In 2010 and 2011, North Africa and the Middle East were convulsed by revolts: millions took to the streets and threw off leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president of Tunisia. Many pointed to social media as the catalyst for these uprisings. But something more fundamental was also behind the Arab Spring: food shortages and hunger had followed the financial crisis of 2008.
Socioeconomic despair drives revolution. This simple historical truth explains the current wave of military coups across West Africa, in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and now in Niger. In the wake of the coup in Niger at the end of July, many Western commentators described this regional crisis as something new. Yet the crisis has been there for many decades, in the endemic poverty that neocolonial frameworks have created – now brought to an unsustainable peak following the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a recent interview Hassoum Ceesay, a historian and senior official in the Gambian government, described crushing external debt as the biggest problem faced by West African governments. Such debts force firesales to creditors of resources such as fishing rights, which had fed the population. This is why, as the Senegalese economist Ndongo Samba Sylla has put it, many citizens of Niger do not see the coup as a crisis: “The militaries are seen as leaders upholding their nations’ sovereignty and independence, as opposed to elected governments, which tend to be puppets of the West.”
If the coup is a crisis, it is so for Western geopolitics. As many reports have noted, the people of Niger gain little in wealth and life chances from their precious uranium reserves, which are crucial to France’s electricity supply. Indeed, Niger has to import much of its electricity from Nigeria. On the other hand, the coup threatens new Western energy plans, especially in Italy, and the building of a gas pipeline across the Sahara to bring Nigerian gas to Europe. This is why most Western analysis has linked the coup to core geopolitical interests: Niger’s resentment of France, its former colonial power, and the new Cold War with Russia.
The relationship with France is certainly key. The violence of French colonial occupation was real, though little different to the British wars against the Asante and Benin, or the systematic violence of Portuguese settler colonialism. The change came in the independence era, since French decolonisation was in name only. Economic control was retained through the CFA franc, while political control was retained with a slew of military bases from the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast to Senegal.
The fury with France in Niger is made clear by post-coup protests at the French embassy in the capital, Niamey. Why should Nigériens lament the chance of a new order, and yes even new trading partners such as Russia, when they gain so little from their uranium reserves, and when, as the historian Benedetta Rossi has shown in her book From Slavery to Aid, they often have had to provide free labour even on NGO-led (and EU financed) “development projects”? This is a historical continuum from the political violence of colonialism to the economic violence of neocolonialism: it is the model of external “credit”, debt, and the consequent loss of economic autonomy that drives this righteous anger.
[See also: The curse of stability in Niger]
This is why the comparison with 2011 is important. Just as the Arab Spring was driven by newfound hunger after the 2008 financial crisis, so there is a clear link between the world economic crisis since 2020 and the current coups. The reason that many across West Africa have supported these interventions is that pandemic policies have triggered a wholesale (if largely undiscussed) social and economic crisis – one which may take decades to resolve.
This crisis is clear in macroeconomic terms. Prior to 2020 the economic talk was of “Africa rising”. Three years later, as the Economist reported in May, previously touted stars such as Ghana are entering IMF-led “adjustment”. In Niger, for instance, government debt increased from $6.01bn in 2020 to $9.09bn in 2023. Less than a month ago António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said that this debt disaster was crushing development. The consequence is reduced spending on healthcare and education, which is crippling in a region where the monthly salary of a teacher can be under US$150 even in a comparatively wealthy country such as Senegal.
Moreover, the formal economic picture is like an iceberg – revealing only a small part of the story. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 85 per cent of West Africans work in the informal sector. Women are disproportionately represented here. As the economist Morten Jerven has shown, informal trade is poorly captured by GDP, which is why last week Oxfam called the measurement anti-feminist. Meanwhile, the impact of Covid restrictions on this sector was so devastating that almost 18 months after March 2020, the United Nations University estimated that around 60 per cent of informal vendors around the world were still earning less than three-quarters of their previous wages.
Evidence from Senegal shows that things remain very slow to improve. Yet this huge increase in debt since 2020 was to fight a virus which had very little impact on African mortality. While long-standing models showed a clear relationship between poverty and low life expectancy in poor countries, and previous efforts at lockdowns in Africa had been heavily criticised, these control measures were nevertheless effectively imposed on Africa by Western “partners”.
This crisis has led even the IMF to call for a “Gleneagles moment”: cancelling debt, as happened after the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit. Commentators have cited the benefits that followed, as there was huge economic growth across Africa in the 2010s. Nevertheless, economic analysts say that there is no sign of a similar offer now from Western creditors.
Meanwhile, at a Russia-Africa summit two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin offered debt write-offs. It’s true that the new Cold War is reflected in the posturing over Niger, but if the West really wants to resolve this crisis, it will need to acknowledge the extent to which it has been produced by its own devastating behaviour.
[See also: Anarchy unbound: The new scramble for Africa]
Toby Green’s latest book – coauthored with Thomas Fazi – is The Covid Consensus (Hurst).