Within days of the military coup in Niger on 26 July, the president of Nigeria, Bolá Ahmed Tinubú, threatened war if his ‘brother’ wasn’t restored to power. Mohamed Bazoum wasn’t restored and Tinubú didn’t invade, though he did cut off his country’s electricity supply to Niger. He also closed the thousand-mile border between the two countries to commercial traffic. Niger is a vast, landlocked country, of which only 15 per cent is arable, and it depends disproportionately on its coastal neighbour. Nigeria is not only ‘the primary consumer and source of demand for livestock from Niger’, according to USAID, but trade with Nigeria ‘is critical for Niger to stabilise prices and supplies’.
In invoking the possibility of war, Tinubú claimed to be speaking on behalf of all fifteen members of the Economic Community of West African States, which has become concerned about the stability of the bloc following a series of military coups. Guinea and Mali fell in 2021, followed last year by two successive coups in Burkina Faso. The new military governments have promised to come to Niger’s aid. On 16 September, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter establishing their own tripartite ‘Alliance of Sahel States’. According to the charter, ‘any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracted parties will be considered an aggression against the other parties.’ But there isn’t going to be a war, or at least not the Ecowas invasion of Niger that Tinubú was talking up in August. For one thing, it would have to be fought almost exclusively by Nigeria itself, which has just over half the region’s population and just under half its GDP. At 230,000 active personnel, including paramilitaries, the Nigerian army is the fourth largest on the continent after Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, though as the Economist put it, ‘Nigeria’s army is mighty on paper. But many of its soldiers are “ghosts” who exist only on the payroll, and much of its equipment is stolen and sold to insurgents.’ There are also accusations of corruption among senior army officers. A court battle is currently being waged over the extensive property portfolio of the late Major-General Abdullahi Iyanda Muraina, allegedly bought with army funds.
The army was quick to repudiate the Economist’s ‘vile report’ but is unable to explain why, given its size and funding, its soldiers have failed to suppress the long-running Islamic insurgency in Nigeria’s north-east, to say nothing of the bandits, kidnappers, secessionists and herders who drive their cattle south, devastating farmland on the way. Parts of the country have been rendered ungovernable. To go to war with Niger, Tinubú would also have needed majority support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which he didn’t secure. That his advisers failed to foresee this tells us something about his entourage.
Northern Nigerians are mostly Muslims and share both religion and a common language, Hausa, with neighbouring Nigeriens. No one living near the colonially defined border recognises it. The Hausa-speaking populations of both countries are as different from Nigeria’s largely Christian south ‘as England is from China’, to quote George Goldie, the administrator who defined the contours of British Nigeria. Most young people in Nigeria regard military rule as an aberration and find it hard to understand why it appears to be popular in other West African states. But in the quarter-century since we swapped khaki for agbada, the percentage of Nigerians living in extreme poverty has only grown, while half the population is under eighteen. Our overpaid political class educates its children in English boarding schools and collectively owns property worth more than £320 million in Dubai – the preferred location for exile should the military ever seize power again. Tinubú’s sabre-rattling at the putschists in Niger is driven in no small part by fears about his own situation.
The Nigerian elections earlier this year were supposed to be the most free and fair since we were allowed to return to the ballot box in the 1990s (a low bar given the precedents). Counting software was supposed to post the results with no delay; we were assured that ‘technical support will fix the machines in the unlikely event of any glitches.’ There were no reported anomalies in the elections to the National Assembly, but the presidential result was mired in controversy. Tinubú is rumoured to have ‘settled’ the chair of the electoral commission with a backhander, just as he is supposed to have settled the tribunal judges who recently ruled that his election was legitimate. Tinubú once gloated that he was too rich to dabble in impropriety. He is a political maverick: doubts were raised as to whether, as he claimed, he was born in Lagos and graduated from Chicago State University. The most we know about his obscure past is that he was indicted in the US in 1993 on charges of narcotics trafficking and money laundering, for which he was fined $460,000. In Nigeria he is known as ‘the godfather’.
