By Bill Weinberg
Transcript from CounterVortex podcast of Aug. 12.
In this episode, we’re going to take a look at the situation in the West African nation of Niger, where a coup d’etat has polarized things across the whole region and there is great potential for escalation, and for imperial powers to get involved—or, I should say, more involved, because they are already quite involved.
I am going to try to refrain from calling out all the errors and disinformation circulating online about the situation, because it’s just too tedious. But I’m going to lay out the facts of what we actually know, and try to sort out the players and what kind of helpful stance progressives in the West can take.
On July 28, a military coup deposed elected President Mohamed Bazoum, the years since the last period of military rule ended in 2010 having seen a tentative democratic transition for the first time since independence from France in 1960. The country is now ruled by a military junta, called the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland. The African Union, European Union, United States and Russia have all condemned the coup as unconstitutional. However, Wagner Group commander Yevgeni Prigozhin lauded the coup as part of “the struggle of the people of Niger [against] their colonizers,” and has offered his fighters’ services to bring order. Pro-junta demonstrators in Niger have been repeatedly photographed proudly displaying Russian flags.
Critical context for all this is the jihadist insurgency throughout the greater Sahel region of West Africa. Those same years since 2010 that have seen a democracy tentatively taking root in Niger have also seen a proliferation of rebel militia linked either to ISIS or al-Qaeda, which have been carrying out a really brutal campaign of mass terror, attempting to intimidate the civil population, with massacres mounting to shamefully little international media coverage. Niger has been comparatively stable in recent years, but 2022 and 2021 both saw massacres by insurgent groups, whose tactic is to sweep out of the desert on motorbikes and shoot up villages. And there have been mounting public protests in Niamey, the capital, demanding that the government provide security.
And meanwhile, neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have really gone over the edge into incessant nightmarish violence escalating toward the genocidal.
Which brings us to the inevitable GWOT angle—the Global War on Terrorism.
The CIA operates a drone base in the northern Agadez region of Niger, and the Pentagon has some 1,000 troops in the country. And now we must note a little rhetorical subterfuge that the White House is engaging in at the moment. While calling for Bazoum to be reinstated, the Biden administration has refrained from calling what just happened in Niger a “coup” because this would require a suspension of US aid, critically including military aid, under the apparently irksome Section 7008 of the Foreign Assistance Act, first put in place in 1985 to try to disincentivize military coups in Central America. But obviously the White House is now trying to determine if it can still play ball with the new regime, as the US has with many military dictatorships over the generations of course, and keep its troops in place. So they are refusing to use the word “coup,” they’ve been very careful in all their statements to avoid using that word, even though it obviously was one.
I dunno why they bother to write these laws if they are going to try to weasel around them with this kind of subterfuge, it really does violence to the English language and the notion that words have meanings, an already precarious concept today.
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc led by Nigeria, bordering Niger on the south, has responded to the coup by threatening military intervention in Niger to restore Bazoum—as ECOWAS has intervened in the past in Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone. Kind of a pattern. ECOWAS set a deadline of last Sunday, Aug. 6, for the junta to cede power and restore Mohamed Bazoum. The junta refused, and now we’re waiting to see if ECOWAS is really going to follow through on its threat. There was an ECOWAS summit in Abuja to discuss the matter just two days ago, Aug. 10, where they agreed to assemble a “standby military force.”
And the junta has threatened to kill Mohamed Bazoum, who is apparently still being held at the presidential palace, if there are any moves toward military intervention.
Mali and Burkina Faso, which also recently saw coups d’etat in which they moved seemingly from the Western camp to the Russian camp, have pledged to back up the junta in Niger, and the stage seems potentially set for a regional war in West Africa.
Mali saw a coup in May 2021, less than one year after a previous coup in August 2020. Burkina Faso’s last coup was in October 2022, following a similar one in January 2022. Both countries were subsequently suspended from ECOWAS.
And this is particularly tragic in Burkina Faso, where there was an actual popular revolution in 2014, ousting the long dictatorship of Blaise Compaoré that October. And there was the beginning of a democratic transition and a big resurgence of interest in Thomas Sankara, the idealistic pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist leader of the 1980s, often called the “Che Guevara of Africa”—who was overthrown and killed in a coup in 1987. And Blaise Compaoré, who removed Sankara and replaced him and ruled for some 30 years, was after the 2014 revolution indicted for his murder, and fled into exile. So there was really a revolutionary process underway in Burkina Faso, which was aborted by the recent coups. And the new leader Ibrahim Traoré is clearly exploiting Sankara nostalgia, wearing his trademark red beret and quoting Che Guevara, and waxing anti-imperialist in his rhetoric. But he is not ruling in anything like the spirit of Sankara, as we shall see.
