African Unity Can’t Take Place on France’s Terms

Ndongo Samba Sylla

Last Sunday, the military rulers of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger quit West African economic union ECOWAS. It’s a major blow to the regional integration project — and a rebuke to Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to interfere in France’s former colonies.

A supporter of the Alliance Of Sahel States (AES) holds a placard reading "down with ECOWAS, long live AES" during a rally to celebrate Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger leaving the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Bamako, Mali, on February 1, 2024. (Ousmane Makaveli / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

For almost half a century, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has promised to unite fifteen countries in the region. Eight are former French colonies, but members also include such major English-speaking countries as Nigeria and Ghana, as well as Lusophone Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau. ECOWAS even promised a currency union — but the project has continually been delayed. And last Sunday, three states announced that they were leaving ECOWAS for good.

The countries in question — Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — have each had military coups since 2020, with new authorities claiming to break free of “neocolonialism” and the economic structures imposed by former imperial power France. Last August, other ECOWAS states threatened to invade Niger and topple the postcoup government. But the following month, the three states formed a security pact called Alliance of Sahel States (AES in French) — an agreement that Senegalese development economist Ndongo Samba Sylla calls “a mutual defense pact but also a framework for economic and monetary integration.”

Samba Sylla, author of Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story, has written widely on the French neocolonial presence in West Africa. He is a critic of Senegalese president Macky Sall, who this Saturday called off the country’s planned elections indefinitely. He spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the three states’ move to leave ECOWAS, what their claimed assertion of sovereignty involves, and the rival claims of Russian and French meddling in the region.

David Broder

Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger quit ECOWAS, citing both economic sanctions and the lack of support in fighting terrorism. ECOWAS had last summer appeared to be planning an invasion of Niger, as well as imposing trade restrictions, before then seeking a more negotiated path in the name of restoring democracy there. Why are these three governments quitting ECOWAS, and why now?

Ndongo Samba Sylla

Since 2020, six military coups took place in West Africa: two in Mali and Burkina Faso, and one each in Guinea and Niger. The one in Niger, last July, was the most recent. Mohamed Bazoum was said to be its “democratically elected” president, though he was only appointed following a flawed electoral process. He was overthrown by the chief of the presidential guard and is today in custody. Bazoum has still not consented to resigning.

West African military coups since 2020. (Creative Commons)

In power, Bazoum had partnered with the European Union in the implementation of its draconian migration policies. His reign, according to the US State Department itself, saw a continuation of “unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by or on behalf of government” and “harsh and life-threatening prison conditions.” Nonetheless, visiting Niger last March, Antony Blinken described the country as a “model of democracy.” Bazoum was also a zealous French ally.

Bazoum himself publicly backed the 2021 military coup in Chad. At a joint press conference with [Emmanuel] Macron, speaking next to an approving French president, he said that the security context justified the suspension and violation of the Chadian constitution. He added that reason dictates “taking the gamble” of working with the military. This shocked practically no one, except Chadian people who demonstrated against this illegal move. Many were arrested and killed.

Surprised by the putsch against Bazoum last July, Macron criticized his intelligence services and called it “one coup too many.”  France immediately worked on the diplomatic front to get ECOWAS to launch a military operation to reinstate Bazoum. Senegal, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire were ready to send troops. Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, who also held the rotating position of ECOWAS president, was on the warmongers’ side. When ECOWAS announced its intention to “restore democracy” in Niger by force of arms, the military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea declared that any attack on Niger would be an attack on them. While deploring the coup in Niger, Algeria was hostile to any military intervention. Algeria had not forgotten the ongoing chaos created by the destruction of Libya by NATO, the United States, France, and Britain

In the end, the intervention did not take place. The African peoples were largely hostile to it. Nigeria, the main regional power, did not get the green light from its parliament. The United States preferred to negotiate with the new Nigerien authorities, leaving Macron isolated. However, in place of a military operation, ECOWAS has put in place economic, commercial, and financial sanctions against Niger — ones even more severe than the ones against Mali from January to July 2022.

The decision of these three countries to withdraw from ECOWAS is essentially explained by the lack of solidarity on the part of the latter in their fight against jihadist terrorism and separatist groups, and by the imposition of harsh commercial and financial sanctions that are clearly instigated by France and its African allies such as Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Senegal.

France always tried to sabotage ECOWAS since the mid-1970s through the creation of rival regional organizations. Its capture of ECOWAS can be seen in the nature of the financial sanctions imposed on Mali in 2022 and Niger since the 2023 putsch. No foreign country could order the central bank of a sovereign currency-issuer to prevent the government accessing its bank accounts and the domestic financial system. But this is possible if you use the CFA franc, i.e. you belong to a nominally “African-run” monetary union whose central bank is in fact under the legal tutelage of the French treasury. Hiding behind ECOWAS, France was able to impose these types of sanctions on Mali and Niger, though they have no legal basis.

Surviving the sanctions, aimed at collapsing its economy, has psychologically strengthened Mali and its people. The AES countries now realize that they have nothing to lose from exiting a community under imperialist guidance. Despite legitimate worries about their future relationships with their neighbors, significant sections of their populations expressed a feeling of liberation.