Africa has the youngest populations and some of the oldest leaders in the world. Many have been in power for decades. Gabon was ruled by the Bongo dynasty for more than half a century before the military coup in August. Roughly half the population is under 22. Faure Gnassingbé inherited the presidency of Togo in 2005 following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had ruled for 38 years. Acquiescing to the post-Cold War enthusiasm for ‘multi-party’ democracies, he indicated that he would only serve two five-year terms. In 2019 he had a change of heart and pushed through a constitutional amendment allowing him another ten years in office. He may well continue as president for life: he’s only 57, a ‘small boy’ compared to 65-year-old Paul Kagame of Rwanda (23 years in office), 79-year-old Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (26 years in office), 81-year-old Teodor0 Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (44 years in office) and 90-year-old Paul Biya of Cameroon (41 years in office). Kagame and Biya have recently reshuffled their top brass. They are all looking anxiously over their shoulders at the military.
The 81-year-old president of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, assumed power in 2010 but argued that a series of constitutional amendments passed in 2016 had effectively ‘reset his term count to zero’ and that he was therefore eligible to stand for another two five-year terms. In 1999 Ouattara claimed that an ‘African renaissance is unfolding before our eyes … Most countries, through most of their years of independence, have been ruled by autocratic leaders – autocratic because, whether enlightened or not, they stood above the law.’ He won the election in 2020 by 94 per cent with a turnout of just over half the electorate; voting was marred by violence. The EU expressed ‘deep concerns about the tensions, provocations and incitement to hatred that have prevailed and continue to persist in the country around this election’. Following the vote, Emmanuel Macron chose to remain neutral. When asked why Ouattara’s case was different from that of Alpha Condé in Guinea, whom he had criticised for changing the constitution to keep himself in power, Macron replied: ‘France does not have to give lessons.’
Côte d’Ivoire is the last bastion of French hegemony in the region and Ouattara one of France’s few remaining allies in the events unfolding in its former colonies. (Ibrahim Traoré, the 35-year-old military leader in Burkina Faso, has argued that the resistance to French presence in the region is continuous with the anti-slavery struggle that preceded colonialism.) Françafrique was united by the colonial currency, the CFA franc, introduced in 1945. As Michel Debré, the French prime minister, said in 1960, ‘independence is granted on condition that the state undertakes, once independent, to respect the co-operation agreements signed previously. Two systems come into effect simultaneously: independence and co-operation agreements. One does not go without the other.’ Ouattara, an economist and former deputy managing director of the IMF, was ‘assisted’ to power by French troops and has felt obliged to defend the CFA franc. Macron, who claims to belong to ‘a generation that doesn’t tell Africans what to do’ and for whom colonialism was ‘a crime against humanity’, insisted at first that the CFA franc was a ‘non-issue’. Then, in December 2019, he and Ouattara unexpectedly announced that the CFA franc would be replaced by a new currency to be called the eco. The only real concession from France – apart from the change of name – is scrapping the requirement that member countries must hold 50 per cent of their hard reserves in the Banque de France.
In a speech to the French diplomatic corps in August, Macron sneered at the ‘baroque alliance between self-proclaimed pan-Africans’ on the one hand, and Russian and Chinese ‘neo-imperialists’ on the other, both of whom, he claimed, were stirring up old arguments over sovereignty and colonial exploitation for their own ends. According to Macron, France is only in the Sahel ‘because there is a terrorist threat and sovereign states asked us to help’: to believe otherwise was to live in a ‘world gone mad’. Terrorist activity is a huge problem in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Attacks in the first half of this year, largely under the aegis of Islamic State Sahel Province, killed almost five thousand people and helped bring the number of displaced to more than six million. French troops pulled out of Mali in 2022 and Burkina Faso earlier this year. That leaves Niger, where the new government has asked Macron to withdraw the French military and recall his ambassador. Macron at first resisted, on the grounds that he doesn’t recognise the military regime, but France began withdrawing its troops at the beginning of October.
