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The junta belt: What’s fueling the military takeovers sweeping across West and Central Africa?

Heads of State from Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali sign the Liptako-Gourma Charter establishing the Alliance of Sahel States (AES). Image via Colonel Assima Goita on X.

Note from LeftEast editors: We reprint Tamás Gerőcs’s article on the political economy of the recent wave of coup d’etat in West and Central Africa. The article was originally published at Africa Is a Country: a site of opinion, analysis, and new writing on and from the African left.

The militaries in six West African countries—Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon—decided relatively recently to remove civilian governments given the deteriorating security situation in the region. They achieved their goals separately by deploying relatively little force, instead seeking legitimation in a political vacuum that has been widening for more than a decade in parts of West and Central Africa. As I argued in my previous article, the escalation of local and regional conflicts should be viewed in the context of the disintegration of the post-World War II global hegemonic system dominated by the United States and its Western allies, and the subsequent rise of new power contenders, leading to the intensification of anti- and inter-imperialist struggles world-wide. Sadly, the escalation of imperialist rivalries has detrimental effects on the majority of people living in the global peripheries, where these complex conflicts take the most explicit form of war and plunder.

The military takeovers have been celebrated unequivocally by the local people in the Sahel with the expectation that more direct military control might stabilize the otherwise deteriorating security situation caused by the spread of insurgent paramilitary groups. In contrast, Western-allied neighboring governments and commentators remained wary that a possible knock-on effect of falling civilian governments could have far-reaching military, security, and political consequences throughout and beyond the region. Most of the countries in the Sahel are now under the control of military juntas. Now mocked as the Coup or Junta belt, these countries are confronted on many frontlines by insurgent separatists, Western powers, and members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The threat of a region-wide war between the Western-backed ECOWAS and the coalition of the juntas (seeking international support), has substantially risen since the coup in Niger in July 2023; while the unfolding separatist insurgency continues unabated in many parts of the region. The whole Sahel is on the verge of becoming yet another proxy war zone like the ones in the Middle East, Ukraine, or the Caucasus, raising doubts about the possibility of social, economic, or security improvements any time soon. The changing power configuration, however, could also entail the possibility of a complete decolonization that has been stalled in many of these countries since their formal independence.

Military coups are not entirely unknown in the wider region; Mali experienced a short-lived coup d’état in 2012 which ended with re-transitioning to civilian government due to the massive pressure from the West and ECOWAS; while Egypt, one of North Africa’s giants went through a similar experience in 2013, however, that country remained under military leadership which Western powers eventually recognized. There have been several unsuccessful coup attempts as well, such as in Gambia in 2022, and two failed internal coup attempts in the Burkina military just this year.

Although each coup has specific contextual characteristics, common dynamics in terms of how the Sahel as a geographical region has been integrated into the capitalist world-system can also be detected through a holistic historical approach. From this perspective, it is important to note that most of the countries recently experiencing military takeovers are former French colonies, thus this legacy seems to be one of the key driving forces of shifting power relations. This was also demonstrated by the fact that popular grievances against France burst out throughout the region, particularly in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. The fact that hostility towards France was not only ignited by the coup leaders but shared by large segments of the local population should not come as a surprise, as the legacy of colonialism has been vividly present up to this day.

Before colonization, the Sahel had a complex socio-ecological web of life. Its fertile lands gave home to diverse agricultural societies, while interethnic marriages were not uncommon even between pastoralist herdsmen such as the Fulani people, or traders of the Sahara, such as the Tuaregs, or settled farmers cultivating the fertile land, like the Hausa people. For many centuries before the European intrusion, the Trans-Sahara trade connected North and West Africa,  from the gold mines of Mali and Ghana in the forestry coastal regions, through to Cairo in the Northeast of the Nile, and Nubia in the Southeast, to the global trade circuits of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. These trade networks largely coalesced with the spread of Islam which has been the predominant legal-cultural regulatory system throughout the Sahel up until today. It would not be an exaggeration to call the region one of Africa’s breadbaskets which had seemingly inspired the French to conquer and integrate this complex geography under a singular colonial system.

The French intrusion peaked during the so-called “Scramble for Africa” which was in fact largely fueled by imperialist rivalry and the subsequent European expansion on the continent after the Berlin Conference in 1884, similar to the inter-imperialist struggles reemerging today. France’s initial aim was to challenge Britain’s fading global hegemony by establishing a colonial hinterland similar to the backbone of the British Empire, without which Britain would not have been able to sustain its global military, industrial, and commercial power for so long in the 19th century. In the case of British hegemony, India’s subjugation served the purpose of this imperial project, hence the French aspiration was to acquire a comparably large territory with similar precious resources. Therefore, the French colonial conquest concentrated on the old Sudan, which historically encompassed much of what is the Sahel today.

