Friday, September 1, 2023 2:41 pm
Will Anger at the West Entrench a New Authoritarian Order?
By Ebenezer Obadare
After a group of senior military officers overthrew Niger’s democratically elected president in July, the embattled (but then still alive) Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin likened the coup to a second independence for the West African country. “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers,” he said in a voice message posted to Telegram. “With colonizers who are trying to foist their rules of life on [Nigeriens] and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Prigozhin’s take on the putsch contrasted sharply with that of most African leaders, North American and European governments, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States, all of which harshly condemned the military takeover. But the Wagner mercenary chief was not alone in portraying Western countries—and especially France—as having conspired to keep Africa in a permanent state of subordination. Such is the prevailing view in Niger, which was ruled by France until 1960 and where France stationed a large contingent of counterterrorism forces as part of a deal with the previous government. The view is also widespread in ex-French colonies across the Sahel, where many people have grown disillusioned with civilian governments they see as subservient to France and therefore welcome military rulers as a necessary corrective.
This perspective has two complementary facets, one critical of France and the West and one welcoming of Russia, which has positioned itself as an adversary of the West and an ally of formerly colonized African countries. Both strains are gaining ground in the Sahel, manifested in Niger’s coup as well as half a dozen others that preceded it in the region. These sentiments are rooted in righteous anger at France’s continued sway over its former colonies and its counterterrorism policies in the Sahel, which have failed to deter the spread of jihadi movements across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, in particular. France had partnered with the governments of each of these countries to fight terrorists before they were overthrown.
But such attitudes are not as deeply felt as they might appear at first glance: elites and ordinary people alike across the Sahel remain attracted to the West—to its ideas, its economic largess, and its political orbit. Not only do thousands of young people vote with their feet each year by migrating to Western countries but the region’s intellectual and political elite—many of whom were educated in Western universities—also remain fixated on the West, even if a growing number of them have convinced themselves it is the root of their problems. All this suggests that although some level of anti-Western and pro-Russian feelings will likely endure—a convenient outlet for rage against political and economic stagnation—the most potent manifestations of this sentiment could eventually fade, giving France and other Western countries an opportunity to repair their standing in West Africa with a less heavy-handed approach to the region.
FRANCE, GET OUT!
Niger’s coup, which saw President Mohamed Bazoum replaced by a junta led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, was the latest in a series of military assaults on constitutionally elected governments in West Africa. The sixth in just the past two years, it shares many of the features of previous military takeovers in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Mali, including the insistence of its leaders that they were acting out of patriotic duty to save their country from the ravages of insecurity, corruption, and economic malaise.
Another similarity concerns the roles of France and Russia. As with the previous putsches, this one featured the spectacle of young people trampling French flags and burning French President Emmanuel Macron in effigy while wrapping themselves in Russian flags and waving posters bearing the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The importance of these symbolic acts has perhaps been overstated, but they are clearly a reflection of real and growing animosity toward Paris across the former French colonies of West Africa. “France dégage!”—loosely translated as “France, get out!”—is the mood in much of the region. Dozens of anti-French rallies have been organized in recent years, especially in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Senegal. Angry demonstrators have confronted French army convoys in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger; torched the perimeter of the French embassy in Burkina Faso and Niger; and defaced or destroyed monuments seen as celebrating France’s colonial past in Cameroon.
The impetus for these protests has differed from place to place. In Burkina Faso and Niger, much of the anger stemmed from the perceived coziness between the previous civilian governments and the French, whereas in Cameroon, frustration stemmed from French criticism of the government and the mishandling of a local conflict. Across much of the Sahel, the perception that French troops not only failed to curb Islamist insurgencies but also fueled their spread has further poisoned the well.
But beneath these specific grievances are resentments of an older vintage. Although the majority of West African and Sahelian countries gained their independence in the 1960s, France continues to wield substantial political and economic influence in its former colonies. It maintains agreeable ties with ruling families and elites, often in direct conflict with the popular desire for change. And in the minds of many, Paris continues to call the shots, manipulating the political and economic environment to favor elites who seem to have a greater affinity for France than for the citizens of their own countries. Whether or not this perception is founded, France has not done itself any favors by repeatedly intervening militarily in the region. Between 1962 and 1995, France launched 19 separate military interventions in Africa; since then, it has deployed troops on multiple occasions, including for major operations in the Central African Republic and Mali. And although Paris defends such missions as necessary to guard its interests or protect legitimate governments, Africans tend to see French military actions as imperialism by another name.