At least an equal player and probably a bigger one in this region than the US is France, the former colonial ruler of Niger and most of West Africa, which has some 1,500 troops in Niger and had some 500 troops each in Mali and Burkina Faso before the coups d’etat, after which both regimes booted the French and invited in the Wagner Group. This is confirmed in Mali, and widely believed to be the case in Burkina Faso.
Which brings us to the Russian flags that have been prominently displayed at the pro-junta rallies that have mounted in Niamey as ECOWAS has threatened intervention. Very disturbingly, the ultra-reactionary regime of Vladimir Putin appears to be taking on an anti-imperialist cachet in the region. Now, some of these demonstrators may be paid, but it would be unwise to dismiss it entirely as astroturf; even if it began as a Kremlin pysop, these things have a habit of taking on a life of their own, as we’ve seen with Moscow’s disinformation networks on social media in the West.
And certainly one explanation for waving the Russian flag is the imperative of irritating the French. And in these same pro-junta demonstrations in Niamey, the French embassy has been attacked and set on fire.
Now, I understand the imperative of irritating the French. I totally get that. I have been closely following the French counter-insurgency campaign in the region, known as Operation Barkhane, which has taken the inevitable toll in rights abuses and especially so-called “collateral damage” from air-strikes.
The most recent such atrocity was Jan 3, 2021, when a French airstrike killed 19 civilians attending a wedding celebration in the village of Bounti in central Mali.
And I have for many years been aware of the ghastly situation with French uranium exploitation in Niger’s remote desert north. All that nuclear energy that has powered the cities and factories of France all these years? It all been fueled by uranium ripped from the earth of Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa, with more than 40% of its population in extreme poverty, according to the UN. And the northern Agadez region, where the uranium is being exploited, is the most marginal and neglected part of the country, with the indigenous Tuareg population just left to deal with the radioactive mine tailings and the destruction of their traditional lands. Classic neocolonialism and environmental racism.
And in the early 1990s, this led the Tuaregs to launch an armed insurgency, demanding either local territorial autonomy or outright independence, and to either expel the French uranium companies or bring them under some kind of discipline, at least. As always in such situations, there was a division between factions emphasizing more ecological versus economic grievances, with the former wanting an end to the mining entirely and the latter a greater share of the extracted wealth in terms of local investment. And there were other factors involved in the roots of the insurgency as well—conflicts over land and water, and so on. And this, mind you, predated by more than a decade the current Islamist insurgency; this insurgency was basically secular, and regionalist and ethno-nationalist in its politics.
But the government, with French aid, unleashed a terrible counterinsurgency campaign, with the usual atrocities against the civil population. During that period, the world was very closely watching what was happening in Bosnia and Rwanda and other terrible conflicts around the world, but what was happening to the Tuareg was largely invisible because it was happening in the middle the Sahara desert, one of the most remote places on earth,
I only became aware of this after the fact, when I was producing a radio show on WBAI here in New York and first became aware of the Tuaregs through their really amazing and very politically conscious music. But I later came to interview some of their leaders, including Issouf ag-Maha of the Nigerien Justice Movement, one of the rebel organizations. We ran a transcript of that interview on the CounterVortex website in December 2007. You can Google it up under the title “Voice of the Tuareg Resistance.”
In 1995, there was a peace accord, when the government agreed to greater investment in the Tuareg region. But, surprise, surprise, the government has failed to follow through on its promises, and the uranium mining has continued apace, and some Tuareg factions have since returned to arms.
So I get it about wanting to irritate the French—believe me, I get it. But now we get to the caveats.
First, the Tuaregs, who suffered terribly at the hands of the military back in the ‘90s, and in the years since then, are not happy about Niger now being under military rule again. And in fact, one of the former Tuareg rebel leasers, Rhissa Ag Boula, just announced that he is returning to arms with his followers to oust the junta and restore Mohamed Bazoum to power, under the banner of a new rebel formation, the Council of Resistance for the Republic, CRR.
Additionally, the uranium miners, organized in the National Syndicate of Mine Workers of Niger, SNTMN, have issued a statement opposing the coup and calling for the restoration of Mohamed Bazoum to power.
But a more fundamental point is the danger of enemy-of-my-enemy thinking. Just because Moscow is on the outs with the Western powers at the moment hardly makes Russia innocent. The Russians are not exactly benevolent imperialists, I hate to tell you, and things have been getting worse, not better, in Mali and Burkina Faso since the French were booted and Wagner brought in.
