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It's Complicated in the Sahel
Africa's transition zone between the Sahara and savannah sees dominos tumble as China-Russia amplify Western narratives and slowly replace France-US influence in the region.
Yet another indication that the American unipolar world order is unwinding is the ongoing second Scramble for Africa, where one-by-one, African dominos lean into sympathy with the multipolar alliance led by China-Russia. During this decade, Mali fell in 2021 while Burkina Faso tumbled in 2022:
Political instability has given rise to increasingly repressive regimes that have caused friction between several governments of the Sahel and their international or regional partners. The relationship between Paris and Bamako, for example, sharply declined following back-to-back military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021. Local resentment of France’s brutal colonial history has further exacerbated tensions. After a decade of failed anti-terror and stabilization efforts, France withdrew its forces from Mali in August 2022.
Like Mali, Burkina Faso is engulfed in violence. Its government only controls about 60 percent of the country’s territory, and violence continues to spread. Like in Mali, back-to-back coups in 2022 caused the country’s ties with France to spiral downward. Anti-French sentiment is also deeply entrenched, and protests against Paris are common in Ouagadougou, where the new military leadership asked for the withdrawal of the French ambassador in December 2022. The following month, the Burkinabe government called on France to pull all its forces from the country.
The latest domino to waver is Niger, where on July 26th, an anti-French junta seized power by deposing the pro-Western President Mohamed Bazoum. The next domino may be Senegal, where anti-French riots are increasing in intensity.
During the US “unipolar moment,” the only option for poor peripheral states was how enthusiastically they would obey American diktats. With the advent of Chinese infrastructure investment and Russian military assistance through the Wagner Group, triangulation alternatives became available to budding African strongmen. But the international question should not be exaggerated, local issues and the universal human will to power may be driving this political instability in the Sahel as much as shifting international alliances do.
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Instead of a simple and clear choice between two blocs as in the Cold War, a better way the see the current situation is African nations having a more complicated choice between strict obedience to the West, versus a “non-aligned” status where they can explore closer relations with China-Russia. African dominos that previously leaned towards the West are slipping out of the West’s harem and into a sort of international free agency, leaning, but rarely falling completely horizontal into the China-Russia alliance.
The recent instability in Africa has been mostly confined to the Sahel, a region still largely controlled by its former colonial master, France. “Sahel” signifies “shore” in Arabic, as the metaphor was coined by Africa’s original colonizers. The Sahara desert is the “sea” of sand that the Sahel forms the shoreline to. Since classical times, gold and slaves were shipped north by camel caravans while salt from Saharan mines was delivered to the African savannah on the return trip. Oases in the desert served as islands. Cities in the Sahel function as ports for trade as the shifting sands of the Sahara transition to firm soil.
Today, Niger’s natural resources that are exported north include uranium ore and human refugees. American firms have rights to substantial gold deposits while Chinese oil companies search for natural gas reserves in Niger to be exploited. Paradoxically, powered by its poverty, Niger is also home to the highest birth rate in the world with nearly 47 births per 1,000 inhabitants. In comparison, the US and France are both around 11 per 1000 while South Korea is 5 per 1000. France’s goal is to keep exploiting Niger’s uranium at bargain basement prices while containing its demographic bomb within the Sahel. In contrast, one can imagine Russia’s goal, as a major exporter of uranium, is to create a cartel to drive up its price. A cynic might add that the Kremlin wouldn’t mind destabilizing France by perhaps encouraging those young excess Nigeriens to march towards Europe
The situation is complicated by the planned Trans-Saharan pipeline which if completed would have a capacity to deliver to Europe 30 billion cubic meters (BCM) of natural gas per year. Nord Stream 1 and 2 each had a 55 BCM capacity which totals 110 BCM per year before they were destroyed. Does the US really want African competition for the European natural gas market? Perhaps a touch of instability in Niger is not such a bad thing for American natural gas exporters?
