The recent coup in Niger that toppled the democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum has highlighted a disturbing trend that has been emerging in several West African countries: the resurgence of unconstitutional means to bring about regime change. In the last three years, there have been military takeovers in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Guinea.
The coup by the presidential elite force in Niger has been condemned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Western nations, notably France, which has considerable interests there. Sanctions are being imposed by Western and African countries, including Nigeria, to force the coup leaders to hand power back to the president.
Interestingly, neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, who have experienced coups themselves in recent years, are fully backing the coup leader Abdourahamane Tchiani as are the people of Niger, who were seen applauding the coup leaders and even held a protest in support of them. This is similar to what happened in Burkina Faso, when coup leaders promising radical change were welcomed and civilians were seen kissing the hands of soldiers loyal to coup leader Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, who they believed would be much more effective than the ousted president in dealing with violent Islamic insurgents in the country. In Guinea, the military takeover was viewed positively by citizens who were frustrated by President Alpha Cond’s scrapping of the two-term presidential limit, which allowed him to run for a third term in 2020.
Meanwhile, foreign private military and security companies, including the controversial Russia-based Wagner Group, are taking advantage of instability and insecurity in countries such as Niger and Mali. In 2019, the United Nations warned of a “surge in mercenaries” in West Africa who are not only fighting wars but also illegally exploiting natural resources in countries experiencing organised crime and violent extremism.
While the coup in Niger is viewed by most as a threat to democracy, could it be that it was a rebellion against French neocolonialism? Niger is part of the 14 West African countries that form what is known as the Franc Zone. These countries might have achieved political independence but are still economically enslaved thanks to a colonial pact that not only determines how these countries spend their own money, but also ensures that France remains the main beneficiary of these countries’ natural resources.
Former French colonies in West Africa are even today joined at the hip with their former coloniser through the pact that forces these countries to deposit as much as 50 per cent of their foreign reserves into the French treasury. This money is held “in trust” by the French government to guarantee what is known as the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) franc currency used in these countries. In essence, Paris determines economic policies for these countries – with France remaining the main beneficiary of these policies.
The pact ensures that the French government or French companies receive priority when it comes to buying or investing in the natural resources of these countries. (Niger is one of the largest suppliers of uranium, but remains one of the poorest countries in the world.) French companies doing business in the CFA zone also benefit from emergency credit and tax cuts. In addition, France has the exclusive right to supply these countries with military equipment and to militarily intervene in them – which explains why French troops are always the first on the ground when a Francophone African country erupts into conflict or political turmoil.
In essence, Paris determines economic policies for these countries – with France remaining the main beneficiary of these policies.
France’s leading foreign policy principle in Africa has always been that its former colonies should continue to serve France’s interests even after they attained independence; this principle governs the way France deals with African countries to this day. French leaders maintain close ties with African leaders; in fact, it is quite common to see a newly elected French president making a mandatory trip to one of France’s former African colonies within a few days of assuming office. French military bases in countries such Djibouti and Gabon also allow France to have a visible presence on the ground.
Furthermore, the aid that France provides to African countries is spent not so much on development programmes, but on subsidising friendly governments’ armies. It is also given on the condition that recipient countries spend most of it on contracts with French companies.
At a talk given at King’s College, former Malian prime minister Moussa Mara pointed out that the CFA franc is deeply unpopular in countries where it is used and that the current arrangement undermines Franc Zone countries’ sovereignty, especially regarding fiscal policy. While the arrangement is good for a handful of foreign investors wary of inflation and currency risks, it has made life terribly expensive for ordinary citizens.
Any African leader who has threatened to defy the pact finds himself either ousted in a coup or assassinated. France, in particular, decides which coups are acceptable and which aren’t. For example, when Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio, decided to use Togo’s own currency and to discontinue the CFA franc, he was assassinated by an army sergeant allegedly on the orders of the French government. When Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, attempted to do the same, he was overthrown in a coup. Yet, few African leaders or governments have spoken out against these actions, perhaps because they know that the consequences of not acquiescing to French whims and demands could jeopardise their own political careers. Although France’s president Emmanuel Macron has said that he is willing to revisit the use of the CFA franc, which could be replaced by another currency, such reforms have yet to be implemented.
A second liberation movement in former French colonies in West Africa might be in order. As long as CFA countries are so tightly tied to France economically (to their own detriment), there will always be unrest and the threat of more coups – and more Russian influence – in these countries.