment on the nation while allowing foreign companies to stuff their pockets with loot.
Which way for West Africa?
Whether or not the military leadership in these West African countries will restructure their economies remains to be seen, but it is telling that the US, France, and Canada have been so publicly outraged by these coups while ignoring or supporting overtly antidemocratic takeovers in other countries. As Lital Khaikin explains:
The Canadian government has been more than happy to support undemocratic coups and coup attempts in Ukraine, Bolivia and Venezuela. Yet, [former Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe] Champagne has not expressed the same qualms about violating Venezuela’s constitution, for example, with attempts to replace socialist President Nicolás Maduro with Washington’s illegitimate puppet Juan Guaidó. Instead, Western governments have demonstrated a clear preference for supporting coups that advance neoliberal policy, while condemning those that may threaten their interests.
The coup in Niger threatens Western governments’ interests, as did the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. The ramifications are regional and international. In the short-term, military cooperation with the US, France, and Canada has been suspended, limiting these countries’ influence in West Africa. In the long-term, European energy supplies may be impacted by Nigerien efforts to reassert national control over their resources, a move that would have an effect on Europe’s wider global policies, including toward Russia.
The governments of Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso have announced a “three-way partnership” to deepen economic and military ties. They have even discussed the idea of combining into a single federation. It seems likely that Niger will join in the partnership negotiations if not the federation talks. Deepened economic and military collaboration between these nations, supported by Russia, would sideline Western governments even more.
In the face of these realities, the US, France, and Canada have shown no interest in self-criticism or introspection, instead condemning Bazoum’s removal as a binary “democracy versus authoritarianism” issue. Imperialism is entirely ignored. There is more concern for the potential for Wagner Group to operate in these countries than the reality of decades of underdevelopment and exploitation imposed on the region by the West.
If the US, France, and Canada continue to disregard the legitimate anger of the Nigeriens, the Malians, and the Burkinabè, they will isolate themselves further in West Africa, and they will deepen the military governments’ resolve to fight back against the long history of US and Canadian imperialism and the longer history of French neocolonialism. This isn’t what Western countries wanted to sow in West Africa, but because of their hypocritical and hubristic behavior, it is what they’re reaping.
Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit www.owenschalk.com.