Another cause for instability in the Sahel is the ongoing Islamist insurgency. These insurrections started after the West, led by France, overthrew the recognized government in Libya and its leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Hillary Clinton’s triumphant exclamation, “We came, we saw, he died” should have also included “we armed the Jihadis” since thanks to the Western intervention, Gaddafi’s army’s huge armories fell into Islamist insurgent hands. Since then France, with assistance from the US, has impotently attempted to put the pre-Libyan War humpty-dumpty back together again; but to no avail.
Outsiders always center themselves in African affairs. And so it is too early to jump the gun and claim these recent moves are all about shifting international alignments. The recent coup in Niger may be driven by local issues, not necessarily Kremlin intrigue. Nevertheless, the growing M62 movement in Niger is anti-colonial (and therefore anti-French) while also displaying pro-Russian sentiments. Militant M62 pro-coup demonstrators in Niger’s capital Niamey waved Russian flags and vandalized the French embassy. The new junta has banned exports of uranium to France and has ripped up a military agreement between the two nations. Russia and China have been quiet about events while the West is outraged by this coup d’etat and are threatening military action to restore the democratically elected leader of Niger.
While the West is riding its moral high horse in Niger against coup d’etats, in Ukraine in 2014 the West launched a similar insurrection against the democratically elected pro-Russian government then in power in Kiev. The West are now threatening military action in Niger while simultaneously denouncing Russia’s post-coup military adventures in Ukraine. In foreign policy, there are no broad moral rules, only interests. Attitudes towards coup d’etats are determined by where the new junta falls on the friend - enemy spectrum, not general concerns about democracy. This principle was on full display as Victoria Nuland, the architect of the 2014 Ukrainian coup, recently travelled to Niger in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn their coup.
On the diplomatic front, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is a sort of West African version of the EU and NATO, has called for the restoration of democratic rule in Niger. ECOWAS has threatened to use force. This African version of a “special military operation,” would see Nigeria and Senegal leading the belligerent camp. But acting as the West’s auxiliaries would be less than popular with many Nigerians and Senegalese. These two countries risk falling into rebellion and ultimately civil wars. African nation-state borders are artificial remnants of the European colonial period and so instability is baked into the African nation-state cake.
Russian-ally Algeria has warned against any military action, “a military intervention could ignite the whole Sahel region and Algeria will not use force with its neighbours.” A Niger-Nigeria war is not imminent, as for the time being the Nigerian Senate has refused to back such a move.
But Niger is taking no chances. Sources claim that Niger’s new junta has already requested Wagner’s help in maintaining power:
Niger’s new military junta has asked for help from the Russian mercenary group Wagner as the deadline nears for it to release the country’s ousted president or face possible military intervention by the West African regional bloc, according to an analyst.
The request came during a visit by a coup leader, Gen. Salifou Mody, to neighboring Mali, where he made contact with someone from Wagner, Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, told The Associated Press. He said three Malian sources and a French diplomat confirmed the meeting first reported by France 24.
“They need (Wagner) because they will become their guarantee to hold onto power,” he said, adding that the group is considering the request. A Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, told the AP they have also heard reports that the junta asked for help from Wagner in Mali.
Much to President Putin’s relief, the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who knows a thing or two about rebellions, has turned his ire towards the deposed ruling elite in Niger:
I will answer what the basis for the change of power in Niger is. The basis is the economy. The population of Niger has been driven to poverty for a long time. For example, a French company that mines uranium sold it in the market for $218 while paying Niger only $11 out of every $218 for it.
You can work with investors on a 50-50 or 30-70% basis, but it is impossible to return to the natives of the country, who were born in this country, who live in this country and who expect that the natural resources of this country belong to them, and which according to the constitution belong to them, only 5% of the wealth you receive from their land. To cover up these financial crimes, the country has been infiltrated by huge number of terrorists. This huge number of terrorists, in theory, should be controlled by a huge number of different troops, funded by the UN (United Nations), the European Union, the Americans, the British and others. As a result, the population of Niger, who should be free and happy because of the economic opportunities that existed, was robbed, and kept in fear for decades to keep them silent .
