By Ben Norton / Geopolitical Economy Report
The US and France have threatened foreign intervention to re-install a pro-Western regime in Niger.
Niger is a major producer of gold and uranium, the latter of which is needed for European nuclear energy. The country has significant oil reserves to which foreign corporations have wanted access. It also hosts large US drone bases.
These Western threats follow coups led by nationalist, anti-colonial military officers in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, whose governments have warned that intervention would be considered an act of war, and could thus set off a regional conflict.
West Africa is rich in natural resources. It is also very strategic for the United States and France.
Almost all of West Africa was colonized by France, which committed brutal atrocities in the region.
Still today, France maintains neocolonial policies, effectively controlling West African economies by forcing them to use the CFA franc as their national currency.
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Senegalese development economist Ndongo Samba Sylla described the CFA franc as “a colonial currency, born of France’s need to foster economic integration among the colonies under its administration, and thus control their resources, economic structures and political systems”.
Paris dictates the monetary policies and even holds much of the foreign exchange reserves of numerous West African nations, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
The CFA franc is a “a barrier to industrialisation and structural transformation” in these countries, explained Sylla, who characterized it as a “neocolonial device that continues to destroy any prospect of economic development in user nations”.
The United States has one of its largest and most important drone bases in Niger: the Air Base 201, which cost $110 million to build, and an additional $20-30 million per year to maintain – in one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Niger is geostrategically important for the Pentagon’s Africa strategy. It is located in the middle of the Sahel, a region with a lot of US and French military activity, where thousands of troops are stationed on a regular basis.
Washington uses its drone bases in Niger, in the heart of the Sahel, to project military dominance in North and West Africa, in coordination with the forces that US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has deployed across the continent.
If Washington loses its ally in Niger, the new nationalist military government may try to close the foreign military bases and kick out the roughly 1000 US soldiers in the country.
Niger’s historically subordinate relationship with the Western powers has not brought the Nigerien people any prosperity.
The country is a major producer of gold, but more than 40% of Nigeriens live in extreme poverty.
Niger is also one of the world’s largest producers of uranium. This radioactive material is crucial for nuclear energy in Europe, especially in France, where roughly one-third of electricity comes from nuclear power.
Less known is that Niger also has sizeable oil reserves.
The market intelligence firm S&P Global Commodity Insights warned that the July coup in Niger “could jeopardize the African country’s plans to become a significant oil producer and exporter”.
It described Niger as a “key Western ally and security partner and one of the world’s biggest uranium producers”, adding that the “country is believed to be sitting on a billion barrels of crude reserves, according to the African Petroleum Producers’ Organization”.
S&P Global Commodity Insights noted that Niger has been building an oil pipeline with southern neighbor Benin, to transport crude exports out into the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic Ocean. The country “is on the verge of a long-awaited production surge”, and an oil industry executive described the pipeline as a “game changer”.
A former State Department official complained to the market intelligence firm that, following coups led by nationalist military officers in Mali and Burkina Faso, “the governments abruptly nationalized the gold mines, pushing industrial giants out”.
Soon after the coup in Niger, there were similar reports that the nationalist military government decided to block exports of uranium and gold to the West.
The prospect of a foreign military intervention in Niger and potentially other West African nations is truly on the table. It is by no means an empty threat.
This is a region where there were very recent examples of Western interventions.
In 2013 and 2014, France launched a military intervention in Mali, a neighbor of Niger.
In a 2011 regime-change war, NATO – led by the United States, with the support of France, other European nations, and Canada – destroyed the state of Libya, killing the North African nation’s longtime revolutionary leader, Muammar Gadhafi.
Still today, a decade later, Libya has no unified central government. The country has been in a state of destructive civil war.
Now there is a real possibility that the Western powers that destabilized and devastated Libya could expand this violent chaos to the west and to the south, to the Sahel region.
Anti-colonial nationalists rise to power in West Africa
Some of the nationalist military leaders who have taken power in West Africa are invoking the historical legacy of anti-colonial movements.