David Broder

Do you think this will indeed be a lasting split? How would you characterize the future durability of ECOWAS, and its ability to become an economic power and “regional policeman” on security issues?

Ndongo Samba Sylla

It’s hard to say. ECOWAS started out as an economic community. But as time went on, it broadened its remit to include defense and security issues, as well as “democracy and good governance.”

There’s the problem. As an economic community, notably a regional customs union, ECOWAS has been rendered somewhat obsolete by the implementation of the African continental free trade area (AfCFTA). West African countries no longer necessarily need ECOWAS for the free movement of people and goods across borders. As a bloc, ECOWAS showed little unity when negotiating Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the European Union (EU). While Nigeria rightly opposed the signing of these “free trade” agreements, countries such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire preferred to sign interim agreements with the EU, which undermined the momentum for regional and continental trade integration. This lack of common will and unity is also evident in the repeated postponement of the project to introduce a single currency for the fifteen member states.

Beyond these aspects, ECOWAS lacks the political legitimacy to play the role of policeman. Critics generally describe it as a union of heads of state who are rarely models of leadership within their own countries and who do not always respect or implement decisions from the ECOWAS judicial court.

How credible is an institution composed of leaders who blithely violate their own constitutions, imprison opponents and activists, use force to kill demonstrators, and organize fraudulent elections? What further damages ECOWAS’s credibility and trustworthiness is the popular perception that its unhuman sanctions are orchestrated from the outside. The African peoples want economic integration, but they don’t want a subservient and arbitrary ECOWAS. In the event of regime change following elections, other countries could join the AES countries in demanding a new form of regional integration.

David Broder

There has been some discussion of an ECOWAS currency as an alternative to the West African CFA franc, which these three Sahel countries all use. What do you think the recent developments in these countries signal for this project? What chance is there that they will create a common currency of their own, and with what economic effects?

Ndongo Samba Sylla

The idea of a single currency for ECOWAS dates back to 1983. Its launch has been postponed several times: 2015 then 2020 then 2027. I think we won’t be seeing it any time soon. There’s two reasons. First, the methodology is inappropriate. Following the launch of the euro in 1999, the ECOWAS “imported” the Maastricht “nominal convergence” criteria — related to public deficits and debts, the inflation rate, etc. These criteria were demanded by Germany in order to dispense with the need for solidarity with its Eurozone neighbors. These criteria have to be met for membership in the future ECOWAS monetary zone. But for some years, countries have not managed to meet them, for various reasons. Add to this the so-called “gradualist” approach: countries that meet the criteria will take the lead, and will then be joined by the others. An approach that makes no sense: For example, how can one or two small countries be the locomotives of regional monetary integration?

Then there’s politics. The eight countries that use the CFA franc have so far preferred to remain under the tutelage of the French treasury, while Nigeria does not seem very interested in exercising regional monetary leadership. This has given Macron the opportunity to attempt to torpedo the ECOWAS monetary integration project.

Against this backdrop, ECOWAS’s often illegal sanctions hardly create political momentum for monetary unification between fifteen countries. Who wants to be part of a nondemocratic monetary union where the most powerful countries can do as they please?

My own view is that, supposing this project is feasible, it would only be a symbolic alternative to the CFA franc. As it is modelled on the eurozone, it would generate a “tropical euro” — a currency without a sovereign, an instrument of class warfare.

The three AES countries have announced a plan for economic and monetary integration. We will see how that develops and whether they will get rid of the CFA franc.

David Broder

The recent military takeovers in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are often portrayed — including by the new authorities themselves — as an assertion of sovereignty against French neocolonial influence. Is it demagogy, or does it have material effects? And how similar are the three cases, actually?

Ndongo Samba Sylla

Given the horrors of military rule in Africa, especially during the Cold War, some caveats are needed here. Many commentators speculate on a “return” of coups in Africa. They usually explain this situation in terms of absent “good governance,” poverty, and any other supposed factors that might seem plausible. I disagree with this approach.

There is no “return” of coups. There is rather a long-standing Francophone Africa coup problem. Explanations in terms of “bad governance,” poverty, and so on lack specificity. These features can be found in many countries across Africa where government overthrow is a thing of the past (which does not imply that they are “democratic”). Nine coups happened in Africa since 2020: eight in French-speaking countries and/or in a geopolitical context militarized by the West (the French-speaking Sahel countries and Sudan).

One of the “specificities” of military coups in Francophone Africa is that, from an historical perspective, they have been the only means to get rid of facets of French imperialism. This is not to say that military coups are inherently progressive. Not at all. Most of them have been reactionary and worked to further cement the neocolonial order. But, given the French grip on the “choice” of African leaders, and its long-term success in crushing the civilian left, the rare leaders who had a project to break from French neocolonialism came from the military. We might think for example of charismatic and honest leaders like Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso. This is a two-centuries-long history that my coauthor Fanny Pigeaud and I cover on our latest book.

