Scenes of crowds, jostling and queuing at Niamey’s Diori Hamani International Airport in Niger are reminiscent of similar scenes that occurred in Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, two years ago. Only short-sighted policy makers did not see the Kabul storm coming, until it engulfed the whole city on 15 August 2021, as Taliban fighters appeared on the streets, effectively ending the American-led Western occupation of the country.
The main difference is that the Niamey episode on 2 August happened suddenly, amid confusion as to what was going on in the Niger. Gradually, it became clear that the presidential guard was taking over power while seizing elected President Mohamed Bazoum, not long before the 63rd anniversary of independence from France on 3 August.
Beyond the generals and the international news headlines, the current situation in Niger is another stark reminder of the rising feelings of hate against France and French colonial legacy. Africans, particularly the youth, who make up the vast majority of the population across the continent, with the median age in Niger, for example, being 14.8, have had enough of France. These young people, most of who were born after independence, did not experience direct French colonisation of their country, nor did they see what the French colonialists and their armies of settlers did in Africa. Rather, they were born and raised under a hidden French colonialism, starting from the language used in schools, if they are lucky and go to school.
Any Nigerien, or Malian for that matter, would argue that France has always been here and never really departed its former African colonies, despite decades since such colonies became independent countries. They further argue about their standard of living in each of the West African countries that used to be French colonies, in comparison to the situation in France itself.
In making the case against colonialism and its French legacy, they cite real hard numbers which are shamefully embarrassing. For example, the literacy rate in France is 99 per cent, while in Niger it is 37.4 per cent. Poverty, for example, is a way of life in Niger with 95 per cent of the population living on $5.5/day while, in France, a person is considered poor when living on minimum $1090 per month, which is equivalent to months’ wages in Niger.
All former French colonies in Africa gained independence, starting in the late 1950s and early 1960, with Niger becoming independent in 1960, yet almost all of them have made very little progress in terms of development, standard of living, education and public health. This is despite being rich countries with abundant natural resources like gold, cobalt, oil and uranium. Niger, last year, produced some 2,000 metric tons of uranium, most of which went to France where 68 per cent of electricity is generate from nuclear power plants. While Paris is nicknamed the “City of Light”, Niamey is mostly dark, and less than 4 million people out of more than 27 million have lights in their homes in Niger. Many people have lived and died without ever switching a lamp on in their homes.
Many would counter-argue that wars, bad governance, military coups and corruption are also factors that hamper development across Africa, and Niger is no exception. This is a true argument; nonetheless, it does not really explain the entire situation in Niger, which is the seventh poorest country in the world. France is also not entirely innocent when it comes to military coups, as it is well documented that Paris supported juntas take over in many African countries when it suited its African policy. Back in the 1960s, French mercenaries, led by the infamous Bob Denard, secretly supported by the French state, staged many coups in support of Francafrique, aimed at maintaining the French sphere of influence in many African countries.
The problem with France’s African policy, even today, is still the same as it was decades ago and deeply rooted in the colonial period. Since the time of General De Gaulle, all the way to the current President Emmanuel Macron, the relationship between Paris and its former colonies has never been balanced and equally beneficial to both sides. Culturally, French is the official language in many African countries, helping France exercise influence, with its military power maintaining control, when needed.
The colonial mentality in French-African policy still dominates even today. Faced with the urgent evacuation of French citizens from Niger, President Macron spoke in a colonial tongue threatening “immediately and uncompromisingly” retaliation against any threats to France or its interests in Niger. This is not only a blatant threat, but also condescending language that reminds many of the same language that prevailed during the days of direct French rule.
Yet, the same Mr. Macron, last March, was talking of a new era in relations with Africa, in which Paris’ interference is “well over”; he went on to say that “the age of Francafrique” is gone, before criticising the “mindsets” that have not changed much.
Nobody is claiming that Niger will be better off under the new military ruler, Abdourahamane Tchiani, and his colleagues. Historically, military takeovers have proven to be disastrous for Africa, yet French post-colonial polices in Africa are being blamed as well – as clearly shown in the public support for the military in Niger. Niger in 2022 ranked 189 out of 191 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index and, next year, it might move even further down. Yet, it is difficult to mask the fact that the French colonial era has everything to do with this shameful state of affairs.
The French quasi Empire is crumbling, and what happened in Niger last month is another example of France retreating from the African scene. Paris must now accept this reality and live with it.
France should also redefine its long term objectives behind the International Organisation of La Francophonie—the strongly Paris supported group that brings together countries based on the use of French language. If it is not colonialism by extension, then Paris has to prove it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.