In Niger’s neighbor Burkina Faso, the new president, Ibrahim Traoré, has vowed to fight imperialism, quoting Che Guevara and allying with the leftist governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba.
Traoré is inspired by Burkina Faso’s former Marxist leader Thomas Sankara, a pan-Africanist military officer who launched a popular revolution in the 1980s.
Traoré even appointed as his prime minister a former close ally of Sankara, Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, who he says will oversee a “refoundation of the nation”.
At the same time, however, these governments are highly unstable, and have risen to power following not just one but a series of coups in recent years.
Some of these putsches were led by officers trained by the US or French militaries. Some of the coups have installed pro-Western military governments. But others have been launched by nationalist military officers who oppose French neocolonialism and US imperialism and have asserted more sovereign, independent policies.
Threats of intervention in West Africa
The leaders of the new government in Niger publicly warned that France is plotting military intervention.
Paris is looking “for ways and means to intervene militarily in Niger”, the authorities said, stating that French officials met with the chief of staff of Niger’s national guard “to obtain the necessary political and military authorisation”, The Guardian reported.
The British newspaper described Niger’s toppled president, Bazoum, as “an ally of western powers”.
Along with Paris, the US State Department is actively coordinating with Bazoum and plotting to put its ally back in power.
To give supposed “multilateral” cover to their plans for intervention, the US and France have been working closely with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Reuters reported that ECOWAS and “West African defence chiefs have drawn up a plan for military action if Niger’s coup is not overturned”.
The UK-based news outlet emphasized, “Given its uranium and oil riches and pivotal role in the war with Islamist rebels in the Sahel region, Niger has strategic significance for the United States, China, Europe and Russia”.
ECOWAS imposed sanctions on Niger, and the country’s southern neighbor Nigeria has begun establishing a de facto blockade.
Niger previously received roughly 70% of its electricity from Nigeria. But the Nigerian government, which is closely allied with the West, has now cut off that power.
Foreign intervention may be easier said than done, however, because Niger’s neighbors have come to its defense.
The governments in Burkina Faso and Mali released a joint statement stating that “any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali”.
The West African nations warned that the “disastrous consequences of a military intervention in Niger … could destabilise the entire region”, France 24 reported.
Burkina Faso and Mali also condemned the “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane sanctions” that Western governments have imposed “against the people and authorities of Niger”.
US and France discover a coup in Africa they don’t like
In late July 2023, when Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown, the United States and France immediately sprung into action, condemning his ouster and demanding that the pro-Western leader be reinstated.
Many African activists highlighted the overwhelming hypocrisy of this response and of Western rhetoric about promoting “democracy”.
In the past century, the US and European powers have legitimized, supported, and even organized dozens of coups across the Global South, in order to advance their economic and geopolitical interests.
There are myriad examples of democratically elected governments led by anti-colonial leaders who were overthrown and in some cases killed by the Western powers.
One of the most well-known historical episodes was that of Patrice Lumumba, the founder of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lumumba helped lead an independence movement against European colonialism, and was democratically elected the DRC’s first prime minister in 1960.
US President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the CIA to assassinate Lumumba. With help from the spy agency, Belgium sponsored a coup to remove him.
The democratically elected Congolese leader was kidnapped and murdered. His body was subsequently dissolved in acid. Just a few teeth were left behind.
This is how Western governments treated anti-colonial leaders during the first cold war. They sponsored coups to remove them and subsequently installed and propped up right-wing, pro-imperialist dictatorships that ruled for decades with an iron fist.
The Western response to the July 2023 coup in Niger was completely different.
Immediately, the French government denounced the new nationalist government led by the military. Emmanuel Macron’s office vowed a strong and swift response, writing, “The President will not tolerate any attack against France and its interests”, specifically emphasizing its business interests in Niger.
“The United States welcomes and commends the strong leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government to defend constitutional order in Niger”, it wrote.
Referring to Niger’s toppled pro-Western leader, Washington called “for the immediate release of President Mohamed Bazoum and his family and the restoration of all state functions”.
