By Michael A. Cessna, Military Affairs Correspondent
On July 26th, the Presidential Guard of Niger arrested and detained the country’s President, Mohamed Bazoum, in a palace coup. The Presidential Guard’s move was quickly approved of by the Nigerian military, with General Abdourahmane “Omar” Tchiani being named to head the military junta now ruling the country.
The international response was as swift as it was predictable, with stentorian platitudes about immediately “restoring democratic rule.” However, events swiftly took an equally unexpected turn, which has brought Western Africa to the point of all-out war, not just internally, but with France, and potentially NATO itself.
In brief: Africa is sick of France’s runaway neo-colonialism and is starting to find its legs with a nascent unified front…and Russia is waiting to pick up the pieces.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
As news of the coup spread, Nigerien civilians swept into the streets, in apparent support of the coup. While not unusual in coups, especially in Africa, what made this particular coup immediately different was the number of civilian coup supporters openly waving Russian flags and signs saying “Thank You, Russia!” in French (the country’s official language), accompanied by similar chants, shouts, and “man in the street” interviews.
The response by the wider “world community” was also predictable, with strident calls to release President Bazoum immediately and restore him to power. In doing so, this knee-jerk cheerleading figuratively shot itself in the foot, as it openly demanded restoration of “democratic rule via status quo ante” at all costs, even if the “democratic leadership” in question was openly corrupt.
Whether that is true of Bazoum’s administration is open to question, but there were certainly complaints within the military that Bazoum had a lackadaisical – at best – https://my.bible.com/users/paulcollier/reading-plans/13630-bibleproject-old-testament-in-a-year/subscription/940218825/day/58approach to the ongoing threat of Al Qaeda- and Islamic State-aligned jihadist insurgents threatening the nation.
1. ECOWAS – Again, none of this type of rhetoric – on both sides – is overly unusual, being the common refrain in virtually every coup since World War II. However, the rhetoric quickly took on a completely different tone, as France (the former colonial master of Niger) immediately began threatening the use of direct military force against the junta. The regional ECOWAS coalition (led by neighboring Nigeria) also quickly threatened military intervention to restore Bazoum, something to be taken seriously, as the regional body has done exactly this in the past.
The junta’s response, daring both France and ECOWAS (the regional economic, and now military, interstate body, that has intervened militarily in several West African states in the last twenty-odd years) to attempt to use force against the coup, was almost immediately backed up by the nations of Burkina Faso and Mali, who have declared that any attempted military intervention in Niger will be regarded as a “declaration of war” on them, presumably requiring an equal response.
These acts, by two countries that have both undergone coups in recent years, have effectively broken ECOWAS as a body, as several member states – critically, including the nation of Chad – have expressed their unwillingness to participate in either military action or sanctions. In fact, the Senate of neighboring Nigeria, to the south, is dragging its feet (as of this writing) on authorizing military action, despite the resolute calls of that country’s President for military intervention.
2. FRENCH DEPENDENCE ON NIGER – This seemingly extreme response is easy to understand when viewed in light of uranium extraction: Niger supplies 10-13% of the raw uranium that powers French civil nuclear power. While the loss of Niger’s uranium would be annoying for France, it would not be devastating…unless Niger’s neighbor, Chad, follows suit with the other landlocked uranium suppliers.
But for France and the wider Western “First World,” this is about much more than uranium – it is about both the rapidly collapsing structure of French neo-colonialism (using local proxy governments, propped up by bribery and occasionally French military muscle, to maintain highly unbalanced trade and mining concessions with the former colony), and the loss of strategic partnerships and military basing to the nascent Russia-China alliance that has quietly spread across the African Sahel in the last five years.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?
The African Sahel – that band of land separating the Sahara-Mediterranean coast from the tropical-temperate southern portion of the continent – has been locked in a desperate battle with a brutal Islamist insurgency for over twenty years. The fighting has been fierce and bloody, especially when viewed in light of the comparatively small populations involved (relative to the physical size of the nations involved.
For example, Niger is approximately twice the size of the US state of Texas, but has a smaller population. While France certainly stepped up a decade ago, and the United States saw a Special Forces team overrun and nearly annihilated in October of 2017, very little has happened since to improve the military situation, despite nearly 3,000 French and American troops being deployed in the country for nearly a decade.
1. THE SAHEL – Adding to this toxic state of affairs is the continued imbalance of remits for mineral extraction rights, not just within Niger, but within the wider arc of former French colonies in the Sahel. In true neo-colonialist fashion (not to be confused with “neo-cons,” although the two are related), the imbalance of remits is theoretically balanced by French and international aid packages to these economically disadvantaged nations; these are, however, demeaning to peoples who want to stand on their own, but are prevented from doing so by “leaders” who are kept in power by “foreign state backing” (read: “bribery”).
Eventually, this led to coups…but the recent spate of coups has taken on a new dimension, in that those executing the military removal of their corrupt and ineffectual, but “duly elected,” governments have seen the local putschists reach out to a new set of foreign backers: Russia and China, forming a kind of “Trans-Asian Pact” (TPA).
