West Africa strives for sovereignty

African nations are increasingly turning towards Russia and China for complementary skills and services, in lieu of the European nations and the United States, a development that could potentially inaugurate a new chapter for African nations. 
Keywords: West Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sahel, Conflict, Military, Coup, France, China, Russia,  Terrorism
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Showcasing its new-found autonomy after July’s military coup which led to a tense standoff with France and threats of military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Niger has commissioned a 2,000 km-long crude oil pipeline linking the country’s oilfield at Agadem to the Benin port of Seme. The pipeline will allow Niger to sell its crude on the international market for the first time. 

Gabon, another former French colony, ended the nearly six-decade-long dictatorship of the Bongo family on August 30, 2023. Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, head of the Republican Guard, cancelled the results of the disputed national elections and closed the borders. The ousted Ali Bongo was President for 14 years (2009-2023), succeeding his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled for 42 years (1967-2009). The coup followed growing frustration over authoritarian rule, the capture of resources by predatory elites, and deep inequalities despite the country’s wealth.  

Nguema, who became interim president, is reputedly backed by the United States as Washington feels that France can no longer protect Western interests in its former colonies. Gabon is rich in gold, diamonds, uranium, oil, gas, manganese, niobium, iron ore, timber, and hydropower. The military reinstated foreign media that had been banned by Ali Bongo’s government during the recent election. 

The United States, European Union and France condemned the coup; Nigerian President Bola Tinubu lamented the “autocratic contagion” spreading across the continent.  The Commonwealth partially suspended Gabon and asked the country to hold credible elections within two years. The African Union condemned the coup, and called for a peaceful return to constitutional order and the safety of the ousted President Ali Bongo. China urged peaceful dialogue and the security of President Ali Bongo; Russia called for stability. The French mining company, Eramet, suspended operations in Gabon, but Orano continues to operate its uranium mine in Niger. 

In Niger, events took an interesting turn in September 2023 with the US Air Force commander for Europe and Africa revealing that Washington has resumed intelligence and surveillance missions in the country after talks with the military authorities. The Agadez base is critical to spy on Sahel and especially Libya. The Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland had visited Niamey in early August. This signalled that the threatened invasion by ECOWAS would be called off in exchange for the US retaining its two drone bases, thus also indirectly curtailing Russian influence. 

Libya became critical for the West when Col. Muammar Gaddafi mooted a pan-African currency pegged to gold (gold dinar) in lieu of the CFA franc, after the 2008 global financial crisis. Libya then had nearly 150 tons of gold, in its own vaults. This was anathema to the West and in 2011, the country was bombed to smithereens and Gaddafi killed; in March 2011, France recognized the rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya.

Niger’s coup had deeply divided the ECOWAS as members opposed invading members of the regional bloc, fearing it could set a precedent for future interventions against them; they also feared that failing to act against military-led members could embolden potential plotters within their own armed forces. Equally, there were apprehensions that extra-regional players (France and the US) could make ECOWAS a New Cold War proxy for enforcing their “rules-based order”. The African Union did not want a repetition of events in Libya, or entrenchment of extra-regional players.  

However, plans for intervention fizzled out as Algeria denied France’s request to use its airspace (August 22, 202). In Ghana, head of ECOWAS, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the largest trade union body, warned against military intervention to reverse the coup in Niger (August 21, 2023). Mali leader Assimi Goïta warned that if ECOWAS dared to invade Niamey, then Mali would simultaneously “militarily invade Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to reinstate the rightful winner of the 2023 elections. We are fully aware of the true victor of the Presidential elections.” 

Eventually, France toned down its confrontation by asking its ambassador to leave Niamey as requested by the junta (September 27), and withdrew French troops. This signals the end of French influence in West Africa with Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and now Gabon, run by army officers after coups. 

Niger proposes to build State wealth, as opposed to extraction by foreign agencies and comprador elites. It has raised the export prices of uranium from 0.8 euros to €200 ($185) per kilogram. Forty per cent of all raw materials for the French nuclear industry come from Niger. 

