Niger coup brings France’s complicated relationship with its former colonies into the spotlight

The coup in Niger is the latest in a series of military takeovers in West Africa that have toppled governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. The ensuing political upheaval has caused tensions throughout the region and beyond – most notably with former colonial power France. FRANCE 24 speaks to regional expert Gilles Yabi, founder and CEO of West African think tank WATHI, to put the fallout in context.

One week since a military coup ousted Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, the situation remains uncertain. Rising tensions between protesters supporting the junta and those supporting the deposed president caused France to begin evacuating its citizens on August 1. 

Niger is the fourth West African country in three years to have its government overturned by the military. Political upheaval in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger has taken place against a backdrop of widespread poverty. Along their shared borders, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger also face an acute security threat from encroaching jihadi terrorist groups.    

France has a long history in West Africa, where it was a colonial power until 1960. Since independence, France has maintained trade relations and a military presence in the region, which have caused long-term tensions that now seem to be reaching new heights.

French troops withdrew from Mali in 2022 and Burkina Faso in 2023 following military coups. New leadership in Niger could lead to another withdrawal from a country France saw as a key ally in the Sahel.  

FRANCE 24 spoke to Gilles Yabi, founder and CEO of West African think tank WATHI, to better understand the reasons behind the military coups, and why they have received such strong support among some local populations.  

In Niger – as in Burkina Faso and Mali – protesters have taken to the streets to show their support for the military coup that has removed elected President Mohamed Bazoum from power. Is this a rejection of the democratic process? 

The motivations of the protesters are diverse. We know that in Niamey [Niger’s capital city] there is significant opposition to Bazoum, and probably even more against his party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), which has been in power for 12 years. 

Some have joined protests to show their opposition, rather than out of support for the idea of a military coup. Others are probably genuinely convinced that a military takeover is beneficial for the country. We have to note as well that other Nigeriens have protested in support of the president, but were quickly dispersed by security forces

Niger security forces prepare to disperse demonstrators gathered outside the French embassy in Niamey on July 30, 2023. © Reuters stringer

It is questionable whether there is a criticism of democracy, because in order to criticise a system that system must have been actually implemented. Otherwise, it’s the failure to apply the concept, rather than the concept itself that poses a problem. 

All the West African constitutions are democratic, but we know that in reality they don’t reflect real political practice. There are legitimate criticisms over lack of credible elections, use of legal procedures to remove opposition, the scale of corruption and wealth gaps. But they don’t call into question the basic principle of democracy, which is to have governments chosen by the people – however that may be – who work for the people. 

The heavy price we are paying today is, in my opinion, a failure to build solid states with effective institutions since independence [from French colonial rule].  

Failures of governance serve as a justification for the military to seize power, and that belief is echoed among some members of the public. When you have a country on the verge of security collapse under a democratic government – as was the case in Burkina Faso – you can see why a significant part of the public support the military, which promised to restore security. 

But soldiers are not trained to manage countries and there is no guarantee that they will be better representatives of people’s interests than an elected citizen. The reality is that the military takes power by force, which it is supposed to be using to defend the country’s territory. 

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has announced harsh sanctions against the leaders of the coup in Niger, but Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso – all ECOWAS members – have refused to implement them and have warned against any military intervention. Are we seeing an ideological conflict emerge between two West African blocks? 

There is a fragmentation in West Africa that threatens regional cohesion. On one side, there are those who want a fundamental change in national politics, even if that comes about through military takeover. Others think that, even if civil and democratic governance is dysfunctional, the military is not the solution.  

In the background of this ideological conflict, there is also the relationship between West African countries and the rest of the world, especially France. 

What is the best way to change the relationship with a former colonial power? To put it simply, there are advocates for both the soft and hard method.  

The first group thinks it is essential to take into account the geopolitical and economic environment in order to defend African interests, increase autonomy and develop strong civil and military institutions.  

The second wants to see a radical change in relations with France, which would begin with the departure of all French forces.   

In Niger there are not only French forces, but American and European soldiers as well. We don’t yet know what the coup leaders’ position is towards these military groups.  

Troops from the joint France-Niger military operation Almahaou patrol the Tillaberi region of western Niger – a regular target for jihadist attacks – on November 6, 2021.
Troops from the joint France-Niger military operation Almahaou patrol the Tillaberi region of western Niger – a regular target for jihadist attacks – on November 6, 2021. © Boureima Hama, AFP

In Mali, Burkina Faso and now Niger, resentment towards France seems to be coming to a boiling point. What are the main reasons for this?   

First of all, I think we need to stop pretending that the effects of colonisation are no longer having an impact. Just because the French president wasn’t born in the colonial era doesn’t mean that the political and economic domination of that time hasn’t continued to this day. History is not made up of a series of watertight periods that have nothing to do with each other.

France must be clear and acknowledge that it has strategic interests in West Africa. These have certainly diminished over time, but that doesn’t change the fact that local populations feel wronged by formal and informal agreements [with France] that, they think, must be reviewed.  

In this respect, Niger is a symbolic case. It’s a country where the population is mostly poor, with little access to electricity outside large towns even though, for decades, it has been providing uranium to French nuclear power stations.

Read more Does the coup in Niger threaten nuclear power plants in France?

It is not enough [for France] to point out that this provision has decreased [over time] as a way to dismiss any mention of the longstanding inequalities in the relationship.

Militarily, France’s argument that it maintains a presence solely to help countries in West Africa has also largely been rejected. Since independence, France has maintained large permanent army bases in many of its former colonies, but this presence is part of a strategy for political influence.   

There is nothing wrong with France defending its interests – all large and medium powers do so – but it must recognise that it has to do so with discussion and negotiation to find a mutually beneficial agreement. And to withdraw that presence when asked to do so.  

There is the addition of political figures in France making comments that are perceived as condescending about Africa and Africans. It gives the impression that political authorities think they can disregard diplomatic sensitivity when dealing with African countries.

At the same time, we have to recognise that France is an easy target at the moment. It is not responsible for all of Niger’s problems. In this respect, dedicating too much time and energy to accusing France is counterproductive.

France has a role to play [in West Africa], along with other partners such as China, the US, India or Russia.  

West Africa must turn its back on ideological quarrels and focus on its important internal projects, which are education, the economy and strengthening our institutions. By solidifying our own foundations, we will be able to better defend our own interests in the long term in a world where power imbalances are decisive. 

This article was adapted from the original in French.

Leave a Comment