Although the scattered map of West Africa created by this imperialist rivalry was not the initial desire of French colonialism (which aimed to unify the whole region), France could never successfully challenge any global power by infinitely using West and Central Africa’s resources. However, once the political structure of the colonial system solidified after the scramble, France was able to establish its own hegemonic system within West Africa. During the belle epoque of the colonial period, the French administrators, in order to “develop their colonies,” ended the communal use of the vast grasslands, rupturing the ecological balance between pastoralists, farmers, and the soil, the latter being able to regenerate thanks to the ancient practices of extensive crop rotation. This agro-ecological reciprocal practice was replaced by cotton and groundnut plantations and other monocultural export crops, leading to the massive depletion of the soil. As Mahmood Mamdani showed in the case of Darfur, the tribalization and administrative division of the different ethnic groups—which otherwise had fluid interethnic boundaries—combined with the desertification of their fertile land, proved to be catastrophic for men and nature alike. Although it led to massive resistance, and ultimately to national liberation throughout North and West Africa, France was never shy of interfering in West African politics in order to contain anyone who was viewed as a threat to the status quo. France’s effort to sustain its regional power continued even after the former colonies gained independence in the 1960s, which has become the fundamental doctrine of the so-called Françafrique.

Françafrique’s neocolonial modus operandi was built to preserve important colonial policies, e.g., the so-called CFA franc zone which French president De Gaulle established in 1945 to control the finances of the West and Central African colonies. The monetary supervision within the CFA area was, however, part of a more grandiose project than just protecting France’s economic interests in West Africa. The new post-war hegemonic system based on the US-led global economic and political reconstruction was aimed at the geoeconomic reorientation of European colonial powers with the beginning of the Cold War. The US encouraged European integration into what later became the European Union with the prospect of a single European market, while at the same time assisting the opening of colonial markets for American companies. The US needed allies to contain the then Soviet Union, for which France was the preferred partner in West Africa.

By replacing the old colonial system with European integration, the French-German geoeconomic tandem has become the cornerstone of America’s global reconstruction. Both Germany and France profited from the hegemonic transition. Germany gained economic dominance in the EU with the Deutschmark (later euro), the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank and German industry accessed economic satellites in Southern and Eastern Europe via EU enlargement. In a similar fashion, France could reestablish economic dominance in West and Central Africa through monetary and economic control. For example, France retained the CFA system in the West African Monetary Union with the continuation of an exchange rate mechanism pegged to the French currency (later the euro) and the holding back of 50% of the member states’ foreign reserves at the French Central Bank. Therefore, France has profited enormously by using African reserves for various financial transactions, e.g., as collateral for the future European Central Bank. Moreover, French banks accounted for some 70% of the total turnover in the Western and Central CFA zones, while the French Central Bank sustained its veto right on the board of the two affiliated local central banks, the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC).

Thus, impoverished West African states were simply ripped off of their savings which they could not use freely without French permission for more than 75 years after independence. As a result, the UEMOA continued to keep member states in a monetary servitude and compensated France for a more subordinated economic role in the EU with guaranteed trade surpluses with every West African state since their independence.

Another notable example illustrating the combined development of European integration with France reestablishing economic and political dominance in West and Central Africa is in the realm of nuclear energy. In the post-war consolidation between the European powers, energy cooperation in niche areas came to the forefront with the signing of the EURATOM treaty in Rome in 1957, the same year that a major uranium deposit was discovered in Niger. France was a major beneficiary of both events, it started to build up its nuclear capacity which has become the second largest in the world (68% of France’s energy production came from 56 operable nuclear reactors in 2021). In exchange for Niger’s independence in 1960, the two countries signed the 1961 Defense Treaty in addition to other agreements that granted exclusive monopoly rights for French companies over mineral extraction, including Niger’s uranium deposits and other public procurements (similar bilateral treaties were signed between France and the other former African colonies). Niger has thus become the largest supplier of uranium both to the EU (20% of the total imports) and France in particular (almost 30% of the total imports in 2022).

Prior to the coup in Niger, France’s exclusive right to exploit the uranium was utilized by Areva, a state-owned company in France, later renamed to Orano, which controls 63,4% of SOMAIR, Niger’s national mining company. According to the Euratom Supply Agency (ESA), Niger became the second largest supplier of natural uranium to the EU, with a share of 25.38%, including ca. 20% of France’s total imports. The uranium mining has created many controversies. As filmmaker Amina Weira showed in her documentary, Anger in the Wind, it leaves behind an ecological catastrophe in the contaminated area around open pits in the Arlit region, negatively affecting the health of the local population.

In so many ways Françafrique guaranteed France’s position in the US-dominated global hegemonic system at the expense of the development of West African societies. The latter has been so tightly subordinated to France’s economic needs that intra-African trade could hardly develop under these global conditions. As long as France’s US-backed dominance remains intact, it is virtually impossible to integrate West African economies into a coherent regional division of labor based on inter-Sahel cooperation.

