The ambivalence in which the leading Western countries find themselves in the aftermath of the military coup in Niger obviously illustrates their difficult search for a policy regarding developing countries, now that the traditional instruments of influence have been, to a large extent, exhausted. The story of the removal of President Bazoum from power continues amid the ECOWAS countries voicing their readiness to restore the country’s former constitutional order; we cannot yet say how dramatic this course of events will be for West Africa or the people of Niger itself. It is very likely that the radical change of power will not continue in Niger with the same success as in neighbouring Mali or Burkina Faso. However, it is already obvious that France’s system of post-colonial influence in this region is in a deep crisis, the consequences of which remain uncertain, including the general interaction of the West with the developing countries which are least protected from its claims.
France, of course, lingered in Africa much longer than it should have. Among Europe’s former colonial empires that created their fortunes on the robbery of African and Asian peoples, France alone was able to create in the region, after leaving it, an infrastructure of political influence that not only affected the economy, but also the basic issues affecting the development of new sovereign states. The Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union, the leading international organisations in the region, were established at various times with the support of France and enjoy its patronage. In some countries of the region, including Senegal, Gabon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger, the French presence is expressed through the deployment of military bases and contingents. The history of the region over the past 40-50 years knows many examples of direct military intervention by the former metropole.
Paris has always enjoyed the ambivalent support of the United States, which, while striving to take away the most tasty pieces of the colonial “pie” from the Europeans, in a number of cases prefers to delegate the implementation of direct violence to its European satellites. Paris has played this role quite successfully since the mid-1960s. Moreover, this is very flattering to its national pride, free from liberal prejudices against peoples that French society considers to be below the level of development. Besides, it allows to extract considerable economic benefits from its monopoly access to natural resources that are very important for the modern French economy. What the second European giant, Germany, has to buy for hard currency, France takes in Africa practically for free. In other words, if we can talk about the relationship between the West and most of the world as a neo-colonial domination, then French influence in part of Africa is not much different from simple colonialism. Even the system of international institutions based on formal sovereignty, which the United States imposed everywhere in the 20th century, could not become an obstacle to such a strategy.
However, every story has an end. Now the development of African societies, as well as the general weakening of their enslavers, has led relations between them to some kind of intermediate finale, after which the former colonial masters will either have to leave altogether or look for new ways of maintaining their presence in Africa. The main reason is that the forces and resources of Paris are no longer sufficient to control the governments of formally sovereign countries, and there is no adequate replacement for it among the leading powers of the West.
Moreover, new external players are coming to Africa more and more actively. Russia is increasing its presence there in the field of security and the fight against religious terrorist groups, and China is increasing its influence in the economic sphere, often offering African countries much more beneficial and respectful models of cooperation than they could ever expect to receive from the West. This is especially sensitive in areas where the European powers have never faced competition and are accustomed to not burdening themselves particularly with issues of social infrastructure.
African governments themselves increasingly see themselves in a world of alternative opportunities, which means they are open to contacts and active interaction with many external partners. A vivid example was the participation of many African leaders and their representatives in the July forum and Russia-Africa summit, held in St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that their presence there threatened many of them with complications with the United States and its European allies, representatives of African countries did not hide the fact that they were open to dialogue and practical cooperation with Russia even during its fierce conflict with the West. Against the background of France’s many years of claims about Russia’s alleged desire to prevent it from addressing the security issues of some African countries, such behaviour looks consistently independent.
It would be an unacceptable simplification to think that the countries of the West, and especially France, do not understand the content and nature of the processes taking place with their influence in Africa. As in the West’s relations with the international community as a whole, Paris is looking for new ways to extract maximum benefit where direct control becomes impossible. This provides outside observers with the opportunity to talk about the decline of French power in a region where until recently, the French felt completely comfortable. What opportunities do they have to maintain their presence, and do they exist at all? Especially considering that militarily France is still much stronger than each of the African nations individually, but is no longer able to convert this advantage into undeniable political influence.
We can assume that in the coming years the former colonial empire will make an attempt to rely even more on friendly or rather corrupt regimes and political elites. The gradual phasing out of the military presence in Africa will require more close work with individual countries and for France to take their military capabilities more seriously. As a matter of fact, it is the prospects for military intervention by the ECOWAS countries in Niger that become an important indicator in this sense. In the event that such an intervention occurs and proves successful, we can expect a relative renaissance of French influence, but already in the form of the regional organizations’ activities. We see something similar in the Caribbean, where most of the known interventions took place under the flag and forces of an association of regional small states, backed by the United States.
It is also possible, however, that a successful ECOWAS intervention in Niger would give the group’s leaders more self-confidence, not only in relation to their neighbours, but also in the complex interaction with France. Paris in such circumstances should not rely on ECOWAS to obediently execute its will. The member countries of this organization will, if successful, become more active and engage in dialogue with the United States, as well as other major powers. Some of their leaders and representatives took part in the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, where President Macron was not invited despite his insistence. The reserved attitude towards the possibility of the invasion of Niger by the ECOWAS countries for several weeks already shows that internal considerations and regional stability play a much more significant role in their strategy than the demands and oddities of Paris.
No matter how the situation around Niger itself develops in the near future, the events of recent years show that France, like the rest of the West, does not have ready-made recipes for maintaining its influence in Africa. The crisis of ideas is accompanied by a crisis of material resources, and together they create a catastrophic perception of the situation. France’s problems in Africa are not the decline of the international or regional order as such, but a reduction of power of those who until recently could have had a decisive influence on it.
from our partner RIAC