Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


For decades, France maintained control over its former African colonies by supporting local strongmen. The 2023 coups in Niger and Gabon against governments accused of being aligned with Paris show that the informal French empire is disintegrating.

In Niger, General Abdourahamane Tchiani took power on July 26, 2023 after arresting President Mohamed Bazoum, France's partner. Why has this West African state followed in the footsteps of its neighbors Burkina Faso and Mali?

On October 9, 2023 General Brice Oligui Ngeuma was declared interim president of Gabon after the bogus re-election of long-term leader Ali Bongo, and his arrest by the military. Bongo, France's partner, took the reins of power in 2009 after the death of his father, who had been president for life of the central African country since 1967.

This domino effect is striking: in a similar fashion, a military coup took place in each of these countries, replacing the leader with a pseudo-savior for the nation.


France’s colonial empire in West and Central Africa dissolved in the 1950s and 1960s, but Paris’ dominance remained. Through Francafrique France ensured its continued access to Africa’s resources and preserved French business and trade interests. This lopsided arrangement survived for generations. A constellation of debates clusters around the epithet Françafrique. This term was first coined by Jean Piot who was trying to refashion and deepen the connections within the Francophonie during the Second World War. More recently, however, in the hands of NGOs, the term became a syllogism for a distinctive French form of neo-colonialism, protective of its hunting grounds in francophone Africa.

The eighth coup d'état in the former French colonies since 2020, the one in Gabon, has been driven more than anything by popular exhaustion with the Bongo dynasty. But it also has to do with the decline of French influence. Catherine Colonna, French Minister of Foreign Affairs declared to Le Monde: “Françafrique has been dead for a long time. " In these terms, she was referring to the close commercial and military ties that France maintained for decades with its former empire after official decolonization.

Perhaps nothing better symbolises the death of the six-decade system of Francafrique than the collapse of France's failed decade-long counter-terrorism war in Sahel. France used regional soldiers as cannon fodder, without the resources or the vision to pursue a developmental approach to peace-building. The semi-arid Sahel now appears to represent France's Afghanistan, as Paris has been  expelled from its military bases in Mali and Niger.

Paris cannot afford any more its politique de grandeur in Africa after seeking to use the UN and the EU to subsidise its African adventures. Francafrique is finally dead. It is time to give it a decent burial.


Since Paris had periodically rigged elections in its African possessions during the colonial era, it was easy for France to condone undemocratic behaviour on the continent. President Jacques Chirac described democracy as a “luxury” for Africa, demonstrating the prejudiced paternalism typical of the French political class, many of whose members have themselves often been involved in sleaze and scandals.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, during a speech in Dakar in July 2007 noted: “Africans have never really entered history....In a world where nature controls everything, man has remained immobile in the middle of an unshakable order where everything is determined.

There is no room either for human endeavour, nor the idea of progress”. Sarkozy backed dictators and provided support to prop up the autocratic regimes of Chad and CAR.

Macron, despite rhetorical pretensions of pursuing a new approach, had continued to promote these cosy and corrupt relationship.

Dynamics in the Sahel region

During the past few years, the Sahel’s name has reached the global spotlight because of the several coups d’etat suffered by West African countries. The putschist trend is different from other African coups as the Sahel region has its own political, economic, and social situations that distinguish it from the rest of Africa. In fact, the Sahel historically had been under French colonial rule and continues to suffer from what many label French neocolonialism.

One of the most infamous instruments of French neocolonialism is the CFA Franc, a currency used by 14 countries in Western and Central Africa but controlled by France. CFA stands for African Financial Community, the legal framework established between France and its former colonies after their independence, which de facto helps France to keep its colonial privileges. In fact, the CFA Franc is directly linked to the value of the Euro, and the currency reserves are kept in the French treasury under the payment of a fee. Besides, the CFA agreements gave France the right to preferential treatment for the exploitation of natural resources such as gold, diamonds, copper, and uranium for nuclear purposes.

On the military side, the development and security framework of the G5 of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) under French supervision was aimed at coordinating military efforts against Salafist militias and human traffickers. However, the efforts have not given the expected results, while France is allowed to keep military officials in Sahelian territory. One of the reasons is the unequalness of the agreement: while France, and Western countries in general, tend to consider Islamist terrorism a major security issue as its consequences can spill over to Europe, African countries tend to view the problem as one of many others.

Moreover, the development agenda tends to be seen through the lens of protecting democracy and securing sustainable development, while African countries urgently need structural schemes that cannot be implemented through atomized initiatives.

Something that characterized these past coups is that  the military juntas were celebrated by the population because of the huge anti-French sentiment while, with the reduced influence of France, new actors are starting to set their foot in Africa.

How to maintain power status

In its power strategy, France used all its economic weight. The CFA franc allowed it to maintain control over its former colonies, by directly managing their monetary policy and controlling their foreign exchange reserves, while maintaining their status as suppliers of raw materials. At the same time, French businessmen, such as Bouygues or Bolloré, used their interpersonal skills with both French and African leaders to create real commercial and industrial empires.