The US added that it “welcomes the dispatch of the special representative of the ECOWAS Chair to Niger” and “will remain actively engaged with ECOWAS and West African leaders on next steps to preserve Niger’s hard-earned democracy”.
By instrumentalizing ECOWAS to give “multilateral” cover to an intervention in Niger, the US and France are returning to the strategy they employed when they used NATO to wage war on Libya in 2011.
At the moment, the Western powers are also doing the same to justify another military intervention in Haiti, re-creating an international alliance ostensibly led by Kenya to occupy the Caribbean nation.
Niger is a leading producer of uranium, needed for European nuclear energy
One of the principal economic interests that Western powers have in Niger is its uranium.
The anti-poverty organization Oxfam published a report in 2013 detailing how France was making a killing profiting off of the uranium in Niger, which is one of the poorest countries in the world.
The people of Niger, who are known as Nigeriens (not to be confused with Nigerians from Nigeria), have seen almost no benefits from this uranium extraction.
Oxfam cited a Nigerien activist who noted, “In France, one out of every three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium. In Niger, nearly 90% of the population has no access to electricity. This situation cannot continue”.
“It is incomprehensible that Niger, the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer and a strategic supplier for Areva and France, is not taking advantage of the revenue from this extraction and remains one of the poorest countries on the planet”, an Oxfam researcher added.
The statistics have slightly changed in the decade since that report was published.
As of 2023, Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium.
But many Western media outlets have noted with fear how important Niger is for European energy stability.
“Niger coup sparks concerns about French, EU uranium dependency”, Politico warned.
“Niger supplies 15 percent of France’s uranium needs and accounts for a fifth of the EU’s total uranium imports”, the media outlet reported. “In 2021, Niger was the EU’s top uranium supplier, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia”.
Politico added that “the coup in Niger could be a challenge for Europe’s uranium needs in the longer term, just as the continent is trying to phase out dependency on Russia, another top supplier of uranium used in European nuclear plants”.
Nuclear energy is relatively important in Europe. In 2022, it made up around 10% of EU energy consumption, slightly down from a peak of nearly 14% in 2002.
In France, nuclear energy is even more significant. Since the 1980s, nuclear has become one of its top energy sources.
By the 2000s, France’s nuclear power exceeded its use of oil, peaking at nearly 40% in 2005. Nuclear still remained strong in 2021, at 36.5% of total energy consumption (compared to 31% for oil).
Since the coup in Niger, both France and EU leadership have insisted they will not be affected, stating that they have enough uranium in their reserves to last a few years.
But if the nationalist government remains in power in Niger and abides by its alleged pledge to cut off uranium exports, Europe could face economic consequences.
This also comes at a complicated moment for Europe, which has pledged to boycott Russian oil exports and reduce imports of Russian gas.
Russia is one of the world’s top producers of both oil and gas. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the imposition of harsh Western sanctions, Russia was the EU’s biggest energy partner, and the number one provider of oil and gas to many member states.
Some EU officials had proposed increasing nuclear energy production to end the region’s reliance on Russia.
But now one of the top providers of the uranium the EU needs for that nuclear energy has seen a coup led by nationalists who oppose Europe’s neocolonial policies.
This also comes at a moment in which several countries in Europe are going into recession.
Germany, the manufacturing superpower at the heart of the EU, is deindustrializing at breakneck speed, largely because it has lost major sources of the cheap energy that its heavy industry needs.
Niger hosts strategic US military bases
In addition to foreign economic designs on West Africa, the US military has a massive footprint on the region – particularly in Niger, where it operates multiple bases.
A 2019 report in PBS noted an increasing US military presence in Africa, revealing that the Pentagon had nearly 800 personnel stationed in Niger. (That figure later rose to roughly 1000.)
General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of US military forces in Africa, described Niger’s pro-Western government as “a good partner in a very, very bad neighborhood”.
PBS indicated that the US military was creating a base in Agadez, Niger, which “will be the largest installation Air Force personnel have ever built”.
