Written by Victoire Tissinié and Edited by Tommaso Filippini
“Down with France!” and “Long live Putin!” were the slogans that could be heard as locals protested against France’s attempt at restoring the constitutional order in Niger, following the military coup that took place on July 26th, 2023.
Explored early on by European explorers, Niger was indeed conquered and occupied by the French from 1900 until 1960 (Djibo, 2003). Despite gaining its independence, the country maintained close ties with France, who notably kept a strong military presence in the region in an aim to cooperate with Sahel countries in the struggle against terrorists (Aucaigne, 2023).
Yet, on July 26th, military putschists overthrew the current president to allegedly remedy the “continued deterioration of the security situation [and] poor economic and social governance” (Le Monde, 2023). Aiming at drawing the attention of a young generation lacking prospects of a better and more stable future, the military junta partly blamed the government’s ties with France for the country’s instability (Aucaigne, 2023). Used as a scapegoat, France’s unsuccessful military operations, perceived as concealing an underlying interest in Niger’s uranium resources, are indeed being portrayed as a proof of France’s manipulation of new democracies for its own benefit (Ibid, 2023). Yet, this reawakening of the anti-French sentiment, enabled by the idea of the Nigerien government being complicit and corrupted by a greedy former coloniser, also arose from a pre-existing – and now exacerbated – resentment linked to an unfinished reappraisal of the memory of colonisation (Olivier De Sardan, 2021).
Amidst growing insecurity threats in the region and parallel dissatisfaction with the results of both past and present European presence on their soil, Nigeriens are thus calling for drastic measures, indirectly paving the way for non-democratic powers to sow the seeds of their radically alternate models abroad (Guiffard, 2023).
Focusing on the case of Russia, this article highlights how the Russian government both instigates and benefits from a growing distrust among the African society in democratic institutions to better expand its influence abroad, and tries to unveil to what extent it will hinder Europe’s attempts at spreading its democratic model. It does so by first looking at how Europe’s colonial past hinders its ability to further project and maintain its influence on the African continent. Then, the article analyses how this creates an enabling context for an opportunist Russia to gain leverage and legitimacy in the region. Finally, it delves into the resulting consequences for liberal democracy and questions its potential to be revived.
Europe Caught up by its Colonial Past: The Case of France
In Africa, the new generation, born after the colonisation and the struggle for independence, did not experience a strong connection with Europe, nor France more specifically (Guiffard, 2023). It was thus quite likely that the young political and military class would make use of this progressive detachment to bring an end to the post-colonial heritage, and rethink their model – so far strongly suffused with the imprint of their former coloniser (Ibid, 2023).
The colonial argument constitutes a tool for Russia to strategically spread its influence in the region. The growing political instability faced by many African countries leads to a rising impression of inefficiency from European countries’ interventions on their soil, and an overall failure of the democratic model. Indeed, while Niger has been an important strategic partner for France in the struggle against terrorism in West Africa, France’s interventions have not proven very successful, as in the last 10 years, terrorist groups have kept on gaining ground (Licoys, 2023). This military failure is yet another argument for the putschists to convince the younger generation, dissatisfied with the perspectives offered to them by the newly democratic state in which they grew up, that an alternate model of governance is needed (Licoys, 2023). While France claims to be acting in the name of a common interest – namely, the eradication of terrorism in the region -, the lack of results thus feeds a general rejection of the Occidental liberal and democratic model.
Additionally, a pre-existing factor underlying this general discontentment also plays a role: the burden of an unfinished work on the memory of colonisation (Olivier de Sardan, 2021).
Indeed, according to French historian Camille Lefebvre, the colonial past remains strongly embedded in the minds of both Nigeriens and French people (Bougon, 2023).
On the one hand, although the new generation, born under democratic rule, did not experience colonisation nor the struggle for independence from their country, Nigeriens still hold onto the memory of the sixty years of colonisation their ancestors went through. The memory of what was often perceived as a “racist negation of these people’s identities and values” (Ibid, 2023) still lives in their families and, as they are carried on throughout generations, often constitute the underlying foundation of their rejection of France and its presence on their soil (Ibid, 2023).
On the other hand, French people – most specifically the political and military elite – are also influenced by a colonial memory that is different from the perspective of their former colony, with a vision that still rests upon stereotypes and preconceived ideas that were conveyed by the colonialist propaganda of the time (Ibid, 2023).
This results in a striking contrast: While Nigeriens still feel a strong connection to France – up until the 2000s, students in Niger were still learning about the geography, history and language of their coloniser -, France’s unwillingness to update its knowledge and conduct towards its former colony appears to reveal a lack of interest and a strong indifference to the development of the region (Ibid, 2023). As argued by Camille Lefebvre in an interview with Mediapart, the post-colonial relation built between France and Niger thus remains strongly unequal in every aspect (Ibid, 2023).