As we all know, or as we all should know, the Wagner Group was implicated in an act of genocide in Mali, when Malian government forces apparently with a large contingent of Russian mercenaries, occupied the town of Moura in late March 2022, rounded up the town’s men and marched them out into the bush, where some 300 were put to death.
And the government counterinsurgency is approaching genocide in Burkina Faso, where a paramilitary network presumably under the direction of the Wagner Group, called then Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP), has been carrying out massacres and targeted executions.
And in both cases, in the massacre at Moura and the ongoing smaller massacres and extrajudicial killings in Burkina Faso, it appears that the Fulani people have been targeted, the entire ethnicity being stigmatized as “terrorist” in both countries—as we have discussed before, in our podcast of Feb. 4, 2023, “West Africa’s forgotten wars.”
And all this is inimical to the spirit of Thomas Sankara, and his principles of pan-African unity—as was evident in his renaming of the country. Before Sankara came to power, Burkina Faso still went by the colonial name of Upper Volta, and the name Burkina Faso was invented by Sankara, drawing from words in the languages of two of the country’s several ethic groups to mean “land of the upright people.” Burkina meaning “upright people ” in the Moore language and faso meaning “homeland” in the Dioula language. And the people of the country are known as the Burkinabé, with the suffix bé coming from the Fulani language. All this was to emphasize Sankara’s ethic of national unity and co-existence. So please do not get taken in by the new regime’s Sankara-nostalgist posing. Anyone can quote Che Guevara, and wear a red beret.
Then there’s the Russian mineral grab. There are widespread accusations, at least, including from the government of Ghana which borders Burkina Faso on the south, that the Burkina Faso regime has given Wagner control of a gold mine as payment for its services. And there is certainly precedent for this kind of thing; the Wagner Group has beyond all dispute taken control of mineral resources in Sudan, where it was brought in to collaborate with the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary network, and is now backing them in the renewed civil war, as discussed in our two-part podcast series, “Russia and the Sudan crisis,” on April 29 and May 6.
Then there’s the open game of famine politics that Russia is playing in its grain-for-influence gambit. At the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in late July, Vladimir Putin pledged free grain to six African nations: Mali, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Somalia, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. The announcement came one week after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal which had eased the blockade of Ukraine to allow grain exports, and stabilized global prices somewhat over the past year. Russia withdrawing from the deal has now triggered a spike in global prices. The six named African countries are, not surprisingly, among Moscow’s closest allies on the continent—the Central African Republic has also contracted the Wagner Group. But they are not all the most food-import dependent. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most import-dependent, was excluded. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that a “handful of donations” would not correct the market impact of Russia’s termination of the Black Sea grain deal. The African Union echoed Guterres’ criticism.
And if Niger now gets added to that list of six countries, bringing it to seven, that will be very telling indeed.
And to remove all doubt as to what their agenda is here, immediately after the St. Petersburg summit, Kremlin propaganda chief Margarita Simonyan, director of the RT channel, let slip a blatant admission that Russia is using the threat of famine in Africa as a weapon in its war against Ukraine. Simonyan publicly stated in televised remarks: “A cynical joke or perhaps an exclamation has appeared, I’ve already heard it from several people in Moscow. ‘All hope is pinned on famine.’ What is meant is that famine will begin and they [in the West] will come to their senses, will remove sanctions and will be friends with us because it’s impossible to not be friends.”
“All hope is pinned on famine.” Quote-unquote. She actually said that. Obviously, this means famine in Africa, the part of the world most desperately dependent on Ukrainian and Russian grain, and obviously calling it a “joke” is just a way to make the truth seem acceptable. Putin is playing with millions of African lives to advance his campaign of imperial conquest in Europe.
Which is why it is so maddening that elements of the tankie pseudo-left in the West are actually rallying around the coup regime in Niger.
Just to get it out of the way… I have to shoot down that meme going around saying that Mali and Burkina Faso cut off uranium exports to France after their coups d’etat and that Niger has now announced it will do so. This is simply imaginary. Niger has made no such announcement, and the other two countries had no exports to cut off! Mali does have uranium deposits, but they have never been effectively exploited and certainly not during the past years of extreme instability, especially in the northern desert region where the deposits are. And as for Burkina Faso, it isn’t a uranium exporter at all. The uranium deposits are in the northern desert, the interior Sahara, which Burkina Faso has no share of; it lies to the south of Mali and Niger. Look at a map and stop spreading that disinfo meme. Thank you.