The recent period in French-speaking Africa is marked by the “return” of practices from the era of single-party rule. Incumbents increasingly allow themselves to rig elections by choosing their own opponents, manipulating constitutional norms and laws, pressurizing the judiciary, and deploying an unprecedented level of violence against their own populations — all of this with the complicity of the “international community,” which equates “democracy” with neocolonial servitude and the implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

The circumstances that led to the recent coups are different from one country to another. So is their political “profile.” While some putsches allow French neocolonialism to reorganize and to prevent an undesirable regime change (like in Gabon and in Chad), the bloodless putsches in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are clearly opposed to so-called Françafrique.

In Niger specifically, my feeling is that it was initially a palace coup, but it quickly took an anti-imperialist turn in the face of widespread popular support boosted by the immediacy and harshness of the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS and the “international community.” The Niger putschists certainly couldn’t have imagined the huge popularity of their coup. This is highly revealing of the disconnect that usually exists between the political class and the ordinary people thirsting for radical change. Against a backdrop of strained diplomatic relations, French troops were expelled from these three countries. By contrast, in Gabon and Chad, two bastions of French influence, the putschists were endorsed by Paris and the “international community.” In their case, there were no real economic or financial sanctions. French troops are present and French economic interests are unthreatened.

Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are landlocked and impoverished countries with a large surface area. Even if they express the will to conquer more sovereignty, they won’t be able to do it alone. Debt servicing is not as high as in other African countries. But transfers of profits and dividends are substantial, a reality that is usually coupled with the theft and transfer abroad of resources. A more “self-centered” economic strategy — progress in food production, greater control over the financial and extractive sectors, etc. — within a framework of economic integration, which would help to relieve their balance of payments of high transport costs, seems unavoidable in their case. In the face of climate and security challenges, transfers of resources will be essential in addition to domestic efforts. The Sahel clearly needs a “Marshall Plan.”

David Broder

Two months ago, the new authorities in Niger cancelled the 2015 agreement with the EU on restraining migration, similar to a number of such deals now being touted by Giorgia Meloni with various (often heavily indebted) North African and Sahel countries in exchange for development aid. What do you think the Nigerien authorities are looking for? And what does this have to tell us about how other states may negotiate their role as outsourced border police for Europe?

Ndongo Samba Sylla

This policy move is a way for the Niger government to assert its “newfound” sovereignty in the face of the EU, whose inhumane migration policies often contravene the principle of freedom of movement within the ECOWAS zone. It’s also a way of getting rid of an unpopular measure. The Niger authorities are therefore sending a message to the EU: political-diplomatic relations, particularly in the field of migration, will no longer be the same; more balanced and respectful partnerships are needed. It remains to be seen whether the AES countries will develop a concerted response on this point.

David Broder

Often, despite their differences, all three states are said to be turning to Russia for “security aid” — notably due to the Wagner presence in Mali. How real is this?

Ndongo Samba Sylla

Providing security services has been Russia’s comparative advantage in Africa, particularly in its French-speaking part. Russian influence on the continent is often singled out in the West. But the Western mainstream narrative usually omits to say that Russia, including the Wagner Group, has helped and is helping countries like the Central African Republic and Mali to reestablish their territorial unity, where France (including private French security groups) has failed. In Mali, France has been present since 2013. Its results on the front of the fight against jihadism have been more than mixed. French troops have gradually been perceived by the population as occupying forces.

Prior to the arrival of the military in power, the “democratically elected” government in Mali could rarely deploy its troops in its own airspace, for lack of authorization from France! Following the departure of French and MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) troops, the military regime succeeded in retaking Kidal, a town that France had left in the hands of separatist groups. Even if security challenges persist, all these countries, thanks to military cooperation with countries from the Global South and Russia, are better equipped and their armies better trained. As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute points out, in the face of France and the United States’ reluctance to sell arms to Mali, Russia has become its leading supplier.

The West may be at loggerheads with Russia. But they can’t blame the African countries they’ve let down for looking for partners to help cope with the security problems that Western military interventions have themselves helped to create.

David Broder

I’m also interested in how you read US policy toward Niger — for instance, the visit by Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland last August, the fact that Washington has not formally spoken of a “coup,” and its strong military ties.

Ndongo Samba Sylla

Washington has been more diplomatically astute than warmongering Paris. At one point, the United States supported Bazoum’s return to power, before quickly negotiating with the military regime without referring to the situation as a “coup.” It was indeed a coup. But recognizing it as such would have forced the United States to leave Niger, a country where they operate a drone base and have troops on the ground. Though negotiations were said to be “difficult” between Nuland and the new regime, they must certainly have been facilitated by the fact that the USA trained the new chief of the Nigerien army, one of “America’s favorite generals.”

But let there be no mistake. The United States is not in Niger to help the country meet its security challenges. Their motivation is essentially imperialist: to block the path of its competitors, notably Russia and China (and even France!), and to keep an eye on their allies on the continent.

The Western militarization of Africa has been a breeding ground for political instability and the emergence of military regimes. As a reaction, the pan-Africanist and popular uprising that started in the Sahelian epicenter now threatens to engulf neighboring neocolonial regimes labelled “democracies.”