Analysis by Stephanie Busari, CNN
(CNN) — Days after the democratically elected president of Niger was deposed in a military coup, thousands of supporters of the takeover thronged the French embassy in the nation’s capital to deliver an unmistakable message to their former colonial power and its Western allies.
As President Mohamed Bazoum was being held captive by his soldiers at the presidential palace in Niamey, tense scenes played out down the road where pro-coup Nigeriens, some waving Russian flags, chanted “long live Putin” and “down with France” as a plaque at the embassy was torn down.
The images reverberated through the halls of power at the Elysee Palace in Paris, thousands of miles away. French President Emmanuel Macron threatened retaliation against any attacks on French nationals and condemned the coup as “completely illegitimate and profoundly dangerous for the Nigeriens, Niger and the whole region.”
The United States and other Western nations also condemned the coup, and a bloc of Western African countries threatened to intervene militarily if Bazoum was not reinstated.
US President Joe Biden called for the immediate release of Bazoum in a written statement commemorating Niger’s Independence Day, saying Washington “stands with the people of Niger” as the country faces a “grave challenge to its democracy.”
The toppling of Bazoum was just the latest in a spate of recent coups stretching from one side of Africa to the other. Five countries in western and central Africa have been seized by military juntas in the past three years, five of them former French colonies.
The coups have unfolded within the context of a wider struggle between the West and Russia for influence in Africa, where experts say a rising tide of anger in former French colonies has left the door open for the Kremlin. While there is no sign that Russia helped instigate Niger’s rebellion, Moscow has sought to take advantage of anti-Western sentiment around the region in recent years.
US officials warn that the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which helps prop up several military juntas in the region, could seek to exploit the crisis in Niger. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has celebrated the putsch and offered to help the country’s new leaders.
As Western countries raced to evacuate their people from Niamey on Wednesday, one of Niger’s coup leaders flew with a delegation to neighboring Mali, where hundreds of Wagner contractors are stationed, to seek support from that nation’s military ruler.
An important Western ally
The coup in Niger has deprived Western nations, particularly France and the United States, of a key ally in a troubled region.
The largest country in West Africa, Niger had been touted as a democratic success story on the continent and Bazoum was seen as a crucial partner in the fight against Islamist jihadists in the region.
About 1,100 US troops are stationed in the country, including at a drone base that aids the Nigerien military in countering insurgents affiliated to ISIS and al Qaeda.
The French military also maintains two permanent bases in the Sahel region, one of which is in Niamey. This was the main base for its flagship Operation Barkhane, a broader French anti-terror initiative targeting militants across the Sahel, including in Burkina Faso.
The number of violent events involving militant Islamist groups in the Sahel has doubled since 2021, according to a report published Monday by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think-tank.
Niger is also a leading supply of uranium to the European Union and produces around 5% of the world’s supply of the mineral, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Despite its wealth of resources, Niger remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Many Nigeriens, especially in the younger generation, see France as responsible for prevailing poverty levels in their country.
“We came out to tell this little Macron from France that Niger belongs to us. It is up to us to do what we want with Niger, we deal with who we want,” Maman Sani, a pro-coup protester, told CNN.
This resentment has spilled over into a burgeoning anti-French sentiment that is rising across the former French colonies in West and Central Africa, said Oluwole Ojewale, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies.
“There’s a sense that even though France granted independence … they are still tied to the umbilical cord of France. There’s a subtle thinking that nothing takes place in Francophone countries without the tacit approval of France,” Ojewale told CNN.
For decades, Paris has maintained a prominent presence in many African nations stemming from its colonial history in the continent, a relationship known as “Françafrique.”
Françafrique has often been criticized for perpetuating neo-colonial practices. For example, few things have sparked more controversy than the Central African franc or CFA, a currency which is used by 14 nations in West and Central Africa including Niger.
Countries using CFA Francs are required to store 50% of their currency reserves with the Banque de France, and the currency is pegged to the euro. While Paris asserts that the system promotes economic stability, others say it allows France to exert control over the economy of the countries using it.
A battle for influence
The wave of anger against the French in its former colonies in Africa presents an opportunity for Russia as it seeks to extend its influence across the continent, said Remi Adekoya, an associate lecturer in politics at the UK’s York University.
“When people were talking about potential rivals of Western influence in Africa, it was always China,” Adekoya said. “Now in the past couple years, essentially since the war with Ukraine, Russia has intensified its efforts, and all of a sudden Russia is now back almost as a geopolitical player on the African continent, and Western intelligence services are worried.”
Wagner is central to the way in which Russia has maintained and grown its clout in Africa.
Several CNN investigations, alongside research by human rights groups, have uncovered the private military company’s association with atrocities perpetrated against civilian populations in Mali and Sudan, where it has come to the aid of military juntas. The mercenaries have also been tracked in other African nations including the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya.
Wagner founder Prigozhin blamed the coup in Niger on the legacy of colonialism, and said his group was capable of dealing with situations like the one unfolding in Niamey, though there are no signs yet that his offer has been taken up.
“What happened in Niger has been brewing for years,” Prigozhin said in a message posted on social media. “The former colonizers are trying to keep the people of African countries in check. In order to keep them in check, the former colonizers are filling these countries with terrorists and various bandit formations. Thus creating a colossal security crisis.”
As the coup was unfolding in Niger last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin was launching a charm offensive on African leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg, where he railed against Western colonialism and wooed attendees with gifts, including debt relief for Somalia, a mobile medical laboratory for Uganda and even a presidential helicopter for the leader of Zimbabwe.
The meeting was more sparsely attended than the Kremlin had hoped. Seventeen African heads of state showed up, far fewer than the 43 that attended a previous summit in 2019.
The poor turnout came days after Russia’s cancellation of a Ukrainian grain export deal angered some African leaders.
The Russian leader defended his withdrawal from the pact, which is crucial to food supplies on the continent, and pledged to send free grain to six African countries.
One of the recipients was Burkina Faso, where Ibrahim Traore seized power in a coup last October and has since distanced his country completely from France. The 34-year-old is Africa’s youngest head of state and was one of several junta leaders at the summit, during which he pledged the “support and friendship of the Burkinabe people” to Russia.
“The region is shaken up by the desire for change from different people,” Traore said in a speech at the summit. “This has led us to turn our backs on traditional partners and to turn to our real friends, like Russia which has supported us through decolonization until today.”
Traore also alluded to the coup in Niger, saying the military “was taking responsibility” for the country, and asking for support for the new junta. “We want the same thing … a multipolar world towards sovereignty … and a complete change of partners.”
Traore was given a hero’s welcome and was mobbed by a crowd on his return home.
“The military leaders are using the anti-French sentiment to stay in power,” said Ojewale, the ISS expert. “They claim to be the new messiahs but this time around, they are wearing Khaki (uniforms). It is anti-French populism.”
Ojewale says Paris has its work cut out to stem the tide of anti-French sentiment on the continent.
“The French needs to rebuild and repair with Francophone countries. That’s going to be very difficult to do. There’s a third wave of scramble for Africa. The British are coming. The Chinese are coming. The US is coming, Russia is coming. Everyone wants to trade with Africa.”
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