Niger and Gabon: Only the working class can offer a solution

The military coup in the former French colony of Gabon (population of 2.3 million) on 30 August 2023 was the eighth in the former French colonies of West and Central African region in three years. It followed the military takeover in Niger (population 26 million) just a month earlier, on 26 July. In addition, there have been coups in Burkina Faso (twice in 2022, January then again in September), Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Chad (April 20021) and Guinea (September 2021). Completing a line of coups across the central belt of Africa to the east was that in the former British colony of Sudan (October 2021). Gabon lies further to the south.

This rash of coups is the most recent in a long history of coups since formal independence from France was declared, from 1958 and later. The countries have suffered over a century of repression and exploitation from the occupying French and then by French and US-backed governments since independence. 

While each coup has its own immediate causes and course of development, these coups demonstrate the complete inability of foreign capitalist powers or of the local national capitalist class, which rules on their behalf, to resolve any of the problems facing these countries – poverty, inequality, hunger, destitution, and armed insurgencies by Islamists, a consequence of local military repression and the disastrous NATO intervention into Libya. On top of this the populations face a worsening food crisis due to climate change. Any limited democracy achieved has proved unstable and prone to overturn.
12.7 million people in Burkina Faso, Mail and Niger are without enough food to survive. In 2022 there were 4.1 million displaced people in the Sahel region, fleeing attack and starvation. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, with over 10 million (42% of population) living in extreme poverty in 2021.  

Yet these countries have enormous natural resources, from oil to uranium, from timber to manganese and gold. Niger has 5% of the world’s uranium reserves and is the world’s seventh largest producer. It has been a key provider of uranium to France, which relies on it to for its nuclear power. Gabon is an exporter of oil, but the revenue does not benefit the people, with one-third living below the poverty line.

The working class and rural poor of the region do not benefit from the region’s natural resources. They live in poverty and insecurity. The benefits flow to the owners of the international capitalist companies which mine and drill, facilitated by the local rulers. These rulers are rewarded by the accumulation of vast personal wealth and lavish lifestyles, protected for the most part by the military, which is trained by France and the US. The military leaders in turn use their positions to accrue wealth and privileges and from time to time, as we see recently, as a launching pad for their own ascent to power.

Since the 16th century, western countries have seen Africa as a site of plunder and profit. It became the source of the transatlantic slave trade, with many millions transported in manacles on disease-ridden death ships to the Americas. Since the 19th century the French capitalists, just like the British, Belgian and German, have treated Africa as a source of cheap labour, cheap minerals and easy profit. Brutal wars were fought over the land and its minerals. Millions of Africans were massacred in the bloody search for imperial profit.

After formal independence the domination and exploitation by these countries continued unabated, albeit more indirectly. Direct rule from France was replaced by indirect rule in the interest of French capitalism, using the medium of compliant local rulers, both military dictators or more democratically elected pro-French governments. Behind the military or the elected governments stood the interests of French imperialism, only interested in profit. The mineral resources were extracted. The people were exploited. Poverty and inequality was, and remains, the condition of the working class and rural poor while the tiny class of capitalists and the military cliques squat on them, sucking wealth and life out to maintain their privileged position.

There is widespread and deep-seated hostility to French exploitation of the region’s resources, and opposition to the presence of French troops. Many in Niger, Mali and elsewhere will know the brutal history of French activity in their country. More immediately, they see the contrast between the wealth that flows out of the country, or into the pockets of the ruling pro-French politicians, many of them members of family dynasties, and their own destitution.

In these circumstances, in the absence of any independent working-class and socialist alternative, sections of the working class and rural poor, perhaps even large sections, may celebrate the coups and look to the new military juntas as a positive force for change. In this, however, they are mistaken. While the working class of the region can give no support to French imperialism, or to its local capitalist subordinate partners, it cannot look to the military for a solution. None of these groups have anything but self-interest in their minds. None of them are concerned about the conditions of the working class and rural poor except in so far as they can be mobilised and manipulated to support their own rule.

From the days of the slave trade there have always been local traders and military groups prepared to deal in the brutal and bloody exploitation of the peoples of Africa. This continued under direct colonial rule and since. The national capitalist class has proved too weak to challenge imperialist domination and has accepted its place as France’s loyal foreman in the region, taking a chunk of the profits and becoming extremely wealthy, seeking to pass on their rule and their money to the next family generation. This layer cannot be trusted ever to act in the interests of the nation’s population.

But neither can the military.

The leaders of the armed forces have served the various corrupt, complicit governments for years, if not for decades, without any concerns about the corruption, the syphoning of millions to foreign bank accounts, the continuing exploitation of the workers or the back-breaking, starvation subsistence farming upon which the rural poor depend. The military chiefs have been happy to go along with this so long as they are handsomely rewarded. 

