/ 11 August 2023

Geopolitical epoch: Not an Arab Spring but a French Winter?

Mali France Army Barkhane
Hotspots: Armoured vehicles from Operation Barkhane, led by the French military against Islamist groups in the Sahel region, are handed over to the Malian army in Timbuktu. (Photo: Florent Vergnes/AFP)

From 2010 to 2012 a series of popular protests calling for freedom, democracy and jobs erupted primarily in North Africa. Even though these countries were African, the media later dubbed the protests an “Arab Spring” because it spread to some countries in the Middle East.  

I wonder if we will name this period a French Winter, given the coups d’état that have taken place in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and now Niger — all former French colonies.  

The main demand has been to call for the end of the vice-like control the French government has over their former African colonies.  

Just like the Arab Spring though, on the face of it, the dots connect easily, but if you rub that surface just a little bit, you will more easily detect that matters are far more complex than understood.  

In the Arab Spring, the world, led by the US, especially Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, watched on, claiming that they had nothing to do with these developments. It was a natural uprising of the people against dictators and oligarchs.

But this was far from the truth. It may have started like that, however, many of the civil organisations and groups that were at the forefront of the popular protests such as the famous occupation in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, were trained, as reported by the New York Times on 14 April 2011, by US-based and funded organisations like the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.  

More than just the civil activists being Western-trained, was that the objectives of the protests, remarkably, became the same as the geopolitical objectives of the US.  

It was no more about freedom, democracy and jobs than the removal of governments and leaders who were either historically not in support of the US or beginning to flex their independent muscles and pivot away from US domination.

A US-sponsored proposal on a no-fly zone in Libya to the UN’s Security Council passed with African support. Thereby allowing American and ostensibly, Nato fighter jets to provide aerial cover for the protestors as they hunted down Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, his family as well as Libyan military and government officials. 

While in Egypt, the protests got rid of Hosni Mubarak, only for the same crowds who were baying for Mubarak’s ousting to continue to protest against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Mohamed Morsi.  

The people backed a military coup, which removed Morsi as president and suspended the 2012 constitution. Morsi was not a favourite of the US, but also quite despised by Saudi Arabia, who worried about the closeness of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The military junta that was installed after Morsi, was comprehensively US-supporting. 

In simple terms, the masses went out in the streets and fought for freedom, democracy and jobs, and in the end, all they got was a change in government, which in turn provided none of these, except for closer relationships with the US, in particular, and the West, in general.

Before we accuse the US and its Western buddies for their nefarious activities, we need to also acknowledge that the foundation for their mischief, is that in all those countries, their leaders and governments were not democratic and legitimate in the eyes of the people.  

Even in Libya, where Gadaffi’s economic reforms had ensured that Libyans had a high quality of life, it still did not change that Gadaffi was a dictator who used the might of the country’s security power to kill, imprison and threaten anyone who seemed to oppose him and his family’s grip on power.  

No African leaders called out Mubarak, Gadaffi, or even the seemingly gentler Algerian leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for being dictators.

A rallying call by coup leaders in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger has been that they will not only deliver legitimate democratic elections, but they will also kick out the French military forces and liberate their economies from French companies.  

We all have heard claims that the Lancaster House Agreement between Zimbabwe and Britain contained clauses that bound Britain to provide the money for Zimbabwean land reform.  

Or in South Africa’s case that the Codesa negotiations contained so-called sunset clauses that ensured white and Western control of the South African economy.  

So too, do rumours abound that French acquiescence for the liberation of their African colonies was their currency would be controlled by France, as well as French companies would have business concessions and the right of first refusal on all economic opportunities in them? It is difficult, if not impossible to discover these clauses in any written agreements. It all remains rumour or conspiracy.  

But, as we know the proof of the pudding is not in the pudding itself but in the eating of the pudding.  

And from what we can observe is that if anything threatens this status quo, such as land reform in Zimbabwe or major change in the ownership of the South African economy, as well as the removal of French domination in their former colonies, then the clap-back is swift and severe.  

Mugabe, in the 1980s and 1990s was receiving plaudits and awards from both the left and right wings in Britain, but by the 2000s he was being likened to Hitler or Pol Pot.    

Ousted Niger President Mohamed Bazoum was elected democratically, winning, 55,67% in a runoff election. He has been both a staunch supporter of France, as well as the West in the Sahel region. 

In May this year, Bazoum told the Financial Times: “It’s true that French policy in Africa is not a great success right now. But is it France’s fault? I don’t think so. France is an easy target for the populist discourse of certain opinions, especially on social media among African youth.”  

Indeed, Bazoum was feeling quite chipper in May, because he also claimed that there was “zero chance” of a military coup in Niger. Essentially, he regarded anti-French sentiment as being fueled by populist anti-Western propaganda, not because of France’s neocolonial actions in Niger.  

With the toppling of Gadaffi, the Tuareg people in Libya were pushed out and they joined the Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali.  

The Tuareg rebels and other groups have been labelled jihadist and said to have links to Islamic state (IS) and al-Qaeda. Calling them terrorists provided cover for the Mali military government in 2012 to request French military assistance to help fight off the insurgency and protect the Malian military leaders from themselves being toppled.  

It was not that these organisations were loyal to ISIS or al-Qaeda but the instability in Libya, coupled with the increased availability of weapons, that sparked off insurgencies and rebellion within the entire region.  

In 2013, France launched Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism military campaign for the Sahel region. However, nine years later, in 2022, France all but admitted that the operation was a failure and had begun to pull its forces out of Mali and other countries.  

Niger, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, under the Bazoum presidency, increased the French military presence as well as allowed a US drone base in the country. All of this was done under the pretext of fighting terrorism.  

It seems that Niger was, until the coup, the last outpost for France (and the US) in the Sahel region of West Africa. 

As France has pulled out, the Russian-aligned private military outfit, the Wagner Group has stepped into this breach.  

Wagner is seemingly following a similar approach as they did in the Central African Republic, by initially training local forces and providing security for senior officers, in exchange for mining and business concessions.  

The Wagner Group is in Mali and there is a concern that it is only a matter of time before they are also in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger. Maybe that is why we all heard Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, publicly berate Russian President Vladimir Putin for making them fight in Ukraine and pulling them out of Africa.

With all the public berating of the coup by Ecowas leadership and their threats of military intervention, I wonder if that would still be the case if the Wagner Group was contracted to protect the military officers in Niger?  

It seems like the Wagner Group is the new al-Qaeda or IS that will be scapegoated as the cause for the insecurity and instability, not the actions of France and the US in North and West Africa. 

France was one of the first countries to be defeated by Germany’s Adolf Hitler. However, even while under German occupation, it retained its colonies. After World War II, under General Charles de Gaulle, France refused to grant genuine independence to their African colonies and only allowed nominal independence. 

Today those ambiguous policies are coming back to haunt them.

Just like the Arab Spring did not signal a democratic renaissance in North African countries, we must also begin to expect that the French Winter may only result in stability because one neocolonial power was swapped for another — that could either be the return of the French or the direct intervention of the US or Russia entering the fray.  

It will not be because there is any hope of achieving freedom, democracy and jobs. These countries are too important to leave to their own citizens. 

Donovan E Williams is a social commentator.