The power that was in alliance with Bazoum [the ousted Nigerien president] and his followers, simply covered up, allowing the coalition of people who looted the nation to be present on Niger soil. That’s all. So this is a liberation struggle, a liberation movement for the independence of this country, and May God grant them success.
For the past 20 to 30 years, the US has promoted internal narratives for American good-thinkers to follow: anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. In general these narratives preach that the West is evil. Along side these negations, there are demands for an exuberant affirmation of racial and sexual minorities. Given America’s culturally hegemonic position, this basket of narratives has poured over America’s borders towards the rest of the world. Unconditional acceptance of US cultural hegemony is required for membership in the enlightened West. Russia has turned the narrative tables by grabing the West’s antifascist banner in Ukraine and is waving it through “denazification” of the regime in Kiev. Wagner’s clever use of these narratives in Africa creates cognitive dissidence. China-Russia often amplify the self-loathing (but not without merit) Western narrative that the greatest of all Western sins was its colonial exploitation of Africa.
Scramble for Africa 1.0
The original Scramble for Africa occurred during the last third of the 19th century. The cruel theft of African resources was justified by a proto-woke ideology of antislavery. Do-gooder, liberal interventionist Europeans, desperate for raw materials and exterior markets for their domestic production, decided that the Africans needed to be civilized and protected from Arab slave traders. This was just five years after the US Civil War concluded and freed American slaves. From King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa:
Britain, of course, had only a dubious right to the high moral view of slavery. British ships had long dominated the slave trade, and only in 1838 had slavery formally been abolished in the British Empire. But Britons quickly forgot all this, just as they forgot that slavery's demise had been hastened by large slave revolts in the British West Indies, brutally and with increasing difficulty suppressed by British troops. In their opinion, slavery had come to an end throughout most of the world for one reason only: British virtue. When London's Albert Memorial was built in 1872, one of its statues showed a young black African, naked except for some leaves over his loins. The memorial's inaugural handbook explained that he was a "representative of the uncivilised races" listening to a European woman's teaching, and that the "broken chains at his feet refer to the part taken by Great Britain in the emancipation of slaves."
Significantly, most British and French antislavery fervor in the 1860s was directed not at Spain and Portugal, which allowed slavery in their colonies, or at Brazil, with its millions of slaves. Instead, righteous denunciations poured down on a distant, weak, and safely nonwhite target: the so-called Arab slave-traders raiding Africa from the east. In the slave markets of Zanzibar, traders sold their human booty to Arab plantation owners on the island itself, and to other buyers in Persia, Madagascar, and the various sultanates and principalities of the Arabian peninsula. For Europeans, here was an ideal target for disapproval: one "uncivilised" race enslaving another.
Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious "Arab" slavers—and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonized by someone other than Europeans.
By the close of the 19th century, most of Africa fell under the sway of Europe. After WW2, a period of decolonization resulted in the West losing direct control of Africa. But many African nations remained under a much more cost effective indirect neo-colonialist control. Local elites were educated in Western nations and then returned to their homelands to serve European/American interests. The key goal of indirect colonialization was Western control over critical natural resources — most often oil.
Gradually China, with massive accumulations of capital looking for investment opportunities, begab pouring funds into building African infrastructure. Russia and the Wagner Group have been forging military relationships with many African governments. These inroads by the multipolar bloc are met by Western hesitancy. The West struggles to justify its current exploitation of Africa as denunciations of its past exploitation ring in the air.