Francafrique is a phenomenon which has no equivalent, neither in duration nor in depth, in the history of relations between a European power and its former colonies: it applies to the French neocolonialism, erected as a protean system at the very heart of the institutions. Certainly, there are perhaps points of possible comparison with the influence policies of Great Britain or Belgium in their former imperial domain. But, which country other than France has maintained a military presence on the African continent continuously since 1830? What other imperial power has conditioned the independence of its former African colonies on their renunciation of entire sections of their sovereignty? Which other country has for decades had a ministry specifically dedicated to Africa (under the mask of “Cooperation”)? What other country has maintained such cordial relations, and for so long, with so many African autocrats (some of whom are the sons of the autocrats she herself had placed in charge)? Which country, believing it necessary to defend its rank in Africa, compromised itself to this extent in the last genocide of the 20th century? And in which country, finally, is all this policy, an explosive mixture of military interventionism, political interference, economic intrusion and development aid, carried out without almost any democratic control and with judicial impunity? 

Africa is the region of the globe where the weaknesses of France are now revealed in broad daylight with an unprecedented wave of hostile demonstrations among the population. This anti-French feeling is itself exploited by rival powers in the context of media campaigns which hit the mark all the more easily because the accusations made against France are not without foundation.

And it is surprising that the French leaders do not find reason for a true introspection of these long French African decades of predation and confiscation of power.

Niger breaks from France and embraces Russia

Meanwhile in Niger the new military government has pivoted from French and European partners into the arms of Russia and Iran.

This domino effect is striking: in a similar fashion, a military coup took place in each of these Sahel countries, replacing the legitimately elected leader with a pseudo-savior for the nation. As soon as they entered the presidential palace, each hastened to dismiss the French forces present in the country and summon in their place those of a new, Russian big brother. Amazingly, Wagner group forces quickly appeared, ready to help in training a presidential guard or driving out jihadists.

In Niger General Abdourahamane Tchiani, after taking power, immediately took measures against France, whose soldiers had been there for years to fight against the threat of Islamist extremism. The junta quickly demanded the exit of the French forces, who numbered about 1,500, and denounced existing security agreements with Paris. The last French soldiers finally left the country on December 22, 2023.

At the end of August, the military regime also expelled the French ambassador, Sylvain Itté and Paris closed its embassy in Niamey at the beginning of 2024.

Moreover, the junta in Niamey denounced the previous security cooperation agreements with the Europeans and soon received a Russian official with great pomp, just as the new military rulers had done in Mali and Burkina Faso.

On December 4, General Tchiani welcomed with honors  the Russian Deputy Defense Minister, Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. The Nigerien government announced the strengthening of cooperation in the field of defense with Moscow and the signing of a protocol.

In a statement addressed to the European Union delegation in Niamey, the regime also denounced the two agreements governing European support for Nigerien defense and security forces. The EUCAP Sahel, a civilian mission created in 2012 to support border security forces, and the EUMPM Niger, the military mission set up in 2022 to help Nigerien soldiers fight terrorism, have been asked to pack their bags. This bodes well for the arrival of Russia’s Wagner group in Niger. It should be noted that  Yevkurov himself is said to lead the Africa Corps, a reported effort   by the Kremlin to subsume Wagner’s paramilitary activities on the continent after the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

From Soviet Union to Russia

Pro-Russian sentiment is not new in the Sahel. During the period of decolonization, beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet Union established close ties with several African countries and supported them in their struggles for independence. Into the current security void Russia is back. After French failure to control the situation,  the Sahel governments are turning to Russia. As already seen in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, French influence on the continent is waning, and has been rejected by popular pressure. Into this gap, Russia has been more than willing to step forward.

Russia’s military involvement is active also in Central African Republic (CAR) with the Wagner Group. While formal Russian involvement took the form of military advisors, the reported 1,200 – 2,000 strong mercenary group were active combatants helping the government  to reclaim lost territory.

As for Niger, its pivot away from the West is not limited to Russia. In January, Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine was received in Teheran  by Iran’s Vice President to sign partnerships in the fields of energy, health and finance: all in the name of mutual aid between two victims of the system of domination.

“Niger intends to breathe new life into cooperation with the Islamic Republic,” declared Zeine after signing the joint agreements. Iran, along with Russia, forms an increasingly powerful anti-Western axis that needs African support, especially at the United Nation.

China, Russia and France

The Sahel countries, in their rejection of the former imperial power France, are expressions of a shift in the external influence on the African continent that has been emerging since the 2000s. For a number of decades now there has been tension between China and the West in terms of influence within African states, especially regarding development aid. When the former Soviet Union withdrew its support for its allies in the late 1980s,  this gave former colonial powers and the US free reign, for a time. Yet China, as its role as a global superpower grew, has been willing to come in and provide aid, free of the conditionalities that have been tied to donor money from the West.

