Our resident historian and all-around sharp and savvy person, Coast Watcher, returns to the blog with an in-depth look at the recent going-ons in Africa, particularly between Niger and their former colonizer, France. Once again, the more things change...the more history repeats itself?
Shades of Suez: How the situation in Niger reflects that of Egypt in 1956
by Coast Watcher
The British and French Empires had a long history of involvement in Egyptian affairs, mostly rooted in the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
The 19th century rulers of Egypt were ambitious men. Although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt’s rulers had practiced autonomy for centuries. Beginning with the rule of Ottoman Viceroy Muḥammad ʿAlī, Egypt’s borders expanded into Syria and the Sudan, Arabia and Yemen. This expansionism by Muhammad and his successors came at a cost. By 1876 Egypt’s national debt owed to European powers exceeded its means to pay.
Egypt’s ruler, Khedive Ismāʿīl Pasha, tried to stave off bankruptcy by selling the national shares in the Suez Canal to Britain. The measure failed, and both countries established the Dual Control, a means by which Egyptian revenue and expenditure were directly supervised by French and British officials. Needless to say this imposition rankled with the ordinary Egyptians and their ruler. Exploiting popular unrest, Ismāʿīl ousted the Dual Control, but Britain and France persuaded the Ottoman Sultan—still nominal ruler of Egypt—to depose Ismāʿīl in favor of his son, Muhammad Tawfik.
A rising nationalist movement in the officer caste of the Egyptian military led to war with the British in 1882, but the movement failed in the face of superior force. Egypt remained a virtual British colony. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1, it became a kingdom under British control from 1922 to 1952, with a promise of independence given by Britain in a treaty of 1936. After World War 2, the Egyptian drive to independence gave rise to a guerilla war that ousted the king in July of 1952. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser became president.
Prolonged negotiations with Britain led to the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement, under which British troops were to be evacuated gradually from the canal zone. Nasser put in place an ambitious plan to construct a dam across the Nile at Aswan to regulate the annual flow that powers Egypt’s agriculture. He gained a promise from the United States to fund the project, but the US reneged on the deal. In turn Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, intending that tolls and tariffs imposed on shipping using the Canal would pay for the project. Nasser was backed by the Soviet Union, who provided arms, equipment, and advisors to the Egyptian military.
This move promptly brought Egypt into conflict with Britain, France, and the new state of Israel. France was infuriated by intelligence suggesting Egypt was funding anti-colonial rebels in its colony of Algeria. Since Nasser had no time for the new state of Israel, their military had already skirmished with Egyptian forces along their shared frontier. Israel led the invasion of Egypt on October 29, 1956, followed two days later by Britain and France.
The allied forces took control of the canal zone, but the Anglo-French deployment delay gave time for the Soviet Union to react. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was keen to exploit the moves toward Arab independence throughout the Middle East. He saw the invasion by the reactionary powers as a direct threat. Khrushchev in turn threatened to use nuclear weapons in Europe if the allied coalition did not withdraw.
Alarmed by this, US President Eisenhower warned the Soviets that threats of nuclear war were only exacerbating the situation. He and Secretary of State John F. Dulles told the coalition in turn that they had to withdraw from Egyptian territory or face economic sanctions. Since their economies were still suffering the after-effects of World War 2, Britain and France had to comply with American demands. All forces withdrew from Egypt by December 1956.
This established the United States and the Soviet Union as the dominant players on the world stage—a prestige the US, in particular, has trouble relinquishing.
Fast forward to the year 2023. A recent coup in the African country of Niger has caused an uproar in the West.
France moved in to what is now Niger in the late 19th century, formalizing control of the region in the following decade. This was conducted mainly to counter British and Italian imperial ambitions in the area of western Africa. In World War 2, the Niger colonial administration remained loyal to the French Vichy government, but following the war a small measure of self-governance was given to them. In 1960, Niger along with many other former French colonies attained full independence. French influence in Niger and elsewhere in its former African territories remains strong—but it is declining.
French military and local forces based in Chad and Burkina Faso were active in the past ten years during Operation Barkhane. This is an attempt to contain and eliminate the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda jihadist groups operating in the Maghreb and the Sahel, and also to counter growing Chinese and Russian influence on the continent. Needless to say, this aspect of French colonialism has the approval of the United States.
