In a development that offers implications that are more profound than may be realized casually, France last week was forced to cut military and diplomatic ties with its former colony and desert country of Niger. This followed a prolonged defiance of France by the new military regime in Niger over the former’s refusal to recognise them, following their seizure of political power from a democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, 2023. Following the refusal of France to recognize them, the Niger military regime had asked the French Ambassador Sylvain Itte, to leave along with 1500 French military officers.
Much as a coup detat remains notionally unacceptable – being a forcible imposition of parochial elements and interests in government, certain circumstances where the end justifies the means have come to avail certain coup ventures some modicum of acceptability. It is in this context that the Niger coup faces mixed reactions of being welcome and otherwise.
As is widely known, the Niger coup was the culmination of the cry for freedom by that country, just as it is in all of the former French colonies. The regime’s demand for the withdrawal of French troops is significant, as the latter are seen as constituting the anti-thesis of the essence of the Niger coup exercise. Beyond any conjecture, the French military officers who are routinely stationed in virtually all of its former colonies have been sources of significant friction between France and the host countries where such alien soldiers are seen as symbols of continuous French domination. The foregoing largely explains the aversion of the Niger coupists for French military presence in their country.
Meanwhile the two month standoff between these two countries – former colony and its colonial master as it were, had generated significant political tension on the African continent given the drama associated with it. At the time of the Niger coup, there were wide spread fears that the ECOWAS whose chairman was Nigeria’s newly elected President Bola Ahmed Tinubu would act under prodding by France to embark on a proxy war against Niger, in line with the usual French practice of corralling the leadership of its former colonies – often with military option, to sack any unwanted regime among these nations. ECOWAS had even mobilized to storm Niger, before public outcry – mostly by Nigerians, forced Tinubu to backpedal.
By choosing to eat the humble pie and concede defeat in the standoff with Niger, France may not only have accepted to be humiliated for now. Hence, as the lessons of history teach, the military regime in Niger needs to see this ‘victory’ as a pyrrhic one, as France will come back in a different form as a backlash to lay claim to Niger Republic which along with other Francophone countries, whom it considers as its booty, and with portends that are yet to manifest.
The immediate forms of a backlash can be a France sponsored de-escalation of the Sahel counter terrorism fight which may destabilize the regime given its presently inchoate state. The backlash can also be the withdrawal of critical support by the French who may recreate the Guinea scenario of 1958, when that country declined to join the French Fifth Republic. That was when in response to the decline by Guinea to join the band wagon dispensation of that dubious hegemonic contraption by General Charles de Gaulle, then leader of France. The colonialist descended on Guinea and decommissioned much of the projects it had installed in that country. Hospitals, schools and other critical infrastructure which were already operational in Guinea, were destroyed on the orders of Paris. There is therefore for now, no reason to expect France not be considering punitive measures for the Niger regime for humiliating it former colonial master. This is especial so as the series of coups in Francophone Africa signpost the failure of the 2017 political promise by French leader to promote a doctrine of ‘Partnership of Equals’ in its relationship with its ex-colonies.
For many reasons the Niger-France faceoff and the outcome of a tactical withdrawal by France qualifies as a turning point in both France Africa relations especially in the context of post-colonial circumstances. Having succeeded so far in diluting French influence of their nation the next step for the junta is to win the hearts of the ordinary people by returning to genuine democratic rule. It is in that context that the regime change in Niger can be a blessing for it and the fortunes of Francophone, as it will imply a moral dilemma for France.
This factor was amply accentuated by the assurances of military solidarity from at least Mali and Burkina Faso – two other former Francophone countries which had earlier successfully executed their own military takeover of governance. A latter successful coup in Gabon – another Francophone country on August 30 2023, in the course of declaration of suspicion ridden results of general elections in that country, further stretched the moral dilemma for France in its uneasy relations with its former colonies in Africa.
With the foregoing as a backdrop, let it be reiterated that the military junta in Niger needs to seek the path of least resistance to survival for themselves and their dear country. And that is the speedy restoration of democratic rule. Taking over of government is more complicated than chasing allegedly corrupt civilian politicians out of office. Governance has as its essence the challenge addressing and solving the problems of society. But just as you cannot shave a man in his absence, so an effective government must be on the same page with the governed. It is in this context that democracy trumps any other form of government including military juntas.
Historically France was a major and ruthless colonial power as it mustered at its colonial peak, as many as 72 colonies across the world out of which 20 were at one time of the other in Africa. For Niger as a country, which has recently succeeded in shaking off some aspects of French domination by the withdrawal of the colonial master, this is the dawn of a new era.
Let real people power take over in Niger at this stage, as the nation serves as a model for other Francophone African countries.