The new head of government in Niger, announced by the military following its takeover, is General Abdourahamane Tchiani. He headed the presidential guard since 2015. He was responsible for protecting President Mahamadou Issoufou, who ruled from 2011 to 2021 and represented the same party (Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme – PNDS) as the now deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. Bazoum was elected in what appear to be relatively1 fair elections in 2021. On a 69% turnout, Bazoum received 2,490,049 votes (55.67%) in the February 2021 second round, to his opponent’s 1,983,072 votes (44.33%). Thirty candidates stood in the first round (December 2020), with a total of 4,782,380 votes cast. In the parliamentary elections held at the same time as the first round of the presidential election, Bazoum’s PNDS won 1,879,629 votes (37%) winning 79 of 171 seats, in a field of 78 parties, with a total of 4,712,433 votes cast on a 69% turnout. Tchiani continued as head of the presidential guard for Bazoum. 

The coup leaders made no criticism of the 2020-21 elections, citing “continuing deterioration of the security situation, and poor economic and social governance.” Tchiani appears to have moved against the president he guarded only when he learned of Bazoum’s decision to remove him from his post. There is little to suggest that he was motivated by anything other than personal ambition. After the event, the coup leaders have played upon anti-French sentiment and hostility to the presence of French and US troops (which had not seemed to bother Tchiani previously) to justify the coup and to win support amongst the population. It was initially rumoured that exports of uranium to France had been stopped but has that turned out to be wrong. Whatever the real reason for the coup, it remains to be seen whether the new leadership will move to expel French and US troops, following the example of Mali and Burkina Faso. 

Immediately following the Nigerien coup, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), led by newly elected Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, imposed economic sanctions on Niger and issued a statement demanding the release and restoration of Bazoum, and threatening an invasion to accomplish this if the demand was not carried out by 6 August. The military leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso said that any invasion of Niger would be treated as a declaration of war against them, raising the awful prospect of a significant and devasting war, in which the main losers would be the people of Niger. A national outcry in Nigeria quickly forced Tinubu to step back and the threat has not yet been carried out. 

The ECOWAS sanctions, which included cutting electricity from Nigeria, have had a huge impact. Niger depends on Nigeria for up to 70% of its electricity and blackouts have occurred. The blockade on imports have forced up the cost of food and other essential items. Once again, it is the poorest who suffer. 

Socialists should oppose the coup. No support should be given to Tchiani and the military, whose coup was not carried out in the interests of the Nigerien people but out of self-interest. At the same time, socialists must oppose the economic sanctions and any military intervention by ECOWAS into Niger. 

In the immediate wake of the Niger coup, sections of the public came out in support, some carrying pro-Russian and pro-Putin placards. It is impossible to know to what degree those demonstrations of support for Russia and Putin are genuine or orchestrated. However, it is clear that some sections of the Nigerien population do look to Russia as some sort of alternative or counter-weight to French and US influence in the region. In 2021 the military junta in Mali invited the Russian mercenary Wagner army to assist with security, and there are now believed to be 1,000 of its soldiers based there. 

It would be a huge mistake for the working class and rural poor to look to Russia (or China) as an answer to their plight. It would be swapping one robber for another. Putin rules Russia as an autocrat. He is an opponent of democracy and socialism, using threats, intimidation, assault, imprisonment and murder to silence his opponents. He is no better than the various African dictators of the past and present. Both Russia and China are capitalist countries, seeking allies in their challenge to US domination. China seeks to challenge US economic and military dominance on the world stage. The working class of African and elsewhere should not take sides. Just because Russia and China are on opposite sides to US imperialism does not make them friends of the African working class and rural poor. The working class must chart its own independent way forward.

In Gabon, the military deposed the President Ali Bongo, who claimed to have won the 26 August election. It annulled the election results, claiming with some justification that it was fraudulent, rigged in favour of the ruling party, and detained Bongo. There is limited press freedom and foreign journalists were barred from observing the election

Ali Bongo had been president since 2009, taking over from his father Omar Bongo who had ruled as President with the support of France continuously since 1967, becoming immensely rich. The family had ruled uninterruptedly for 55 years, with hardly a murmur of concern from France or any of the other voices now raising their concerns about the coup. Bongo’s departure led to scenes of jubilation on the streets. 

However, the removal of Bongo was not the result of a mass movement, involving the whole of society, but was carried out from above by the military. The working class and the rural poor were excluded. They were passive observers at most, arriving only to cheer the deed afterwards. There have been no call from the military for the population to become involved, rather they have been sent back to their homes. The complaint about the lack of democratic elections is not answered by a military coup which promises that there will be a transition back to civilian rule but without specifying how or when

Military coups can be used to thwart, to head off, or to cut across a revolutionary movement of the masses from below, as happened in Sudan in 2018-19, when protests forced despised president al-Bashir to depart, but the military intervened, crushing the protests to prevent the revolution developing further.