Some 5,650 French troops are deployed across the continent. Between 1,000 and 1,500 are stationed in Niger, mainly at the Niamey Airbase to control access to Niger's substantial gold and uranium deposits. France is rumored to be concentrating its African forces, possibly in preparation for an attack on Niger should the situation demand it.
Niger has played the part of a bulwark against instability and jihadist influence in the region. It’s also the location of the Americans' Airbase 201, a drone base staffed by 1,000 personnel. It is said to be the largest drone base in the world and key to the US operations across the Sahel. The recent coup by President General Abdourhamane Tchiani, that overthrew the unpopular President Bazoum, has put Western control of Niger's natural resources under threat. This has not gone unnoticed by the United States.
Indian historian and journalist Vijay Prashad observes:
Hours after the coup was stabilized, the main Western states—especially France and the United States—condemned the coup and asked for the reinstatement of Bazoum, who was immediately detained by the new government. But neither France nor the United States appeared to want to lead the response to the coup. Earlier this year, the French and US governments worried about an insurgency in northern Mozambique that impacted the assets of the Total-Exxon natural gas field off the coastline of Cabo Delgado. Rather than send in French and US troops, which would have polarized the population and increased anti-Western sentiment, the French and the United States made a deal for Rwanda to send its troops into Mozambique. Rwandan troops entered the northern province of Mozambique and shut down the insurgency. Both Western powers seem to favor a “Rwanda” type solution to the coup in Niger, but rather than have Rwanda enter Niger the hope was for ECOWAS—the Economic Community of West African States—to send in its force to restore Bazoum. --What's Happening in Niger is Far From a Typical Coup
Both France and the US are putting pressure on the African nations they still have a measure of control over. These nations are known collectively as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS is said to be amassing troops ready to intervene in Niger. Opposing them are suspended member nations of ECOWAS, backed by Russia. All the suspended members are ruled by military governments, and they were suspended for being in violation of ECOWAS rules on democracy and good government.
The neighboring countries of Guinea, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Algeria all want to see the situation resolved peacefully, but they oppose an invasion of Niger through fear the situation could escalate to a war that will engulf the entire west of Africa. As of this date, it looks like military intervention by ECOWAS forces is unlikely. There’s a great deal of push-back against the West from African nations, who rightly perceive the whole action against Niger to be nothing more than a colonial power’s attempt to hang on to the assets and a resource grab practiced—in France’s case—for centuries.
Jihadists are already exploiting the situation. Seventeen troops were killed in an ambush in the Tillaberi region near Burkina Faso recently. ECOWAS is fully aware of the threat Islamist extremism poses against their own order.
The United States announced last week that a new ambassador would soon head to Niger to help lead diplomacy aimed at reversing the coup. ECOWAS has already applied trade and financial sanctions, while France, Germany, and the United States have suspended their aid programs to Niger. The measures are being applied to one of the poorest countries in the world. Niger regularly ranks bottom of the United Nation’s Human Development Index.
It should be noted that France has substantial gold reserves. But Niger—possessing sizable gold deposits—has none. Niger possesses uranium deposits as well, uranium that is mined by French corporations to fuel France's nuclear power plants. President Macron of France is taking a harder line against Niger’s new government than the United States, but given America’s history of armed intervention, it is by no means given that the softly-softly approach will last for long.
And so it goes with history. Where once the US warned off another power (France) from exploiting an African country (Egypt), now it’s joining that power in opposing another, Niger.
What has really changed in these last seven decades? Could it be that simply the hegemony of the West (particularly in the mind of the US government) is being threatened? Does the West fear that once they're kicked off the continent the BRICS nations will take their place, exercising control over Africa's vast natural resources? Possibly. But wouldn't it be better if Africa could be ruled, and its resources controlled, by Africans instead?
BIO: Coast Watcher is an armchair historian with a vast knowledge of the West's plundering of other countries' mineral wealth, land, and people. When will this plundering end? Could the fall of the petrodollar and the rising multi-polar world of BRICS bring hope to the beleaguered African continent? Only time will tell.
Other interesting articles and links:
African Union Will Not Back ECOWAS Intervention in Niger https://scheerpost.com/2023/08/18/african-union-will-not-back-ecowas-intervention-in-niger/
The Western puppet govts in West Africa are playing a very dangerous game. Armed intervention with logistical support from the U.S. & NATO will light the entire region on fire. I guess they don't understand what is unfolding in Europe as a result of Biden's war in Ukraine. https://t.co/84H61CFnPt— Ajamu Baraka (@ajamubaraka) August 19, 2023
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