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Among pro-coup demonstrators in Niger, a young man holds a sign reading "A bas la France" (Down with France). Alamy Stock Photo
Sahel coups

Coups d'état: How France's imperial legacy continues to influence West African politics

The military leaders in Niger have this week ordered the expulsion of the French ambassador Sylvain Itte after his refusal to recognise the authority of the junta.

THE LAST THREE years have seen eight governments toppled by military coups in six African countries, almost all of them in the sub-Saharan region of the Sahel. 

They include Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Sudan and most recently, Gabon, where longtime president Ali Bongo Ondimba was overthrown on Monday just hours after his third term re-election was announced. 

While each junta has distinct declared reasons for overthrowing their governments, there are a number of factors that they share, including economic crises, security challenges and postcolonial histories. 

“While the specific features in each country will differ somewhat in terms of justification, the common theme is essentially corrupt governments, misrule and mismanagement, that’s really what it comes down to,” says Remi Adekoya, a lecturer in politics at York University who specialises in African affairs.

“So this all comes down to governments that are supposed to be democratic, flouting all the norms and rules of democracy.”

For Jeremiah Garsha, assistant professor of modern global history at UCD, the wave of falling regimes represents a decolonising movement, a step away from the traditional power broker in the region, France.

“This is very much an anti-French movement,” he says. 

A wave of coups

The coup d’état in Gabon comes just one month after another West African country’s military overthrew its president. Members of Niger’s presidential guard ousted president Mohamed Bazoum on 27 July and General Abdourahamane Tiani has since taken over. 

Last year Niger’s neighbour Burkina Faso underwent two forceful transitions of power. First, when mutinous soldiers led by lieutenant-colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba arrested president Roch Marc Christian Kabore in January. 

Then in September, when army officers announced that they had dismissed Damiba and that captain Ibrahim Traore would become transitional president until a new election, planned for July 2024.

Sudan, which is currently in a state of civil war, underwent a military coup in October 2021 after weeks of tension between army and civilian leaders following the ousting of dictator Omar al-Bashir. 

The self-styled president of Sudan, general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has since fallen out with his former ally Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who leads the RSF paramilitary force. The conflict between Daglo’s forces and the Sudanese army has left thousands dead since fighting broke out in April this year. 

Guinea’s 83-year-old president Alpha Conde was overthrown in September 2021 by lieutenant-colonel Mamady Doumbouya, who has promised to restore civilian rule by the end of 2024. 

In August 2020, Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was overthrown by colonel Assimi Goita. After civilian leaders of an interim government chose to remove soldiers from some key government posts, Goita and the Malian military took power once again. Elections have been pledged for February 2024. 

The French connection

All bar one of these states, Sudan, are former French colonies that gained independence between 1955 and 1960. That colonial legacy has never gone away, with France maintaining a higher level of involvement in the affairs of its African former colonies since independence than, for example, Britain.

This continued influence has been the source of rancour for many Africans, who see the French state as a malign, meddling power that still interferes with and controls many aspects of their countries’ political, economic and security affairs. It’s also an easy target for political points scoring.

This is particularly true in West Africa, where France had most of its colonies and still has military bases it uses in its fight against Islamic extremist groups like ISIS. The United States also has bases across the continent and exerts significant influence when it comes to military activity in the region through its Africa Command (AFRICOM). 

Anti-French sentiment has featured prominently in the most recent spate of coups that has swept through the Sahel since 2020, being expressed by some of those military leaders who have taken power and the people who have come out in support of them. 

The military leaders in Niger have this week ordered the expulsion of the French ambassador Sylvain Itte after his refusal to recognise the authority of the junta. 

Following the overthrow of president Mohamed Bazoum in July, Nigeriens took to the streets to celebrate and chant slogans calling for the French to leave. Some even waved Russian flags, a sign of the shifting geopolitical sands.

supporters-of-nigers-ruling-junta-hold-a-russian-flag-in-niamey-niger-sunday-aug-6-2023-nigeriens-are-bracing-for-a-possible-military-intervention-as-times-run-out-for-its-new-junta-leaders-to Supporters of Niger's ruling junta hold a Russian flag in Niamey. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Jeremiah Garsha sees the recent wave of coups as the latest stage in a decades-long process of decolonisation. 

“You know, this has nothing to do with NATO, and kind of a realignment of the world, this has everything to do with colonial history. 