“The U.S. has been operating drone missions out of another base in Niger’s capital since 2013”, the media outlet wrote, adding, “The CIA is also believed to be using another drone base in Northeastern Niger”.
Investigative journalist Nick Turse, reporting in 2023, described this US facility in Niger, Air Base 201, as “the linchpin of the U.S. military’s archipelago of bases in North and West Africa and a key part of America’s wide-ranging intelligence, surveillance, and security efforts in the region”.
Turse wrote in The Intercept:
Built at a price tag of $110 million and maintained to the tune of $20 to $30 million each year, AB 201 serves as a Sahelian surveillance hub that’s home to Space Force personnel involved in high-tech satellite communications, Joint Special Operations Air Detachment facilities, and a fleet of drones — including armed MQ-9 Reapers — that scour the surrounding region day and night for terrorist activity. A high-security haven, Air Base 201 sits within a 25-kilometer “base security zone” and is protected by fences, barriers, upgraded air-conditioned guard towers with custom-made firing ports, and military working dogs.
What is striking is the neocolonial symbolism of the United States maintaining these high-tech military facilities worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Niger, one of the poorest countries on Earth, where the majority of the population doesn’t even have access to electricity.
Before the July 2023 coup, Washington saw the Nigerien government as a key ally in its attempt to isolate China and Russia.
Antony Blinken took a historic trip to Niger in March, in the first-ever visit by a US secretary of state.
Democracy Now noted that this trip was “part of the Biden administration’s growing competition with China and Russia”.
“Niger is one of the last strongholds of U.S. security partnerships in the region”, Brown University researcher Stephanie Savell told the media outlet.
Blinken’s visit came just a few months after the State Department’s December 2022 US-Africa Leaders Summit, which brought African heads of state to Washington, DC to meet with Biden.
The State Department wrote that the summit was “rooted in this recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player” – in other words, Washington sees the continent as highly strategic in its new cold war against China and Russia.
Coups vs. revolutions
One of the key weaknesses of the new nationalist governments in West Africa is that they came to power through coups, not popular revolutions. This means they are less stable, and if history is any indicator, could be toppled in subsequent coups.
Although most coups in modern history have led to the installation of repressive right-wing regimes, almost always allied with Western imperial interests, there is a historical precedent of some leftist leaders coming to power through coups.
One of the most famous revolutionary leaders in the history of Africa, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, helped lead a coup in 1952, as part of the progressive Free Officers Movement, which opposed both monarchism and European colonialism.
Nasser was a left-wing nationalist who nationalized many of the economic interests owned by foreign colonial powers, implementing some socialist policies.
Nasser also maintained an independent foreign policy, and was a co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The Egyptian leader helped inspire revolutionary anti-colonial and Arab nationalist movements not only in West Asia, but also in North Africa.
In 1969, there was another coup led by a left-wing military leader, Muammar Gadhafi, who named his own anti-colonial, anti-monarchist Free Officers Movement after that of Egypt.
Like Nasser, Gadhafi implemented socialist policies, using the oil riches in Libya to benefit the people of the country.
Gadhafi created robust social programs, drastically expending public investment in healthcare, education, and housing.
Under Gadhafi, Libya had the highest living standards out of all of the African continent.
Gadhafi’s Libya likewise supported revolutionary struggles around the world, from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to Irish Republicans resisting the British empire, to indigenous Palestinians fighting against Israeli colonialism.
But in 2011, Gadhafi was killed in a NATO war. When extremist Salafi-jihadist rebels sponsored by the West brutally murdered the Libyan leader with a bayonet, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gloated, live on TV, “We came, we saw, he died!”
NATO’s 2011 war collapsed the Libyan state. Today, more than a decade later, there is still no unified central government in Libya. The North African nation has been trapped in a brutal civil war.
NATO’s destruction of the Libyan government even brought open-air slave markets back to the country.
So there is a historical precedent on the African continent of leftist leaders ascending to power through military coups. But if they don’t solidify the government’s authority and legitimacy through a popular revolution, the possibility of them being overthrown in another coup or by a foreign military intervention is very real.