Nonetheless, France’s continuous attempt to oppress and exploit West Africans did not remain unchallenged by Pan-Africanist liberation movements. One of the most formidable thinkers of the anti-colonial struggle, Frantz Fanon, wrote The Wretched of the Earth, a manifesto of liberation from Algeria which at the time was France’s remaining overseas département. In the post-independence era, Libya, Africa’s most developed country, became an effective advocate of overcoming Africa’s neocolonial burden by strengthening regional cooperation before Muammar Gadaffi was displaced by rival rebels backed by NATO and its allies (including France) in 2011. One of Gadaffi’s most ambitious plans was to create a regional currency bloc based on Libya’s enormous gold reserves under the supervision of a Pan-African Central Bank in Tripoli. This would have meant the demise of the CFA currency bloc, thus Gadaffi’s plan clearly violated France’s hegemonic aspiration in “Françafrique” which is why France led the NATO intervention without which the rebels could not have been able to remove and execute Gadaffi.

Gadaffi’s fall from power unleashed utmost chaos with unimaginable suffering for North and West African people from armed traffickers and from the exodus of heavy weapons that caused the total collapse of security in the entire Sahel. Since then, Libya has been torn apart by an endless civil war with rivaling authorities in the Western part of the country with the center in Tripoli, backed by NATO and the EU, and the Eastern part with the center in Benghazi which is supported by Russian military assistance. As a consequence, Libya’s old but otherwise very developed infrastructure has been abandoned and falling apart, which is largely to blame for the collapse of the Derna dams in September, causing the death of thousands of people in the bustling cultural center of northeastern Libya.

Moreover, the spread of the military coups in the Sahel is the remote, however, direct consequences of the Libyan civil war. As a result of the demobilization of Gadaffi’s former Tuareg mercenaries, these heavily armored fighters returned to their homelands in Mali and Niger where they teamed up with local paramilitaries, many of whom have been dispossessed victims of climate-induced wide-spread pauperization. This has amplified the already escalating conflict over diminishing grazing land and water resources between herdsmen and farmers of different ethnicities, leading to the spread of violence in many rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. These paramilitary groups later launched a large-scale separatist insurgency (known in the Western media as a jihadist movement), first in northern Mali in 2012 which then spread to Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015. This ultimately led to political chaos in which leading officials of the military in each of these countries (sometimes members of the presidential guard) toppled the Western-allied civilian governments with the promise of restoring stability and order which the latter had been seemingly incapable of sustaining despite the massive involvement of Western military assistance. A well-known scenario that started in Darfur in the 1980s spread across the region by the 2020s.

As a first response to the insurgency before the coup happened in Mali, France had launched two major military operations to contain the jihadists and back the allied civilian governments using the old defense treaties as legitimation. First, it launched Operation Serval in Mali in 2013, which it later extended to the entire Sahel under the auspices of Operation Barkhane in 2014. These produced very limited results in terms of stopping the spread of violence and both operations had to be suspended after the militaries took power.

Although the military governments in both Mali and Niger announced the termination of their respective defense agreements with France and called for the French ambassadors to leave their countries—along with the withdrawal of French troops—France refused to recognize the coup leaders but eventually agreed to withdraw all the estimated 4,000 military personnel along with the ending of the United Nation’s MINUSMA Mission, which involved 13,000 soldiers patrolling Mali since 2013. Unsurprisingly, there have been another 1,100 American troops in Niger too, as the United States got involved in the fight against the jihadists.

The France-US tandem emulated in so many ways their earlier imperialist endeavor when the two launched a similar colonial war in Indochina in the 1960s, which not only ended with a massive withdrawal of their troops but turned out to be a turning point for the trajectory of American hegemony. Similar to Vietnam, Niger occupies a central position in the whole fabric of the French neocolonial structure, aka the Francafrique which explains why Western powers and their regional allies responded so vehemently to the coup. Along with France, the United States invested massively in the Nigerien army before the coup; it built 3 bases in Niger alone, including the largest and most modern drone facility in Agadez. This has proven to be yet another miscalculation, as Gen. Tchiani, the Nigerien coup leader is said to have been trained by none other than the American military, clearly upsetting the Pentagon.

Frustration has also been exacerbated by Europe’s energy crisis and the possibility that Russia’s Wagner mercenaries could take over the anti-Jihadist fight in Niger too, as happened in Mali, Burkina, the Central African Republic, and East Libya. Subsequently, Russia could gain access to critical infrastructure, such as the uranium supply to Europe, or Gazprom’s incessant strategy to get access to the yet-to-be-finished Trans-Sahara pipeline, connecting Nigerian natural gas via Niger and Algeria to Europe. However, the fate of this plan, also known as the NIGAL (which Niger’s ousted President Mohamed Bazoum signed and approved), is in question now.

