France and the U.S. have been blindsided by popular support for Niger’s coup, as the trend towards multipolarity emboldens Africans to confront neo-colonial exploitation, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar.
The coup in the West African state of Niger on July 26 and the Russia-Africa Summit the next day in St. Petersburg are playing out in the backdrop of multipolarity in the world order. Seemingly independent events, they capture nonetheless the zeitgeist of our transformative era.
First, the big picture — the Africa summit hosted by Russia on July 27-28 poses a big challenge to the West, which instinctively sought to downplay the event after having failed to lobby against sovereign African nations meeting the Russian leadership. Forty-nine African countries sent their delegations to St. Petersburg, with 17 heads of states traveling in person to Russia to discuss political, humanitarian and economic issues. For the host country, which is in the middle of a war, this was a remarkable diplomatic success.
The summit was quintessentially a political event. Its leitmotif was the juxtaposition of Russia’s long-standing support for Africans resisting imperialism and the predatory nature of western neo-colonialism. This works brilliantly for Russia today, which has no colonial history of exploitation and plunder of Africa.
While every now and then skeletons from the colonial era keep rolling out of the Western closet, dating back to the unlamented African slave trade, Russia taps into the Soviet legacy of being on the ‘right side of history’ — even resurrecting the full name of Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in Moscow.
Yet, it wasn’t all politics. The summit deliberations on Russia-Africa partnership helping the continent achieve ‘‘food sovereignty,’’ alternatives to the grain deal, new logistics corridors for Russian food and fertilisers; enhancement of trade, economic, cultural, educational, scientific, and security cooperation; Africa potentially joining the International North–South Transport Corridor; Russia’s participation in African infrastructure projects; Russia-Africa Partnership Forum Action Plan to 2026 — these testify to the quantifiable outcome.
Enter Niger. The most recent developments in Niger underscore the leitmotif of the Russia-Africa summit. Russia’s prognosis of the African crisis stands vindicated — the continuing ravages of Western imperialism. This is evident from the reports of Russian flags seen at demonstrations in Niamey, Niger’s capital.
ECOWAS Lacks Capacity to Intervene for West
The rebels who seized power lost no time to denounce Niger’s military-technical cooperation agreements with France, which has been followed up with the demand that France withdraw its troops within 30 days. On its part, France has spoken ‘‘firmly and resolutely’’ in favour of foreign military intervention “to suppress the coup attempt”.
The French authorities made it clear that they have no plan to withdraw their armed contingent of 1500 people who are in Niger “at the request of the legitimate authorities of the country on the basis of signed agreements”.
France’s stance comes as no surprise – Paris does not want to lose its position in Sahel region and the cheap source of resources, especially uranium. But France miscalculated that the coup didn’t enjoy the support of the Nigerien military or had a social base, and all that was needed to roll it back would be a limited demonstration of force that would compel the elite presidential guard to begin direct negotiations with France.
France and the US coordinate their actions with the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS]. The ECOWAS initially did some sabre-rattling but has piped down. Its deadline for intervention has passed. The ECOWAS simply does not have a mechanism for the rapid gathering of troops and the coordination of hostilities, and its powerhouse Nigeria has its hands full tackling internal security.
The Nigerian public opinion feels wary about a blowback — Niger is a large country and has a 1500km long porous border with Nigeria. An unspoken truth is, Nigeria is hardly interested in increasing the French military presence in Niger or on being on the same side with France, which is extremely unpopular throughout the Sahel.
Coup’s Popular Support Blindsides West
The mother of all surprises is that the military coup enjoys a groundswell of popular support. Under the circumstances, the strong likelihood is that the French troops may be forced to leave Niger, its former colony. Niger is a victim of neo-colonial exploitation. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, which is, ironically, a spillover from the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 spearheaded by none other than France into the Sahel region, France ruthlessly exploited Niger’s mineral resources.
A noted Nigerian poet and literary critic Professor Osundare wrote last week:
‘‘Probe the cause, course, and symptoms of the present resurgence of military coups in West Africa. Find a cure for this pandemic. More important, find a cure for the plague of political and socio-economic injustices responsible for the inevitability of its recurrence. Remember the present brutish anarchy in Libya and the countless repercussions of the destabilisation of that once blooming country for the West African region.’’
The only regional state that can afford effective military intervention in Niger is Algeria. But Algeria has neither any experience in conducting such operations on a regional scale nor has any intention to depart from its consistent policy of non-interference in the internal politics of a sovereign country.
Algeria has warned against any external military intervention in Niger. ‘‘Flaunting military intervention in Niger is a direct threat to Algeria, and we completely and categorically reject it… Problems should be solved peacefully,” Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune said.
Trend of Multipolarity Emboldens African Nations
At its core, without doubt, the coup in Niger Republic narrows down to a struggle between Nigeriens and the colonial powers. To be sure, the growing trend of multipolarity in the world order emboldens African nations to shake off neo-colonialism. This is one thing. On the other hand, the big powers are being compelled to negotiate rather than dictate.
Interestingly, Washington has been relatively restrained. President Biden’s espousal of ‘’values’’ fell far short of the diktat on ‘‘rules-based order’’. Although America reportedly has three military bases in Niger. In the multipolar setting, African nations are gaining space to negotiate. Russia’s pro-activism will spur this process. China also has economic stakes in Niger.
Notably, the coup leader Abdurahman Tchiani is on record as saying “the French have no objective reasons to leave Niger,” signaling that a fair and equitable relationship is possible. Russia has been cautious that the key task at the moment is “to prevent further degradation of the situation in the country”. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, ‘‘We consider it an urgent task to organise a national dialogue to restore civil peace, ensure law and order… we believe that the threat of the use of force against a sovereign state will not contribute to defusing tensions and resolving the situation in the country,” .
Clearly, Niamey will not succumb to pressure from outsiders. “Niger’s armed forces and all our defence and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” a junta representative said in a statement. A delegation from Niamey went to Mali asking for Russian-affiliated Wagner fighters to join the fight in the event of a Western-backed intervention.
Situation in Sahel Escalating
An early resolution of the crisis around Niger is not to be expected. Niger is a key state in the fight against the jihadi network and is linked strategically and structurally to neighboring Mali. The situation in the Sahel region is escalating. This has profound implications for the crisis of statehood in West Africa as a whole.
American exceptionalism is not a universal panacea for existing ills. The Pentagon helped train at least one of the coup leaders in Niger — and those in Mali and Burkina Faso, which have promised to come to Niger’s defense.
Yet, speaking from Niamey on Monday, the visiting U.S. acting deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland lamented that the coup leaders refused to allow her to meet with the ousted president Mohamed Bazoum and were unreceptive to US calls to return the country to civilian rule. Nuland’s mission aimed at dissuading the coup leaders from engaging with the Wagner group, but she was unsure of success. Nuland was not granted a meeting with General Tchiani.
M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. Views are personal.