I note that CodePink seems to have joined with various other tankie formations around the world to form an International Peoples’ Assembly which is openly shilling for the coup regime. They just issued a statement entitled “SOLIDARITY WITH NIGER: France and NATO out of Africa”—which superficially sounds OK. But if you read the statement, it is obvious that by “Niger.” they actually mean the junta that has seized power in Niger. They actually refer favorably to the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso as precedents: “The overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger follows the popularly supported ousters of the governments of Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso.” But these were all military coups d’etat, not popular uprisings! The coup in Guinea was in September 2021, by the way, so two coups each in Mali and Burkina Faso and now one each in Guinea and Niger—that means a total of six coups in West Africa over the past three years, which is not comforting. And it’s pretty clear the reference to Burkina Faso in this statement is not to the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré in 2014, which really was a popular uprising, but the counter-revolutionary coup that put an end to the democratic opening in Burkina Faso in 2022. So openly cheering on coups d’etat. These are same people who cry “It’s a coup!” every time George Soros buys a laptop for a dissident group in one of their pet dictatorships. How do they square it? And “France and NATO out of Africa”? Well, these would be fine demands if you also added “Russia out of Africa”!
And instead there is a concerted propaganda campaign to lubricate Russia’s imperial aims in Africa and sanitize its image on the continent. For instance, you see over and over on social media this helpful reminder that Russia “never pillaged Africa” as France, Britain and the other European powers did. Well yeah, because due to reasons of geography, Russia was a land power rather than a sea power, primarily. But it was sure during that same period building a continental empire in Eurasia, and pillaging Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It isn’t like the Russian Empire wasn’t an empire, it was called the Russian Empire for a reason, remember? And Russia is certainly an increasingly aggressive player in the new scramble for Africa that is going on right now.
Russia’s aims on the African continent are imperialist and genocidal. It is a much cruder form of imperialism than the Anglo-American and French varieties, but possibly an even more virulent one at this particular moment.
And I’m going to close, if you’ll indulge me, by giving a little rendering of a song that’s been stuck in my head this past week, the anti-imperialist anthem of the great Afropop superstar Alpha Bondy of Ivory Coast, from his 1984 album Cocody Rock which, in repudiation of the Cold War campism that was hegemonic at that time, takes a ruthlessly single-standard neither-East-nor-West position. I’m going to take the liberty of singing a little of it. I claim fair use, since this is for didactic purposes. The name of this song is “Super Powers.”
Out of Africa
Machine gun drop
No more, no more, no more
No more bombs
No more, no more, no more
We don’t want
We don’t need
Guns and missiles
We don’t want
Your nuclear bombs
Go away you and your CIA
Go away you and your CIA
Go away you and your CIA
Go away you and your CIA
Out of Africa yeah
In Africa we need
Bread and peace
In Africa we want
We don’t wanna see
You and your KGB
We don’t wanna see
You and your Red Army
We don’t wanna see
You and your KGB
We don’t wanna deal
You and your Red Army
So one verse rejecting Western imperialism, and the next rejecting Russian imperialism, or Soviet social-imperialism, as the doctrinaire called it back in the day. Of course the references are from the Cold War context, KGB and Red Army as opposed to FSB and the Wagner Group. But same shit, different regime.
And, uh, I just want to call out Reggae-Lyrics.com website for badly garbling the lyrics to this song, and in my paranoid mind possibly attempting to excise the anti-Soviet content. They render “Red Army” as “radar beam,” which is obviously incorrect, although they do keep in the reference to the KGB. And they also make some other errors, like rendering “bread and peace” as “branded peace,” whatever that means. Let’s go branded? So, uh, just a friendly admonishment to Reggae-Lyrics.com to clean up that page. Thanking you in advance, guys.
And the last thing I’m gonna say before I sign off here is that if you want me to examine the roots of the jihadist insurgency in the Sahel, what its relationship has been to the separate Tuareg insurgency in both Niger and Mali, and how it really is in large part blowback from the destabilization of Libya in 2011… well, I encourage you to become a Patreon supporter of the CounterVortex podcast at our $2-per-week level which, under our special offer, allows you to make a suggestion for what I discuss on an episode of the podcast. Sign up for a level 2 subscription and tell me you want that discussion. A regular subscription is just $1 per weekly podcast. The CounterVortex needs your support to keep going with this level of exacting work. Please join us.
And certainly we will continue to stay on top of Niger in the weeks to come, and I’m very interested in hearing more about the Council of Resistance for the Republic, CRR, and the National Syndicate of Mine Workers of Niger, SNTMN, and their political positions, as possible elements that we can support and loan solidarity to in Niger.
Find Bill Weinberg at: https://twitter.com/Billydub420
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