Socialists do not support coups or putsches. They are the undemocratic actions of an armed minority, in their own interests. While support or endorsement of coups from sections of the working class and rural poor may be understandable given their dire situation and in the absence of any significant mass force of the working class, coups are reactionary and antipathetic to the socialist cause. Coups deny and prevent the vital role of the independent activity of the working class. If all we need is a military man to seize power, then there’s no need for the working class to do anything. It doesn’t need to fight for democratic rights, to fight for trade unions, for a working class party which will struggle for socialism. The tradition of coups in the region has reinforced this idea. It lowers the consciousness of the working class, who come to accept that they have no role to play. They remain bystanders. It lowers the confidence of the working class. The working class must remain passive no longer, bystanders no longer. It must announce itself as an independent force, supporting neither the capitalists at home and abroad, nor the military. 

The interests of the working class lie in abolishing its own wage slavery, emancipating itself from exploitation. No other force will do that. The capitalists and the military have every reason to maintain that exploitation, so that they can continue to enjoy the produce (profit) of workers’ labour. Socialism is the only solution to the poverty and inequality that brings devastation to the African continent. 

The working class needs the democratic space to develop and promulgate its ideas, to establish strong organisations capable of challenging the existing powers and bringing about fundamental change. That change can only occur by the working class acting itself, in its own interest, leading the rural poor in a mass struggle to overthrow foreign and domestic oppression. The resources of Africa are enormous. Owned in common and planned democratically to meet the needs of all, they could transform Africa within the lifespan of a generation. This will not happen if, instead of seizing control of their own destiny, workers look to an individual general or colonel, or to the army as a whole.

The military, or any section of it, which carries out such a takeover, is not acting in the interests of the majority. At best it sees itself as a national saviour, removing a corrupt regime, or seeking to provide security when little existed previously. But it cannot succeed where imperialism and the local capitalist class has failed. 

More likely, those who carry out these coups feel excluded from the ruling clique and its dispersal of the wealth they control. While they may feel the growing anti-French sentiment emanating from below, they do not act in response to it or on behalf of the people. They want a seat at the table, or better still they want control of the table, all the better to enrich themselves. Why play the subordinate in the robbery of the country’s wealth to those who have proved incompetent or inept or both? Having come to power they then seek to win support for their act and for their position as a new dictatorship, by proclaiming that they have acted against corruption, against French imperialism. But democratic rights are not restored. The Nigerien coup leaders have announced that there will be a transition to civilian rule in three years.

Following the coup in Gabon, the miliary-appointed ‘transitional leader’ was General Brice Oligui Nguema. He was sworn in as president on Monday 4 September 2023. Nguema had served Omar Bongo from 2005 to his death in 2009. He had no problem with the family’s looting of the country then. Following a period of ostracism Nguema was appointed once more to senior positions by Ali Bongo from 2018. The Bongo family is accused of looting the country’s wealth. Nguema, who is Ali Bongo’s cousin, is alleged to have bought three properties in the United States, in 2015 and 2018. The homes were purchased with a total of over $1 million in cash. He declined to answer questions about it, saying: “I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected.”
Like those he has replaced, Nguema seeks power, wealth and privilege. He has no time for the masses, except to deceive them. 

The working class of Niger, Gabon, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and all countries with a military dictatorship (for that is what a coup brings about) should demand immediate elections to a democratic parliament with full power to determine the future of their country. Socialists should demand that the natural resources be taken into common ownership, along with factories and transport, and planned democratically for the benefit of all. The personal fortunes of the corrupt rulers, the military, and their hangers-on should be confiscated and used for the benefit of the masses. Socialists stand for the unity of the working class of the Sahel and beyond, to the whole of Africa. The powerful Nigerian working class (population 213 million) will be a key ally. These demands – genuine democracy and genuine socialism – should be the basis for building new working class parties across the continent. Together the working class of Africa can eradicate exploitation, inequality, poverty and starvation for ever. 

I am extremely interested in views on this subject from readers in Africa. Please get in touch:

  1. Shortly before the results were declared, defeated presidential candidate Mahamane Ousmane’s campaign said there had been widespread fraud, including the theft and stuffing of ballot boxes and threats against voters:
    “The government intermittently interfered with opposition political party activities and limited opposition access to state media, despite Superior Communications Council decisions offering free and equitable access to all parties. Irregularities included a lack of campaign finance regulations, greatly benefiting the better-resourced ruling coalition, and the ruling coalition’s greater access to and illegal use of public funds. In 2020 the Constitutional Court ruled opposition leader Hama Amadou ineligible to run for the presidency. Authorities also determined other candidates were ineligible. Critics alleged the determinations of ineligibility were unfounded and politically motivated to prevent opposition candidates from challenging the ruling coalition.”,fair%2C%20transparent%2C%20and%20inclusive. ↩︎

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