Even where it has not become embroiled in conflicts, France has faced criticism for its sprawling network of military bases across Africa. Such installations have become unwanted reminders of treaties of military cooperation that were either signed in secret or are thought to have committed their African signatories to unfavorable political and economic terms. That Macron sought to calm anti-French feeling by promising in March to drastically reduce France’s military presence in Africa speaks to the toxicity of these bases.
Other symbols of France’s enduring influence that rankle West Africans are the continued use of the CFA franc—the regional currency, a colonial holdover pegged to the euro—and the status of French as the official language in most former French colonies. When in July Mali dropped French as its official language—demoting it to a “working language” and replacing it with 13 local languages—the largely symbolic move was hailed in some quarters as a long overdue nod to national identity.
But if the rise of anti-French sentiment has much to do with Paris’s past and present meddling in Africa, it must also be viewed against the backdrop of broader anti-Western sentiment on the continent. Although such feelings are similarly rooted in the colonial past, their recent ascendance can be traced in part to the rise of the discourse of “decoloniality” among the African intellectual and, to some degree, policymaking elite.
Skeptical, if not disdainful, of the original decolonization movement that powered African political independence, this school of thought posits that formerly colonized countries remain in thrall to Western epistemologies and ideas—the upshot of which is that notionally independent African countries in fact have little or no agency. For decolonial scholars, the only solution is for ex-colonies to renounce Western philosophies and frameworks in favor of supposedly indigenous ones. For all its glaring incoherence, decolonial discourse has captured the imagination of not just the African academy (as attested to by the sheer volume of books, journal articles, and conference presentations purporting to “decolonize” one thing or the other) but also the real world of African policymaking, international aid, and diplomacy—all of which have been targets of similar decolonization efforts.
Paradoxically, by seeking to purge Africa of Western ideas, decolonial discourse has fueled an African fixation with the West, albeit a negative one. It has promoted a view of the West as essentially toxic, leading to an absurd rejection of supposedly Western ideas, such as democracy and human rights, and a reflexive embrace of Russia and China simply because they are seen as adversaries of the West. Moscow, now in its second coming as Africa’s improbable savior, is the unlikely beneficiary of this historical tunnel vision that celebrates Russia’s material and moral support for African nationalist and independence movements but somehow neglects its own identity as a colonial power.
CAN’T QUIT THE WEST
As pervasive and politically salient as it is, anti-Western sentiment may not actually run that deep. The behavior of African elites suggests that resentment toward the West is often more tactical than genuinely felt, a useful tool for rallying public support but not an indication of any real desire to forgo the benefits of good relations with Europe and North America. Notwithstanding the protestations of decolonial scholars, research and debate within the African academy continue to be shaped by ideas, philosophies, frameworks, and methodologies of Western ancestry. And African universities, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations continue to depend on Western sources for financial support. In other words, the African academy needs its imagined antagonist to survive.
Moreover, African intellectuals continue to flock to universities in the West. An estimated 20,000 African academics and researchers relocate to Western countries every year—an implicit acknowledgment of the superior conditions and pay at European and North American universities and of the better research and professional opportunities they offer. Some of these scholars have returned home to Africa to join the ranks of the economic and political elite (although a growing number of them have elected to remain in the West), and even those who find it expedient to denounce the West rarely want to give up the perks of travel and business relationships in Western countries.
As it is with African intellectuals, so it is with the political elite: they boast about sending their children to expensive educational institutions across Western countries, visit hospitals in top Western countries, and preside over the affairs of countries that rely on substantial Western aid to meet basic needs. Foreign aid is thought to account for a quarter of Niger’s spending, and the European Union says only 62 percent of the country’s annual budget is funded domestically.
Poor Africans continue to emigrate to the West in large numbers as well, often taking enormous risks to do so. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 2,000 migrants from Africa perished or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2022. A more potent—and tragic—symbol of the continuing appeal of the West is hard to imagine.
The surge in anti-French and anti-Western sentiment sweeping Africa is certainly real, reflecting a pervasive sense of powerlessness that lingers even 60 years after most countries achieved their independence. But beneath it lurk more ambivalent attitudes and even an enduring attraction to the West. This suggests that Western countries could take ameliorative measures to improve their standing in the region. An earnest disavowal of the kind of realpolitik that has driven France and other Western countries to embrace a great many dictators would be a good place to start. In the long run, however, it will be up to African countries to recognize that anti-Western sentiment, no matter how heartfelt, can never be a substitute for honest introspection about the reasons for Africa’s continued struggles—and for taking responsibility for the continent’s development.
*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/niger/real-meaning-nigers-coup