Many did not see a return of Russia, and certainly not a situation in which the country would be able to usurp French colonial influence as, after granting independence, France, and French companies, continued to exert extraordinary influence over its former colonial possessions.

A number of former Francophone countries in Africa have now rejected French military influence in favour of looking further east. Across the Sahel region, military governments have joined in sending the French troops home and turning to military support from Russia to protect their new army-led regimes.

The Dragon (China) and the Bear (Russia)

Many divergent opinions have been expressed about China’s growing influence in Africa. Some have characterized it as debt-based (debt-trap) neo-imperialism. Others have contrasted Chinese actions in Africa with those of former colonial powers, viewing Beijing as a reliable and fair partner. In the Sahel region, China has become more and more assertive towards its support for security initiatives in order to protect Chinese investments in their Belt and Road initiative and its commodity-extraction operations (especially lithium). Such initiatives aim also to protect Chinese nationals present in the region and increase Beijing’s light and heavy arms export. Moreover, China has aimed to increase its diplomatic capital by actively engaging in conflict mediation, like between the Tuareg militias and the government in Mali.

The former Soviet Union was very much engaged with geopolitical movements in the Sahel under the banner of decolonization. Now, Russia’s interest in the region intensified after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the following Western sanctions. Moscow aimed for security deals with the fragile Sahel states, having Mali as a key partner. The security deals, in exchange of mining concessions, were established through Russia’s Wagner Group whose presence tends to be viewed favorably by the local population.

Some analysts identify Moscow’s presence in the Sahel as a way to have access to migration routes towards Europe, with the intention of using massive immigration as a weapon to destabilize Europe in a type of asymmetric warfare labelled Coercive Engineered Migration. Following its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s fear of international isolation has pushed it towards further collaboration with the Sahel, starting with Mali, who had abstained during the UN General Assembly meeting that condemned Russia’s Special Operation. With its renewed Africa Corps, the new face of Wagner in Africa after Prigozhin’s rebellion, Russia aims to keep its business in Africa unchanged, although it is clear that this rebranding is a signal of the Kremlin officially taking over Wagner’s operations, which had previously been referred to as a completely private business.

Integration theories and a new Sahelian confederation

Regional integration can be defined as a process in which neighboring countries cooperate through common institutions and rules. While the normative ground of European integration was maintaining peace after two devastating global conflicts, common enemies seem to be what pushed the Sahelian states further together. Extreme poverty, insecurity, violence from insurgents, and the presence of negatively perceived foreigners (mostly French) created an unstable environment that could be used by the putschists to push towards the integration of a region that shares these common traits.

There are similarities between the juntas, underlining a common approach to their internal policies. For example, Niger’s junta announced back in December 2023 the nationalization of their water sector, finishing the over twenty-year partnership with the French company Veolia, while Burkina Faso decided to nationalize its sugar sector, which had been privatized back in 1998, as well as establish a new partnership with Russia for the construction of a nuclear power plant to cover the energy needs of the population.

On the other hand, in early February 2024, general Tiani of Niger hinted at the possibility of creating a common currency with Burkina Faso and Mali and thus abandon the West African Monetary Union that uses the CFA Franc.

Chad is Russia's next target in the Sahel

The Chadian junta may begin aligning with the Russian-backed Sahelian juntas and Russia itself, which would boost Russia’s long-standing goal of increasing its influence in the country. Chad’s junta faces internal pressure to pivot away from France and the West and will need regime support following upcoming elections in May 2024. The Kremlin likely seeks to increase its influence in Chad to undermine - and eventually remove from the region - the West, support its operations in neighboring theatres, and mitigate the effects of sanctions for its war in Ukraine

Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Chad on 6 May 2024, with a second round, if necessary, to be held on 22 June 2024


According to Westerners Niger was a sort of El Dorado. France, the United States, Italy, Germany and the European Union did nothing but praise the magnificent and progressive fortunes of the country, a shining example of democracy and good governance. The coup d'état of July 26, 2023, supported by a large part of the population (79%), finally swept away this narrative.

The responsibility for the coup lies above all with France. The former colonizer, in fact, continued his arrogant policy, the consequences of which are there for all to see. Emmanuel Macron's African strategy, therefore, can and must be questioned. However, Niger's other partners, in particular the EU, cannot hide behind Paris' failure. It is the whole West that has to question itself about its mistakes.

Traumatized by the vote of African states at the United Nations after the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, the Americans hope to win back the hearts of Africans. They delude themselves. Africa is liberating itself. Nothing can be done to stop this process. It's a wave. It is the march of history.

While avoiding the fantasy of the historical mission, the West, responsible for this problematic heritage, still has the duty to work towards a new anthropology of relationships which will always remain unfinished as long as the world economic order is what it is. For Africans, one of the challenges is undoubtedly to find a mode of self-organization which allows them to escape from a great game of imperial competitions and the EU, before it's too late, must definitely drop its colonial legacy and help Africa to build its own future to the benefit of both Europe and Africa.