2. WAGNER FACTOR – Where China offers the possibility of access to cheap consumer goods provided by its “Belt & Road Initiative.” Russia offers military muscle, not only in the form of weapons, but also in the form of combat support, training, and “direct action” combat missions by its “deniable” mercenary army, the Wagner PMC.
Militarily, despite the abysmal performance of Russia’s main military actor on the continent – the Wagner PMC, formerly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin – the current policy has worked because the vast majority of the internal conflicts that have been hammering Africa in the last two decades are primarily tribal and/or ethnic in nature, rather than sectarian; for example, Niger’s Bazoum comes from the country’s Arab minority, comprising barely 0.4% of the population. In fact, Wagner troops’ performance in the field has fallen off considerably in the past when opposing the forces of the Islamic State, who – despite their much-reduced size – are far more motivated to stand and fight, like conventional infantry, rather than hit-and-fade, like strictly tribal forces.
One factor about Wagner needs to be kept in the forefront: Wagner is an extension of the Russian government. While it is technically a private corporation and does take contracts not directly associated with Russian foreign policy, it is entirely at the beck and call of Moscow, despite the recent putsch and its reorganization to stage in Belarus.
As well, the source of the corporation’s frequently poor troop performance in the past was tied to the fact that, at present, an estimated 80% of the corporation’s forces were recruited directly from Russian prisons.
While that might have worked 150 years ago, that is no longer a viable or effective recruiting ground for a modern military force.
However, the above facts should not be taken as bookends to define current Wagner troop capabilities. While much is being made of Wagner troops’ poor performance in Mozambique in 2019-2020 and against US Army Special Forces in Syria, as well as its equally poor performance against IS and Al Qaeda forces elsewhere in Africa, the local view among the people of the Sahel region is that Wagner troops are willing to get their hands dirty fighting terrorists, but without the presumption that they are colonizing troops.
Similarly, the Russo-Ukrainian War directly impacts this situation, as veteran Wagner forces realigned to Belarus are being filtered into Africa.
This is not something to be discounted – these troops have recent experience in a type of all-out combat not often seen in Africa, and the extensive combined arms operational doctrines associated with that type of warfare. While many, if not most, of the armies in Africa pay lip service at best to this type of warfare, they are mainly focused on operations more tied to counterinsurgency.
In this environment, it is entirely likely that Wagner’s poor performances of past years are no longer, and counting on the PMC to deploy poorly motivated and inept forces is likely a very bad idea.
The fighting area is the African “Sahel” region, the “ecological/environmental buffer zone” dividing the Mediterranean-Saharan Desert region of northern Africa from the temperate-tropical “Sub-Saharan” regions to the south.
Broadly speaking, this region extends in an unbroken line from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
The resource base of the countries in this region is vast and commercially exploitable, security concerns aside.
Given the regional political situation, France would have to enter several states to get at Niger, states that will either engage them directly and immediately, or whose populations will not exactly receive them with open arms.
Next, even a cursory examination of events in the preceding decade shows the clear nature of the Russo-Chinese Trans-Asia Pact’s “soft penetration”: there have been a steady string of “invitational interventions” by Wagner forces across the Sahel, as well as a steady string of coups (many successful) in the same nations.
On the larger map, this shows the clear scope of the Trans-Asian Pact’s operations, as local power elites across the entire Sahel region have either staged – or at least attempted – coups with support (either direct or implied) from Wagner…and thus, from Russia.
The sole exception, as of early August 2023, is the nation of Chad – which announced on August 3rd that it would not participate in any military intervention against the Niger junta.
1. WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS
The Trans-Asia Pact’s goals are clear and easily understandable: Supporting the coup groups in the African “Sahel” region weakens the West’s control over those African states and impedes the strategic capability reach of Western powers.
In a minor sense, while this appears to imply a type of “mercantilist” plan – i.e., extracting local mineral resources in trade for pittance-level remunerations in cash and cheap goods – the trade balance is far more equal (at present) than those Sahel states’ situations with the West in general, and France in particular.
2. COUP WAVE – The wave of coups against openly corrupt governments, which are then replaced by Trans-Asia Pact-friendly juntas, makes possible a continent-spanning trade corridor.
3. TRADE, NOT SOCIAL ENGINEERING – Russia and China have quietly developed a mirror image of the Western colonial/mercantilist model of transactional relationships, but one with a fundamental difference: Neither Russia nor China make any pretensions to a “civilizing mission” in Africa – they are open about seeking strictly transactional relationships with local power elites; there is no presumption that either state cares about “helping to raise up” the populations of their local partners…and neither is there a presumption of imposing democracy on states that are ill-suited to the concept.
The current situation is most emphatically not the same as the “proxy wars” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s: There is no pretension of “fighting the capitalist-imperialist-colonialist diktat for the greater liberation of the Proletarian Workers according to the principles of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.” This is strictly about economics and tangentially about military basing.