Another lever of the West’s neo-colonial power is Niger’s use of the CFA currency, which also serves as the currency of many West African nations. The CFA was introduced after WW2 as the Franc for Colonies Françaises d'Afrique [French-African colonies] After direct colonization ended, France kept the currency’s initials but changed the name to the less offensive Communauté Financière Africaine [African Financial Community]. Printed and controlled in France, the CFA is pegged to the Euro, which tends to make it overvalued for weaker African economies. If even the Eurozone is not an optimal currency area, West Africa is even less so with its stark differences between the wealthier coastal nations and the landlocked heartland areas, such as Niger. Pegging to the Euro certainly diminishes inflation, but at the cost of national sovereignty and investment opportunities for growth. This arraignment is however greatly appreciated by French companies, whose miniscule payments for uranium extraction comes with no exchange rate risk.
Geopolitical Food Stamps
One should avoid idealizing China and Russia’s manouvres in Africa. Since the West has set such a low bar for dealing with Africa, all China-Russia have to do is remain a couple steps above Western exploitation to be seen in a favorable light by Africans. The multipolar alliance is not shy about turning the West’s internal narratives against them, as the Wagner Group has been recently doing. The West’s own conflict between internal and external narratives is clear in a recent smear campaign the EU launched against free Russian grain deliveries to Africa:
The European Union has warned that Russia is offering cheap grain to developing countries for its own geopolitical benefits, creating new dependencies and uncertainty in the global food market. “As the world grapples with supply disruptions and rising prices, Russia is now approaching developing countries with bilateral offers for discounted grain shipments, pretending to solve a problem of its own making,” wrote the first EU diplomat Borrell in a letter to vulnerable countries. He added: “This is a cynical policy of deliberately using food as a weapon to create new addictions by increasing economic vulnerability and global food insecurity.”
There are many who would claim that the Food Stamps program in the US is a deliberate weapon to create new addictions and increasing economic vulnerability. Whatever its merits, this narrative is anathema to the basic tenets of global establishment goodthink, of which the EU is a pillar. So is the EU strategy of telling Africans that starving to death is the only honorable response to Putin’s evil grain offer really an effective diplomatic strategy?
A more cynical view of its resistance to Russian grain deliveries is that the EU is terrified of the African population bomb that the Sahel’s high birth rates represent and that free deliveries of Russian grain will only boost. China-Russia are well aware that future refugee streams out of Niger will head straight to Europe and not to their nations.
Colonial Reparations for Refugees
Western calls for free access for African refugees to Europe are growing louder. A recent New Statesman article called for reparations to be given to the former colonies by granting these entire nations the right to move to the “metropole,” which means Europe:
Addressing Europe’s colonial past will require more than token recognition of past sins. More radical solutions include the proposal of E. Tendayi Achiume, the UN’s special rapporteur on race and racism, on migration as decolonisation: free movement into the former metropole as the most effective form of reparations.
This article proposes a novel and radical break from prevailing theories and doctrine in the international law of migration. First and Third World peoples are not political strangers. They are quite the opposite: Due to neocolonial interconnection, First and Third World peoples are bound in a relationship of co-sovereignty that makes Third World peoples political insiders to First World nation-states. Corrective distributive justice considerations give Third World migrants entitlements to national admission and inclusion in the First World. Where Third World migration is responsive to neocolonial subordination, it should be understood as decolonial insofar as it enhances political equality, even if only as a formal matter. The migration as decolonization thesis foregrounds the political agency of migrants, and presents neocolonial interconnection and subordination as the baseline from which the ethics of immigration restrictions should be assessed, and from which these restrictions should be negotiated. First World nation-states have no right to exclude Third World peoples, and creating a world that reflects this fact requires a complete reimagining of national borders and the institutions of political inclusion.
China-Russia will agree wholeheartedly with E. Tendayi Achiume’s views on Western reparations. Russia itself has a storied colonial past but it devoured those possessions into its now enormous nation-state. Alas, some former “colonies” such as Ukraine and the Baltics have gone their own way but these people will always be welcome back into the engulfing arms of the Russian motherland. And so the fear is now that China-Russia will fully support the West’s generous refugee reparations by assisting their flows towards the EU/US wherever possible.