April 23, 2023

The Complexities of Imperialism On the African Continent

Vijay Prashad

OVER the course of the past two years, military coups in Africa’s Sahel region have resulted in the expulsion of France from an area that it had dominated since colonial times. Coups in Guinea (2021), Mali (2021), and Burkina Faso (2022) brought to power military officers who had been disillusioned by the French military intervention – putatively to combat the growth of al-Qaeda in the area just below the Sahara Desert – as well as by the failure of the elites in these countries to tackle the pressing problems of hunger and inequality.

These are not coups of the normal type, since they did not overthrow progressive governments at the behest of foreign powers; rather, these are coups that emerge out of frustration amongst ordinary people, a frustration shared by junior officers who come from lower middle class, working-class and peasant backgrounds. They have focused this frustration against both the French military intervention, which began in the aftermath of NATO’s war against Libya (2011), and against their own domestic elites who had become local agents of French power and of the international financial institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund). The expulsion of the French had been widely welcomed by the popular classes from Guinea to Chad.

In February 2023, the foreign ministers of the military-led governments of Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali announced that they were in talks to create a federation. This is not the first time that these countries have considered such a grouping. In 1960, the newly independent regions of Senegal and the Sudan Republic (which included today’s Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali) formed the short-lived the Mali Federation. Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tambela – who is a follower of the assassinated socialist leader of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) – went to Mali and said of this new experiment, ‘Our forebearers tried to create groupings like the Mali Federation, which sadly did not last. But they showed us the way’. Kyelem de Tambela, who was a regular contributor to the Burkinabé media before his elevation to prime minister, is a widely read person and understands the difficulties of these kinds of unity processes. The three countries are moving slowly, their federation escalated by their suspension by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the economic pressure campaign by the western states.


To those officers who conducted the coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali in the past few years, the events in Chad appeared to confirm their own views of unprincipled behaviour by the western states. Chad’s long-time leader – IdrissDéby – died in April 2021 in a long-running battle against rebels to the north of the country. Hastily, Déby’s son, General Mahamat, suspended the institutions of democracy, which had suffered great attrition during Déby’s thirty-one-year rule from 1990. Mahamat Déby set up a transitional military council. Western leaders not only did not criticise the new military rule, but they welcomed it. Chad is not a member of ECOWAS, so there was no suspension possible. French President Emmanuel Macron sat next to General Mahamat at his father’s funeral, and then said: ‘France will never let anyone, either today or tomorrow, challenge Chad’s stability and integrity’.

Two years later, in April 2023, the Chad government expelled the German Ambassador Jan Christian Gordon Kricke for his criticism of the failure to hold elections in the country. France hesitated to condemn this expulsion, since Chad is one of the few countries in the Sahel that continues to be part of France’s G5 Sahel initiative (really G3, with the departure of Burkina Faso and Mali) and to allow French troops to be based in the country. Both France and the United States fear that if Chad’s military government faces too much criticism, General Mahamat might expel French troops from the country. The other country that retains French troops – and has two large US military bases – is Niger, where there have been increasing anti-French protests. In March 2023, US secretary of state Antony Blinken visited Niger to shore up the government’s confidence with full western backing despite the tensions on the ground and in the region.

One of the core reasons for the rise of anti-French sentiment in the Sahel has been the failure of French forces to quell the growing separatist rebellions, the increasing power of mafia smuggling rings, and the continued threat of al-Qaeda offshoots around the Sahara. In both Burkina Faso and Mali, officials of the new governments accuse the French of cutting deals with al-Qaeda and the separatists in order maintain their authority. The new military governments are under immense pressure to bring order to their countries; in some countries, such as Mali, the rebellions have taken over more than half the territory of the state. The states in the Sahel have been eroded by the neoliberal policies that burdened these countries with debt and forced them to cut-back on State spending and to enforce austerity on the populations. This made these countries unable to establish basic order in their territory, which is why their governments – all, at that time, democratically elected – welcomed the French military intervention in 2013. Now, these military governments want to strengthen their forces, take assistance from Russian military groups – including the Wagner Group – and reclaim their territory.


Neither the United States nor France have allowed these setbacks to become permanent. Both countries have sent emissaries to visit Niger and Chad, hoping that their support will maintain these (for now) pro-western governments in power. The United States military has developed a base system in Ghana and is in talks to create a military platform in Zambia, while it has strengthened its ties with Niger (at Agadez, the US has the world’s largest drone base). In October 2022, US Major General Todd Wasmund of the Southern European Task Force (Africa) made it clear why the US builds up its military profile on the African continent: ‘As the Army refocuses on China – our pacing challenge – as well as the acute threat posed by Russia, it’s important to recognise that both countries are actively competing in Africa’. In fact, it is not clear that either China or Russia are ‘competing’ with the United States, but is clear that  the United States is building up its military to – at the very least – pressure African states to cut their growing economic ties with China (the only Chinese military base on the African continent is in Djibouti, where it sits a few kilometres away from a US base; this Chinese base was built for the Chinese navy to support the UN mission against piracy in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden waters).

Less acknowledged is the use of the Rwandan armed forces by the western states as proxy forces, although here Rwanda has not been as disciplined a proxy as expected. In 2020, the Rwandan army entered the Central African Republic to protect the government of President FaustinArchangeTouadéra, who is close to the French. France had a military intervention in the Central African Republic from 2013 to 2016 to beat back a growing al-Qaeda insurgency. The Rwandan forces, however, entered the country to defeat a rebel group, supposedly led by former President François Bozizé. Contradictions in the world are far more interesting than cartoon depictions of reality, because Touadéra’s government is being assisted in its fight by Russian forces as well. Both Rwandan and Russian forces will operate under bilateral agreements but will be assisting the United Nations peacekeeping MINUSCA mission.

In northern Mozambique, in the Cabo Delgado province, a protest movement against the intervention of ExxonMobil (US) and Total (France) to exploit the second largest natural gas field off the coastline faced enormous repression and then morphed into an insurgency. When the Mozambican armed forces could not suppress the revolt, the government turned to the United States and France to protect their own commercial assets. Afraid of an intervention that would turn ugly, the US and France made a deal with Rwanda to send its troops into the country. The price paid for this Rwandan military intervention in 2021 was a public apology from France for its role in the Rwandan genocide – and a pledge to build a monument in Paris for the victims. In 2020, the Rwandan army had already entered the Central African Republic to help squash an armed rebellion, once more on behalf of the French.

On April 17, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame told Benin’s President Patrice Talon in Cotonou that Rwanda would send troops into Benin to assist in operations against the al-Qaeda factions. While it is clear that Rwanda will be in Benin to do the kind of work that the French had been doing till now, it is equally clear that Kagame is not willing to be sucked into the western New Cold War in Africa. His comments at a press conference on April15 are revealing: ‘Russia or any other big power should not be our problem. These big powers have their own issues to sort out, and they keep sucking in these small countries of ours. Russia has a right to be anywhere they need to be, legally, just as any other country has – I mean those who come to Africa. You will hear people complain about China, about Russia… But how about them? What right do they have to be in Africa that others don’t have?’