In Latin America, there have also been examples of this.
In Peru in 1968, for instance, there was a coup led by a revolutionary military leader, Juan Velasco Alvarado. Like Nasser and Gadhafi, he implemented socialist policies, nationalizing key sectors of the economy, including banking, mining, and energy.
While promoting workers’ rights and unions, Velasco also made Quechua a national language, providing equality for Indigenous communities that had been marginalized by previous (and future) governments.
But Velasco was, too, overthrown in another coup, in 1975, led by General Francisco Morales Bermúdez, who reversed many of Velasco’s progressive gains.
Another well-known example was Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who in 1992 also tried to launch a military coup against the country’s neoliberal president, Carlos Andrés Pérez (known commonly as CAP).
During his second presidential term, which began in 1989, Pérez implemented aggressive neoliberal economic reforms, including mass privatizations, cuts to subsidies, and increasing public transportation fares. This led to massive protests.
CAP responded to the popular uprising with extreme violence, ordering the military to gun down protesters. Thousands were killed.
This neoliberal massacre, known as the Caracazo, radicalized progressive military leaders like Hugo Chávez.
In 1992, Chávez and several other left-wing military officers tried to overthrow the CAP regime. They failed, and were imprisoned.
The attempted coup turned Chávez into a national hero. He was pardoned and released in 1994, then ran for office and won the 1998 presidential elections.
However, a briefly successful coup against President Chávez that soon followed in 2002, which was sponsored by the George W. Bush administration, shows how putches are much more often tools of undemocratic right-wing elites.
The massive popular support Chávez saw among working-class Venezuelans, who reversed the US-backed 2002 coup, was a turning point for the president. He realized he had to deepen the Bolivarian Revolution, and moved further to the left, toward socialism.
The lesson in many of these historical episodes is that, if there is not a popular revolution, like what happened in China in 1949, in Cuba in 1959, or in Nicaragua in 1979; if there is simply a military coup led by a progressive or even socialist revolutionary leader, then the government tends to be much less stable, and it is significantly easier for them to be overthrown.
If fact, in the case of Burkina Faso, this is precisely the history.
Thomas Sankara came to power in 1983 through a military coup. One of his closest allies in the revolutionary process, Blaise Compaoré, then led another coup against Sankara in 1987.
Compaoré killed his longtime friend Sankara, and ruled essentially as a dictator from 1987 until 2014.
Compaoré abandoned Sankara’s anti-imperialist and socialist policies, adopting right-wing politics and neoliberal economics, ruling through a series of rigged elections, in close alliance with the US and former colonizer France.
This is one of the dangers of the situation now in West Africa. There are nationalist governments that seek true independence and sovereignty, but because they came to power through coups, it established a precedent that a right-wing military officer can use to overthrow the left-wing military officer and impose a conservative pro-Western regime.
Moreover, these right-wing military leaders are often able to rule for decades, because they have support from Western governments and corporations.
This is precisely what happened during the first cold war. There were a series of right-wing, pro-Western dictatorships across the African continent, which overthrew anti-colonial governments and imposed their own reactionary regimes.
Many leftist anti-colonial leaders were toppled in US-sponsored right-wing coups, from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba in 1961, to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in 1966, to Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987.
The nationalist governments in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali are very unstable, and the threat of Western-sponsored military intervention could destabilize the countries, fueling more coups, and potentially setting off a regional war.
The transparent goal of the United States and France is to re-impose political control over the region, to exploit its plentiful natural resources and geostrategic location.
What is happening in West Africa is part of a larger international movement, in which formerly colonized countries across the Global South – in regions of Latin America and Asia as well – are seeking complete decolonization, asserting national control over their resources, labor, and economic and security policies, in pursuit of real development, independence, and sovereignty.
But the imperial powers will by no means give up without a fight.
Ben Norton is a journalist, writer, and filmmaker. He is the founder and editor of Multipolarista, and is based in Latin America.