The New Scramble in Africa
The New Scramble in Africa - What happens now in Africa after the influence of the major foreign powers—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the European Union, and communist China—has evaporated?
The New Scramble in Africa
What happens now in Africa after the influence of the major foreign powers—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the European Union, and communist China—has evaporated?
Russia has begun to reassert itself comprehensively into the continent, filling the vacuum left by the evaporating influence of Beijing, just as China walked into an Africa abandoned by the former European colonial powers and the United States.
Now, ECOWAS—the Economic Community of West African States, possibly the most significant strategic bloc in Africa—may fall apart as the successive coups within its membership threaten its viability. The latest coup—in Niger on July 26—was merely the latest illegal overthrow of a West African government, and this now threatens the proposed regional development of strategic pipeline infrastructure, among other things.
But the “new African era of coups”—which I had explicitly forecast in a report in October 2021—has also consolidated Russian influence into Africa, which has taken place since the United States essentially declared war on Moscow with the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in February 2022.
France, the former colonial power in Niger, along with Nigeria and ECOWAS itself, demanded the restoration of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum, only to be met with a resolute rebuff by the coup leaders. The U.S. government, uncharacteristically, acted with caution and refrained from calling the event a coup, given that this would trigger the removal of U.S. cooperation with Niger on counterinsurgency activities in which the United States and Niger had been partners. But the U.S. position did not work well.
Victoria Nuland, the U.S. acting deputy secretary of state, led a team that met with key members of the Nigerien coup leadership, including newly-installed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Niger (FAN) Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, on Aug. 7.
She was not able to meet with the coup leader and de facto new head-of-state, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani.
Ms. Nuland’s engagement was highly significant: she is the principal “anti-Russian” in the State Department and has been the architect of U.S. anti-Russian activities in Europe for some two decades. Her engagement in the Niger talks signified that Washington was aware that the Niger situation was all about countering Russian engagement in Niamey. And she was clearly blunt with the new Nigerien military government, which met her with equal resolve.
The government of the Republic of Niger was overthrown by a military coup by the presidential guard on the evening of July 2. Mr. Bazoum—elected in 2021—was detained in the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey. This was the seventh coup in Africa since 2020.
Some pro-coup demonstrators in front of the National Assembly building on July 27 waved Russian flags and chanted anti-French slogans, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for constitutional government to be restored.
It became clear, however, that Russia was the coordinating support behind the coup governments of Mali (coup May 23, 2021) and Burkina Faso (coup Sept. 30, 2022), both of which were also members of ECOWAS. Mali formally withdrew from ECOWAS on Jan. 24, 2022, and ended diplomatic, military, and economic cooperation with France.
The military governments of Burkina Faso and Mali on Aug. 1 warned that any military intervention against the Niger coup leaders would be considered a “declaration of war” against their nations. The statement was in response to hints that France might intervene militarily and that ECOWAS would also consider military action to restore the elected president of Niger. Both states, as well as Niger, have a strong presence of Russian diplomats and mercenary troops from the Wagner professional military corporation.
Wagner forces have now been seen operating in Niger; they had already been in Mali for more than a year.
This reaffirmed what I stated in a previous article, titled “Why We Should Not Be Diverted by the Wagner Comic Opera”), that the so-called Wagner mutiny by its contract forces in Ukraine in June would not interfere with Russian government-contracted services by Wagner in Africa and the Middle East. This has proven correct.
Nigeria, which had presidential elections on Feb. 25, under legally challenged (and as yet unresolved) circumstances, inherited the chairmanship of ECOWAS. That bloc on July 9 chose a new president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, as chairman of the regional bloc for the next year, replacing Guinea-Bissau leader Umaro Sissoco Embalo, and despite the fact that Mr. Tinubu had not yet been cleared of court challenges to his election.
Indeed, the Nigerian election was widely regarded as an unconstitutional seizure of power, just as the June 26 election in Sierra Leone was seen as a blatant seizure of power through the manipulation of the electoral machinery by incumbent President Julius Maada Bio. So with the addition of the coup in Guinea on Sept. 5, 2021, the 16-member ECOWAS had, since late 2021, suffered five changes of governments, which—to many observers—breached their national constitutions.
Sierra Leone’s president, challenged by ECOWAS and others as to the legitimacy of his new government, also threatened to quit ECOWAS after Nigeria said that Sierra Leone would lose substantial aid from its neighbors if it did not address the questions of the legitimacy of its election. With that, the UK's high commissioner (ambassador) to Sierra Leone, Lisa Chesney, tried to soft-peddle the UK’s criticism of the Sierra Leone election in order to regain leverage in Freetown.
Even so, Mr. Bio—a retired army brigadier—has escalated his crackdown on the continuing unrest and protests caused by his claim to have won the election.
Meanwhile, on July 30, ECOWAS, under Chairman Tinubu, gave the Niger coup leaders one week to restore Mr. Bazoum to his elected office or face possible military intervention by ECOWAS members. Mr. Tinubu also indicated that ECOWAS would impose a “no-fly zone” over Niger—which shares a long land border with Nigeria—as part of the process. But Nigerian military forces lack that capability—even as the strongest of the ECOWAS militaries—and cannot suppress its own insurgencies, let alone challenge Niger’s small, competent military force to a conventional military action.
Unsurprisingly, the one-week ECOWAS deadline came and passed without action. Ms. Nuland came and went; she was unable even to meet the new military head of government, Brig.-Gen. Tchiani. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley spoke with Niger’s Lt.-Gen. Maman Sambo Sidikou on July 27, with equal lack of success, and, in fact, Gen. Sidikou was replaced as the chief of staff of the Niger Armed Forces a few days later.
Ms. Nuland had suggested that the United States, which had been working successfully with the government of Niger on counterinsurgency operations, could broker negotiations to end the stalemate. The new military government in Niamey, however, had little incentive to accept that offer.
So ECOWAS and the Western powers were left with little or no leverage.
What was critical to the region and the international community was more than the counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), etc. What was of substantial importance was the fact that the standoff could severely interfere with plans for the ECOWAS pipeline—in fact, a natural gas pipeline from Nigeria to Morocco, which would have provided energy to Benin, Togo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco. It could be extended to provide gas via pipeline to Europe.
The pipeline was not intended to pass through Niger, but the decline in regional stability was expected to make the venture more problematic.
Niger’s own strategic significance was, in any event, not just about containing regional Islamist insurgency. Niger’s significant holdings of uranium made it important to all major powers and figured prominently in the U.S. attempts to stop the flow of uranium to Libya and Iraq in the 1990s.
There is little chance of restoring the status quo ante in West Africa at any time in the near future. Neither ECOWAS nor the major international players, including China, showed that they had meaningful leverage. Russia, long engaged through much of Africa but without the same colonial baggage as the others, has shown that its influence is growing. It is a buyer of the gold of Mali (and other regional states) and has promised grain and fertilizer aid to its new client states. So the new coup (and quasi-coup) states can weather the storm of opprobrium.
At the same time, democracy in West Africa and Africa as a whole has assumed a different meaning than in the recent past.
The emerging “rethinking” of “national” identities in Africa, the Middle East, and the Northern Tier will provide a canvas for misadventure for several decades. And for the moment, without even looking at the challenges facing the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, or the Maghreb, it’s clear that Washington and Paris have been losing influence.
How the United States, France, and Nigeria respond to the Niger crisis—and whether they can reflect a positive example of “democratic governance”—will determine which models of the future African societies will favor.