“The majority of these coups are happening in West Africa. If you mapped on the 1885 Berlin conference where, you know, the European countries divide up Africa, and the French take all the west, that maps on perfectly to the areas that we’re talking about.”

“In a lot of ways, France never left the area whereas that’s not the same with Britain. Try as they might to not leave the area, they’re pushed out. Germany loses all their colonies in a single day, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. So these things happen differently for different countries, France stayed.”

He sees it as no surprise that these West African countries are severing ties with their old colonial masters, especially in the current context of the war in Ukraine and the availability of other potential partners like China and Russia, who do not come with the same historical baggage as the French. 

“France isn’t working for them anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time,” he says. 

“And who it does work for is the elite, and that’s why the military is toppling the elites. Now the problem is the military may stay in power, and then become the elites.”

Decolonisation movements, Garsha explains, are often spurred on by conflict elsewhere. The last time a major conflict created the conditions for occupied countries to break away from their colonisers was during and after World War II, when European empires called on their subjects to join the fighting. 

“So France and the European empires, but particularly France, during the Second World War calls on their empire, and enlists all of their colonial subjects. They go and they fight in Europe, or they fight in Africa. And then they understand, you know, what it is to be independent, and they’re trained in military expertise. 

“And so then they come back, and they take this home with them, and they take ideas of liberty and freedom, you know, the French ideals, and they do it at home. And so we see decolonisation happening in the late 1950s, early 1960s all over western Africa and, and southern Africa.”

map-of-africa-showing-european-colonies-and-independent-countries-in-africa-circa-1908 Map of Africa showing European colonies and independent countries in Africa, circa 1908. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The legacy of that decolonising movement of the mid-twentieth century seems to be coming to an end now, as many of the revolutionary leaders and parties who have maintained control since independence are being pushed out.

Business as usual?

“You know, a lot of these people that are being toppled are the same leaders that led the decolonisation movements, they’ve been in power for decades,” says Garsha. 

For Adekoya, the use of anti-French sentiment is likely more of a rhetorical ploy from the various coup leaders rather than something that represents truly held political beliefs. 

He says it’s difficult to say how much of this rhetoric is sincere, especially since those who have taken power are themselves members of the elite and have held power of some sort for years. 

“They’re not, you know, young 25-year-olds who just came from nowhere and want to decolonize the country,” he says. 

“Those taking over now, they know that that’s a good card to play. France is definitely seen as very much a country that interferes with the affairs of many of these African states, and they know the streets are going to love that too.

“If you take over in a coup, the first thing you need is some kind of popularity, because you need some kind of legitimacy.”

“If this was, you know, a 30 year old corporal, who hadn’t been in their league, and had organised the coup and was saying this, I might buy it more than a general who’s been in the army for 25 years and hasn’t really come out against France until now.”

In his opinion, the common theme among all of these countries that have recently experienced military coups is poverty and corruption. The celebration of these coups is a sign of desperation, he says, and anti-French rhetoric always goes down well.

“Unfortunately, I do think that in many, if not most African countries today, a coup would be celebrated on the streets. You know, because of the problems of corruption, and especially because of the economic problems. 

“African societies today are facing incredible economic problems… Anything new might be something positive.

“There’s definitely a lot of fertile ground right now for anyone who is promising a radical change, whether that person comes in civilian garb or in military uniform.”

Whether or not these military juntas can resist keeping power for themselves or succeed in returning their states to civilian governance is what remains to be seen, and there are cautionary tales from across the continent and the world of what can happen when countries become isolated by the West. 

Once a nation is isolated in this manner, it can no longer expect to receive military, economic and humanitarian aid from countries like France and the US, which often makes things worse domestically. On top of this, the country in question can also expect sanctions.

Zimbabwe may be the most appropriate example in this regard. Following the ouster and subsequent death of longtime president Robert Mugabe, there was jubilation and celebration across the country, with people dancing and singing in the streets.

That moment of hope was short lived though, as Mugabe’s party Zanu PF remained in power and the man who succeeded him, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was one of the dictator’s closest allies. So, in short, there has been a return to business as usual. 

Mnangagwa was re-elected earlier this week but the opposition are refusing to accept the result and observers have expressed doubt about its fairness. 

This example of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, Adekoya says, “just shows the desperation out there. 

He says this is why people will support anyone who takes over from a current government and offers them some kind of hope.

“Unfortunately, these hopes are often illusory, but it’s just that feeling that anything would be better than what we currently have.”

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