‘France has not renewed its African policy and it doesn’t know what to do because the neocolonial framework has disappeared’

Historian and political scientist Rahmane Idrissa believes that Niger’s coup d’état will cause the infrastructures that channel foreign aid to be restricted, which will harm the most disadvantaged population

Rahmane Idrissa
The historian and political scientist Rahmane Idrissa, pictured at Leiden University, in the Netherlands.Marc Driessen
Isabel Ferrer

Historian and political scientist Rahmane Idrissa arrives on time at a quiet cafe that hosts philosophical talks in the Dutch city of Leiden, home to the headquarters of the African Studies Center where he analyzes the sociopolitical democratization of countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. All three have military juntas in power, with the Niger crisis that started last July 26 in the lead, when the insurgents detained President Mohammed Bazoum in his residence, giving rise to the immediate condemnation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It is part of a sort of epidemic of protests similar to the one that took place on August 30 in Gabon, in the center of the continent. In all cases they are French-speaking countries, but although the coups might seem similar, there are substantial differences that have revealed a lack of reaction from France, the former colonial power. Idrissa describes the behavior of the French government as a “zombie policy,” as “it reacts without knowing what to do.” He believes that the French have lost their former neocolonial interest in Africa as a result of globalization.

Question. What types of coups are you seeing in Africa?

Answer. There are two kinds. The corrective ones and what I call defeat coups. The first take place when the leaders of a country have not respected the limits of their mandate. The one in Gabon occurred because the Bongo dynasty [which had been in power for 56 years] kept stealing the elections; that is why they were kicked out. The countries of equatorial Africa have a history of despotism and dictatorship, and in Gabon they are saying that they will start a transition and a democratic process. Perhaps. In Niger, since the beginning of democratization in 1991, there were three coups before the current one: in 1996, 1999 and 2010. They were due to a political crisis caused by the behavior of politicians, either because the president in question controlled the electoral process or because he changed the Constitution to perpetuate himself in power.

On the other hand, the protests in Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as those in Niger, took place in a climate of intense security crisis. Especially in the first two countries, where much of the territory is outside the control of the central government and dominated by jihadists. There is no security for anyone because the latter have not managed to completely take over those regions either, due to their internal divisions. This has led the state to a crisis, despite the support of France and Europe. The military decided that they had the solution and staged this coup, which I call a defeat coup because it arises from the failure of the governments led by civilians facing the jihadists.

Q. What do these countries’ inability to defeat them reveal?

A. Jihadism has caused problems and chaos that reveal the weakness of the Sahel. They are not that strong. They are not the Taliban. If they were strong they would have taken important cities like Bamako [Mali’s capital]. Despite this, the African states are not capable of defeating them. For two reasons. The first is the cost of a war that requires a competent army; there is none. That’s why they asked France and others for help. Niger was not planning to go to war with anyone and it did not invest in training armed forces. The other explanation is political will, because the necessary reforms to defeat the jihadists have not been made. I’ll give you an example: when the pandemic started, Niger activated everything. There were curfews, mosques were closed even in the regions where [Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group] Boko Haram holds the upper hand. They invested a lot to reform the health system. Why? Out of fear. They thought that the coronavirus was very dangerous.

Q. What was France’s plan regarding the jihadists in Africa?

A. When the French arrived, jihadism was an international and European problem, with the attacks and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; in Somalia, Libya and Mozambique. The idea of them reaching the Sahel was alarming. France only has 5,000 soldiers concentrated in Mali, so they cannot be eliminated, but they can eliminate the jihadist leaders and weaken them to buy some time. The idea was to help the different countries create a security system for national troops to fight jihadists. But the African countries did not make the necessary changes, and their armies were very nationalistic. They did not trust the French because of the colonial past. Now they are driving the French out of Mali and Burkina Faso, and I think they may end up leaving Niger too. France hopes that the intransigence of ECOWAS with the coup in Niger will lead the junta to some kind of pact. If ECOWAS wanted to carry out a military intervention, the French would help. That is why the coup plotters want them to leave: the presence of the French troops reinforces the risk of that intervention. That is why they are organizing the massive demonstrations that we have been seeing.

Q. You say that France does not know what to do in Africa, and at the same time there are other countries with great interests in the continent, from Russia to China, not forgetting the United States.

A. These military juntas call for a break with France because we are in French-speaking Africa, but they also extend it to the West due to anti-imperialism. The ideology reaches the rebels through African intellectuals, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso. They are stuck in the 1960s, when national liberation movements, Marxism-Leninism and Third World theories converged, creating an identity and a political consciousness. In this context, France doesn’t know what to do because it has not renewed its African policy and the neocolonial framework that was in force until the 1980s — which allowed it to obtain strategic resources like uranium from Niger in exchange for aid and stability — has disappeared. Then Russia appeared, although it is only present in Mali and perhaps Burkina Faso. They call the Wagner Group mercenaries, when they are a branch of the Russian secret services headed by President Vladimir Putin. The goal is control by investing in chaos. I don’t think China likes military coups. The communist party controls a system that seeks to create wealth through international trade, and it doesn’t want unpredictable situations. And the United States only acts when it concerns them. Now they are worried that some African countries could move closer to Russia.

Q. The United Nations estimates that more than 710,000 people are displaced in Niger. What is going to happen?

A. The coups are problematic because they are also “ideological.” They are presented as necessary to break with the West. In practice, in the name of Pan-Africanism, rather than pragmatism, the infrastructures that channel foreign aid are restricted. The situation affects a population, such as migrants and refugees, that depends on this aid, so the role of civil society as an intermediary is key to exert pressure on the established authorities. A solution is urgently needed because these crises deteriorate human security. The European Union has stopped its financial support and Niger has a smaller economy than Mali. Its a big problem.

Q. Could there be a domino effect with more coups in the rest of the continent?

A. This is what prompted ECOWAS’ strong reaction. The problem when you don’t respond is that things can spread. Mali’s coup was strictly sanctioned at first, and then that stopped. Senegal and Ivory Coast softened the sanctions because they are Mali’s economic partners and they felt the effects. There was also division within the ECOWAS itself, as Togo wanted a diplomatic route. There were no sanctions with the Burkina Faso uprising, and that encouraged Niger’s military to carry out their coup. They thought nothing would happen. First, because by trying to normalize the insurgents to spur a transition, what has been normalized is the coup d’état. Also, because Niger’s President Bazoum warned that it could happen to him too, and they didn’t support him. A possible domino effect is not so much due to the conditions that the coups have brought to the Sahel, which don’t exist in other African countries. It is because if a soldier sees that there is no sanction, he may contemplate doing it for other reasons.

Q. What role can French President Emmanuel Macron play?

A. I don’t think he understands what is happening, although he tries. But what does he do? He orders reports on France’s misdeeds in Rwanda or Algeria and returns works of art. Why not create university-level exchange programs? The anti-French ideology does not arise in the streets, but among the elites and intellectuals; in universities and schools. We share the language and there are resources from the colonial era to establish relationships. However, while much is invested in the former colonies, the largest French investments are not in the Sahel. There is more invested in Nigeria than in the rest of West Africa, including French-speaking countries.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS