Africa’s Sahel is undergoing a second decolonisation as nations overthrow neo-colonial rule

September 27, 2023
Flags of the Sahel
Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed the Alliance of Sahel States on September 16, which obliges each nation to support any other, including militarily, if they’re under any internal or external threat.

The mid-19th century European scramble to colonise Africa was brought to an end by the late 1950’s-early 1960’s process of decolonisation. But this departure of direct foreign rule was replaced by neo-colonialism, which involves local oligarchs divvying up a nation’s wealth with prior colonial rulers.

Those who sought real independence and socially equitable societies in the wake of colonisation — such as Burkina Faso’s president Thomas Sankara and Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba — were assassinated, with the incidents linked back to each nation’s former colonial oppressors.

What has been dubbed a second decolonisation process is occurring right now in Africa’s Sahel — the semi-arid region of western and north central Africa — from Senegal to Sudan. It is resulting in a repeated scramble by neo-colonial NATO powers for the resource rich region.

Niger’s coup took place on July 26, receiving limited global attention. Burkina Faso did the same in January, and ordered the French out. Chad overthrew its government in April, 2021.Mali did so the following month and expelled the French, while Guinea staged a coup in September that year.

Anti-French sentiment has been rife throughout them all. But while these are military coups, they are widely supported by the people, as troops challenge neo-colonial rule. And while questions surround Gabon’s 28 August coup, as its leaders were close to the previous regime, the word on the street is that it too is a people’s victory.

ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has threatened to intervene militarily since Niger, one of its 15 member states, had its government overthrown. However, Mali and Burkina Faso have stated they’ll support Niger against any US/French-backed ECOWAS intervention.

Strategic sore points

Just after ECOWAS failed to intervene in Niger on its August 6 deadline, Global Pan African Movement North America chair Horace Campbell told Democracy Now! that the overthrow of the Niger government was due to the loss of civilian power and leadership sparked by the “war on terror”.

This “is a consequence of the militarisation of Nigerien society, when the society needs social and economic reconstruction”, said the scholar. The US “has pumped more than a billion dollars into this region into military facilities and military programs and supporting military elements”.

According to Campbell, the US has further invested half a billion dollars in a military base and drone facilities near the Nigerien city of Agadez, which was built to aid in the French exploitation of its mineral resources and civilian labour. Niger supplies 5% of global uranium and it is high-grade.

The Nigerien coup leaders gave the French a deadline to vacate its territory, however the Macron government has been stalling on removing its military presence and negotiations continue, while the US, with its concerns over the region’s mineral wealth, has agreed to move some of its personnel.

“We cannot discuss what’s going on in Niger without discussing the call by the African people for the expulsion of France from West Africa,” Campbell underscored. “The foreign minister of Mali has called on the United Nations to investigate France in the region.”

The neo-colonial con

The circumstances of the August 30 Gabon coup, which saw the end of the Bongo family’s 56 years of rule, is a perfect example of how neo-colonialism continues to shape previously colonised African nations to the benefit of small local elites and their previous colonial rulers.

Gabon became an autonomous nation, free of colonial rule in 1960. When its first ruler, Leon M'Ba, died in 1967, his deputy, Omar Bongo became president. After Bongo’s 2009 death, his son Ali Bongo took control of one of the wealthiest African nations, where one-third of its citizens are extremely poor.

Under the autocratic Bongo regime, French company Elf Gabon operated as a state within a state, as it extracted oil from the country, with the multinational corporation at times obtaining 75% of its profits from Gabon. Meanwhile, the Bongo family kept 18% of the nation’s profits for itself.

Montclair State University Professor Daniel Mengara told Democracy Now! that while questions are being raised about whether the coup leaders will forge democratic reforms or repeat the past, he believes the Gabonese people will be able to influence those in power to break French domination.

Breaking the shackles

In a sign that the nations of the Sahel are further going it alone, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed the Alliance of Sahel States on September 16, which obliges each nation to support any other, including militarily, if they’re under any internal or external threat.

This would include the terrorist organisations that moved into the region after the destruction of Libya, and any threat from ECOWAS, although that organisation has toned down its stance against these nations, as they attempt to throw off the colonial ties that have persisted since the 1960s.

The French have withdrawn from Mali and Burkina Faso, but are still holding on in Niger, where the United States also has an established military presence.

US encroachments into the Sahel began in 2002 with the war on terror. Its Pan-Sahel Initiative covered Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. This morphed into the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, in 2005; part of Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans Sahara.

Following this, the three US commands focused on the African continent were joined together in 2007 to form the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is intended to maintain stability on the African continent against terrorist threats, whilst also ensuring US interests in the region.

AFRICOM convened the West Africa Logistics Conference in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on September 19, with ECOWAS, the African Union and other West African states, including Chad, in attendance. Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali and Niger did not attend.

Much of the Western reporting on the tumultuous events in the Sahel has depicted the coups as military takeovers of civilian governments, rather than popularly-supported anti-colonial coup leaders moving to resist old colonial encroachments and new inroads by the US.

After centuries of domination, African nations of the Sahel are now asserting that their territories and the abundance of resources they contain belong rightfully to the people, and any wealth that is generated from these minerals should benefit the entire nation and its citizens.

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