Another reason might be uranium. The French government has gone to great pains to demonstrate that Niger isn’t its only supplier. Kazakhstan, Canada and Namibia are all bigger producers and, over the last decade, France has purchased more from Kazakhstan than Niger. The price at which France acquires Nigerien uranium is set between the extractor Orano – 90 per cent owned by the French state – and Niger’s government, and for a long time has been considerably lower than its global market value: there have been suggestions that France is only paying an eighth of what it’s worth. Orano’s turnover in 2021 was €4.7 billion; the Nigerien government’s total expenditure in 2022, signed off by President Barzoum, was €4.4 billion. Nigeriens can count. In Kazakhstan and Canada, where Orano is also mining uranium, GDP per capita is around $10,000 and $52,000 respectively. In Niger it’s $532.
The man now running Niger is Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, as the junta calls itself. He has announced that France must pay a fair price for Nigerien uranium. Similar increases might soon be seen in export arrangements across Françafrique. But the idea that these new regimes represent a fundamental shift in governance – a notion taking root among young West Africans – is misguided. Tchiani, who has promised to hand over power in three years, was a former head of the presidential guard who feared he was about to be retired. General Brice Oligui Nguéma, the new president of Gabon, was close to Bongo père and was latterly head of the Republican Guard under Bongo fils but, like Tchiani, was growing worried that he might be hung out to dry. Ali Bongo was released from house arrest by the new military regime a week after he was deposed and is apparently free to travel to France, where he can retire to his family properties, worth an estimated €85 million; his successor is thought to have bought a range of properties in the US.
The only figure who seems willing to take on the old order is Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso. At the second Russia-Africa Summit, held in St Petersburg in July, he told African leaders to ‘stop behaving like puppets who dance every time the imperialists pull the strings’. He likened the relationship with France to one of slavery:
For more than eight years we’ve been confronted with the most barbaric, the most violent form of imperialist neocolonialism. Slavery continues to impose itself on us. Our predecessors taught us one thing: a slave who cannot assume his own revolt does not deserve to be pitied. We do not feel sorry for ourselves, we do not ask anyone to feel sorry for us. The people of Burkina Faso have decided to fight, to fight against terrorism, in order to relaunch their development.
Traoré has been compared to his predecessor Thomas Sankara. At a dinner with François Mitterrand in 1986, Sankara reproached Mitterrand for consorting with ‘bandits such as Jonas Savimbi’, the rebel leader in Angola in cahoots with South Africa, and ‘killers’ such as Pik Botha, then foreign minister of the apartheid state. Mitterrand, for his part, chided Sankara for his ‘clear-cut opinions’: a ‘mark of his youth’. Many Burkinabès are convinced that France had a hand in Sankara’s assassination. ‘France assassine!’ was one of the chants in Ouagadougou after the news of his death broke. In 2021 the French authorities handed over some – but not all – of the secret service documents pertaining to Sankara’s murder to the Burkinabè authorities, but few Burkinabès will be content with the version of events France has offered.
Traoré has promised to relinquish power after two years but may not last that long. He has already survived two coup plots. His infatuation with Russia suggests that the old order might be replaced with something not much better. ‘We feel like family,’ he said at the summit. Burkina Faso and Russia, he claimed in a feat of revolutionary imagination, ‘share the same history in the sense that we are the forgotten peoples of the world’. Twinned in adversity, ‘we are here to talk about the future of our peoples, about what is going to happen tomorrow, about this free world to which we aspire, this world without interference in our internal affairs.’ Traoré has remained silent on Putin’s ‘special military operation’. Analysts suggest that he may have to enlist the Wagner Group in his fight against Islamic fundamentalists, as Mali and reportedly Niger have already done. In Central African Republic, where Wagner has been operating since 2018, the group controls a gold mine capable of producing ‘upwards of $1 billion’. An eyewitness who was forced to flee the town of Bambari under fire from Wagner in early 2021 gave the following account: ‘They were shooting us from the ground, and planes fired from the sky … To say “killing” is an understatement. It was total carnage. Like Armageddon.’
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