The Algerian company Sonatrach had found oil in Al-Kafra region in 2022, which could take the volume of Niger’s oil production to above 100,000 barrels per day, from the current 20,000. Niger plans to reach 200,000 barrels by 2025. The two oil wells, KFR-1 and KFRN-1, have proven oil reserves of 168 million barrels and 100 million barrels respectively, according to a statement by Sonatrach. 

A critical issue regarding Niger pertains to the Trans-Sahara gas pipeline. Europe, especially Germany, desperately needs an alternative to Russian gas. Nigeria has reserves of 5.7 trillion cubic meters, but cannot supply countries across the Mediterranean without Niger providing transit. 

Burkina Faso 

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov visited Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on August 31, 2023, for cooperation in the fields of economy, military and nuclear energy. Plans to train Burkinabe cadets, officers and pilots in Russia have been initiated. The visit was a follow-up to talks between President Ibrahim Traore and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July. The Russian mercenary group, Wagner, has a presence in many African nations, including Mali. 

African nations are increasingly turning towards Russia and China for complementary skills and services, in lieu of the European nations and the United States, a development that could potentially inaugurate a new chapter for African nations. 

In September, Burkina Faso announced building a new international airport in the capital city of Ouagadougou, to replace the current one built by France. It has begun nationalising all French ‘owned’ industries and sectors to ensure it benefits the people of Burkina Faso. 

On September 26, 2023, Burkina Faso’s security and intelligence agencies repulsed an attempted coup backed by NATO, according to a statement by the military regime. No details were given, and the alleged plotters were not identified, though some arrests were made. The attempt came soon after Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali signed an agreement to create the “Union of Sahel States” for defense and mutual assistance in the interests of the citizens of the member states. It may be recalled that Burkina Faso’s charismatic anti-colonial leader Thomas Sankara was assassinated in 1987. 

Burkina Faso asked the French security advisor to the French embassy, Mr Emmanuel Pasquier, and all the military personnel to leave the country in September, accusing them of subversive activities. It informed Paris that it was ending and closing its military mission to train its military in France with immediate effect (September 14, 2023).


The United Nations sanctions on Mali expired on August 31, 2023 after Russia vetoed a renewal of measures that targeted anyone violating or obstructing a 2015 peace deal, hindering aid delivery, committing rights abuses or recruiting child soldiers. The sanctions were imposed in 2017, and involved travel bans and asset freezes. 

Mali passed a mining code allowing the State to take up to 30 per cent stakes in new mineral projects and collect more revenues from its gold industry. Mali is one of Africa’s leading gold producers, and has huge reserves of manganese and lithium, two minerals critical for green energy, though these are as yet under-explored. Gold accounts for 25 per cent of the national budget, 75 per cent of export earnings and 10 per cent of GDP. 

The mining sector is dominated by Canadian firms Barrick Gold and B2Gold, Australia’s Resolute Mining and Britain’s Hummingbird Resources. The mining code reform could boost the national budget by 500 billion CFA francs ($820 million), and eventually contribute up to 15 and 20 per cent of GDP.

Terrorism in Sahel 

Niger is fighting against Boko Haram in the southeast and against ISIS in the Tri-Border region. 

Analyst Pepe Escobar points out that the African Sahel had no Arab “terrorists” before 9/11. Thereafter, locals converted to Salafism online and set up an Islamic State to control the ancient trade routes across the Sahel. Thus, the salt caravans plying the Sahel from Mali to southern Europe and West Asia became caravans of drugs, diamonds, and gold. This funded Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which was supported by Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. 

After NATO destroyed Libya in early 2011, the West-backed Salafi-jihadis who had fought against Gaddafi offered the Sahel smugglers protection and weapons. Mali tribes smuggle anything and AQIM extracts a share. ISIS in Libya thrives on human and narcotics trafficking, while Boko Haram dominates the cocaine and heroin market. 

Africa, especially the G5 Sahel, tried to destroy these outfits. But after Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Chad underwent coups, the priority shifted to regaining national autonomy from France. 

Hitherto, France prevented intra-Africa trade. In March 2018, 44 Heads of State launched the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). In January 2022, they set up the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS) for payments for companies in Africa in local currencies. But it is a long road to financial and political autonomy.

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Sandhya Jain

Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani

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