4. MILITARY REALITY – Militarily speaking, the West is confronted by two potentially insurmountable issues in Africa: First, aside from Wagner PMC forces, there are no apparent plans to attempt to deploy Russian or Chinese national forces to the Sahel, aside from Chinese warships already deployed to Djibouti as part of the international anti-piracy naval task force, and a pre-existing Russian basing agreement with Sudan.
This is extremely important, as it eliminates claims of “colonial garrisons” in the partner nations.
The other problem is the growing military professionalism among African militaries. Western nations have gone to great lengths to bring officers from Third World national militaries to Western military academies and professional staff schools, in addition to the training teams of special forces deployed to their countries.
This has been coupled with the easy availability of weapons and support equipment at parity with Western nations…and, significantly, the ability and willingness to use that equipment. While the military forces of a Niger or a Burkina Faso are certainly no match for French or American forces in an antiseptic, “one-on-one” contest, the reality is that France cannot invade the region like it was the 19th Century…and for completely different reasons; no US administration is willing to endure the firestorm of masses of mostly-Caucasian infantry doing more in Africa than training local forces or defending themselves.
It is a situation predicted over eighty years ago in “The Small Wars Manual (1940),” a semi-official “war-fighting” manual written by the United States Marine Corps at the dawn of World War II. The manual points out that its recommended tactics did work at that time, but that the more developed insurgent forces became, and the more they were able to source modern weapons and equipment, the less effective the book’s tactics would become.
Two much more worrying factors for the West are Algeria and the Great Rift Valley. Algeria, also a former French colony, has angrily denounced French threats of military intervention in Niger. Having watched the 2011 NATO destruction of its eastern neighbor, Libya – by NATO forces led by France and Italy, and the earthshaking instability that resulted – it is not about to stand to see it happen on its already-threatened southern frontier. And Algeria has both the economic and military muscle to back that up, as it controls many of the oil pipeline heads supplying Europe with African crude.
5. GREAT RIFT INSTABILITY – The other issue is the continual instability in the Great Rift Valley, in Eastern Africa. This mineral-rich region has been kept as undeveloped and disorganized as possible, as it produces sky-high profit margins for the vital minerals that keep the West’s high-tech industries running…at the cost of what amounts to slave labor, strip mines, and continual banditry and insurgencies.
6. CULTURE WARS – In light of ongoing events, including the recent move of insanity by the World Bank to shut out the nation of Uganda from any further loans because of their passage of openly anti-LGBTQ laws, it is no feat of clairvoyance to see that many states in the region may reach out to the Russia-China TPA, and its associated partners in BRICS, to obtain cash loans against their mineralogical outputs. While still disadvantageous to the African countries, such deals would still likely be better deals than what they currently get from the West.
Over a period of thirty-odd years, the West figuratively built a massive stone wall – then promptly ran into it, face-first, and at full speed. This construct was built from a combination of Victory Disease–inspired arrogance after the end of the Cold War, abject greed, and a not-small amount of paternalistic “plantation” racism.
The result has been the West resting on its laurels, assuming that the Third World peasants it has deliberately kept in an undeveloped state to maximize corporate profits were too stupid and brutalized to take any meaningful action against them and their money-generating interests.
In fact, the near-constant state of war in Africa has created the ultimate Darwinian laboratory, where only the most cunning and ruthless leaders and forces survive…with leaders who are far more intelligent and crafty than anyone in the leadership echelons in Western Europe or the US.
Africa is now at the point where, while perhaps unable to fully operate on their own, they are more than capable of ditching their neo-colonial masters for others who, while also not caring about them in any functional way, are at least open and honest with them about what their intentions are.
And, unlike during the “proxy war” period of the 1960s–1980s, the grotesque incompetence of the Western Powers – especially the United States – has resulted in a state where the West is unable to take meaningful action against a Third World regional bloc. Western militaries and defense industries are incapable, as of 2023-2024, of doing more than chasing the occasional goat herder – the Western powers who goaded Ukraine into a no-win war with Russia did so without the ability to back up their saber-rattling…And now, not only are they unable to back their Ukrainian gambit, they cannot intimidate a Third World bloc unwilling to bend the knee, if that bloc keeps its spine straight.
Military action by France against the Niger junta is impossible, even with US support. As stated above, this will never happen, as no administration inside the DC Beltway will risk the image of masses of white American troops doing more in Africa than defending themselves, if that.
Added to the possible north-south advance of Wagner into the Great Rift Valley (where Western tech firms get the critical materials for their technologies), a possible axis of advance helped in no small part by the deranged response of the United States to Uganda’s recent anti-LGBT legislation, this means that the long-dreaded, fundamental shift in economic balance is now visible on the horizon:
Africa is on the verge of entering the world commodities market as a single negotiating bloc, capable of executing “most-favored-nation status” trade agreements as a continent, with any and all other countries.
This will fundamentally undo the current economic paradigm of globalism that has clamped onto the jugular and carotid arteries of the world for thirty odd years.
The end results will not be pretty.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Shadow of Terror over The Sahel, from 2007 – Al Venter
Fiasco – Thomas Ricks