This could explain Nigeria’s aggressive reaction, as the country’s newly elected president, Bola Tinubu (who took office just a few weeks before the Nigerien coup and has been overseeing the presidency of ECOWAS), openly threatened the Nigerien junta with military intervention. Although it is not entirely clear why Tinubu called for immediate action, (which he reversed shortly after), it should not necessarily come as a surprise either, given his country’s history of battling with France over regional leadership. Both Nigeria’s Congress and the country’s strong military opposed the plan for immediate intervention which has been called off the table for now. Tinubu’s rollback showed that his political legitimacy has not yet solidified because the election results have been fiercely contested by his political opponents in a country that itself witnessed a number of military takeovers in times of political crisis.

On top of that, Northern Nigeria’s Hausa-Fulani population is ethnically and culturally very close to the Nigerien people. As mentioned earlier, the border was the product of  French-British rivalry during the scramble, making any Nigerian cross-border military activity extremely unpopular among many Nigerians. Northern Nigeria has its own internal security problem on very similar ground as the farmer-herder ethnicized conflicts elsewhere in the Sahel, making an endless costly war, even if supported by Western powers, unrealistic for Nigeria’s poor economy. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s response was still very aggressive—it cut off 70% of Niger’s electricity supply and halted all cross-border activity, a heavy toll on the landlocked import-dependent Niger.

Despite (or rather because of) the hardships brought about by the sanctions, both Mali and Burkina demonstrated their solidarity with Niger, and the three military governments signed a mutual defense pact, presumably replacing old agreements with France. They also formed the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) with the stated purpose of increasing intra-Sahel trade, enhancing collaboration on such important areas as fuel and electricity exchange, transportation, controlling mineral extraction, and aiding agricultural projects. In short, it brought them closer in a renewed effort of Pan-Africanist regional cooperation. This has already improved their popularity and legitimacy among their citizens in addition to the successful mobilization of anti-French sentiment. Indicative of this popularity is Burkina’s ambitious young military leader Ibrahim Traore’s impactful speech at the second Africa-Russia summit held in SaintPetersburg in July which was cleverly designed in a way to resonate with the memory of Thomas Sankara, the assassinated pan-Africanist military leader of Burkina.

Although Russia and China pose a major challenge to Western imperialist endeavors in Africa, the competition with Western, particularly NATO, powers is more ingrained in an escalating global rivalry for resources and new political alliances. The escalation of the inter-imperialist conflict started with trade and economic competition in niche areas, such as nuclear or other industrial technologies and in particular regions of the global (semi-)periphery, such as Ukraine, Caucuses, or even Taiwan, but competition turned into outright military hostility. Pressured by Western sanctions Russia has been particularly keen on finding partners in those peripheral regions to seek support for its own global and military objectives since the war broke out in Ukraine. Since 2022, the pressure has grown immensely on Russia to establish working relationships anywhere it could, including places like North Korea or the Junta Belt. What it could offer at least in the Sahel was the military assistance of the Wagner mercenaries and some help with grain shipments, although the sudden beheading of Wagner and its reintegration into the Russian army has made this effort more complicated. Nonetheless, Russian defense deputies already visited the Junta belt to seek broader military and political cooperation which could actually help endure the juntas’ stay in power.

China has also been present in West and Central Africa, although with a slightly different geopolitical approach. It did not specify its military alliance along the same geopolitical lines as Russia did, with the latter trying to replace French military presence wherever the opportunity occurs. Instead, China has more capacity to reorganize local economies according to its own resource-intensive and market-seeking initiatives. This has also intensified since the 2008 global financial crisis, which forced Chinese capital to expand internationally—launching multilateral arrangements such as the Belt and Road Initiative, or the recently enlarged BRICS 11. For these geopolitical purposes, China is committed to providing much-needed financial assistance, and infrastructural projects in parts of Africa particularly underdeveloped due to the legacy of various European monopolies.

The divisions in West and Central Africa are not happening in a global vacuum but are the results of geopolitical tensions triggered by fierce rivalry among the imperialist powers in a disintegrating global system. However inter-imperialist conflicts are not to be mistaken with anti-imperialist struggle. The two can intersect in moments of historical conjunctures, particularly in such a transitional period in which we live today, escalating global imperialism with spreading militarization and economic sanctions do not bring peace and consolidation but more devastation and warfare both on regional as well as global levels. To counteract these tendencies, a real anti-imperialist movement should rely on regional initiatives that foster cooperation and alliances within those regions. Initiatives, such as the G5 Sahel on security or the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PASS) for a new African currency bloc, as well as the African Free Trade Area (AFCTA) should be viewed as important steps in this direction. African people have all the resources and capacity to build on these past experiences to which the Juntas might be able to add their own experience as well.