In such a context, military putschists use France as their scapegoat by striking a chord with the painful colonial memory. This tactic – it is argued – allows them to conceal their incapacity to solve the socio-economic issues of their country (Ibid, 2023). Simultaneously, they portray France as a greedy colonial power stealing their resources and benefiting from a weak and complicit Nigerien government, which contributes to reinforce the growing anti-French sentiment (Ibid, 2023). Consequently, the lack of results from France’s military interventions, added to a latent resentment for the colonial past and a distrust in their own government, create a favourable context for Nigeriens to voice their wish to once and for all cease the unequal relationship with France, and rebuild their nation far away from their former coloniser’s influence (Ibid, 2023).
Such circumstances create an enabling environment for other powers to introduce their alternative models as a solution to Niger’s internal issues. This is the case for Russia which, free from the burden of a colonial past, can more easily spread its influence in the politically unstable and vulnerable region of West Africa.
An Opportunist Russia
During the second “Russia-Africa” forum in October 2022, Serguei Lavrov, Russian minister of foreign affairs, proudly claimed that Russia and Africa shared a common “rejection of the rule-based order imposed by the former colonial powers” (TASS, 2022). The struggle against the “collective West” is indeed at the centre of Russia’s strategy to counter the influence of a “decadent and morally depraved” United States (US) and European Union (EU) (Guiffard, 2023).
Russia’s strategy mainly encompasses the use of social media, employed to spread “decolonial, pan-African, conservative, warrior and virilist narratives” (Siegle, 2021). The country’s disinformation campaigns often take the form of pro-Russia messages shared through fake social-media accounts used to “artificially boost tendencies” in emerging countries (France Culture, 2022). By prompting a further rejection of the current order in place, they thus create a favourable environment for Russia to promote its own authoritarian and global political and social model (Siegle, 2021).
Promising Africans to “help cast off the lingering vestiges of European colonisation,” Russia thus appears as an opportunist actor using the rejection of what it deems to be an unjust unipolar world order to sow the seeds of its own model (Ashby et al., 2023) – the latter being based on the idea of a multipolar global structure dominated by transactional relations and devoid of any constraining international norm (Siegle, 2021).
Therefore, Africa, also prone to contesting the liberal order in place, is central to Russia’s foreign policy. In opposition to France’s failed attempts at doing so, it promises stability and security in the region, even if it implies the use of coercive means (Meisel et al., 2023). Overlooking moral restraints, Russia’s promises thus appeal to populations desirous for radical short-term alternatives – irrespective of the potential human rights violations they may imply (Ibid, 2023). Contrastingly, the credibility of a normative Europe – weakened by its soft power and limited in its actions by the values it promotes – is tarnished (Ibid, 2023). In this view, facilitated by Nigeriens’ rejection of the current order that it contributes to instigate, Russia can better expand its footprint in Africa, promoting an alternative system devoid of international norms on human and political rights (Siegle, 2021).
Implications for Europe’s democratic model
Although Russia appears to be gaining increasing influence abroad, some define its presence as a “mirage”, a mere illusion, since, when putting things into perspective, France’s presence in West Africa is far more important (Sylvestre-Treiner, 2023).
The successive coups that took place in the last decades constitute symptoms of a democratic setback in West Africa (Guiffard, 2023). Nigeriens’ seek alternatives to the current order, veritable scapegoat for their country’s ills. This context of political turmoil is thus undeniably profitable for an opportunist Russia, responsible for both feeding and benefiting from such narratives (Guiffard, 2023). Nonetheless, the short-term potential of Russia’s strategy constitutes a weakness as much as a strength.
Indeed, though extremely appealing in a context of populist tumult calling for urgent and radical measures, Russia’s strategy might prove inefficient in the longer term. If strategically exploited, such a vulnerability has the potential to strongly benefit Europe’s goal to revive its democratic model abroad (Guiffard, 2023).
To that aim, Europe ideally ought to behave towards Russia in the same way it should towards China. Both Russia and China are important global actors exerting increasing influence on the international scene, and aiming at advancing their own models as viable alternatives to Western liberal democracy (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 22). Both are also known for benefitting from a strict monitoring of information and the spread of disinformation, often used as their main strategic instruments. Their strategies also mostly imply the use of coercive means, allowing them to propose more radical solutions than a normative Europe whose scope of action is constrained by its soft power (Meisel et al., 2023). Indeed, the standard-setting character of the EU creates expectations regarding the “normative righteousness of [its] interests and goals” (Cligendael Spectator, 2023). Unlike its rivals, it is thus forced to meet such expectations for matters of credibility and legitimacy.
Yet, both Russia and China constitute crucial partners in an increasingly multi-polar world where the emergence of shared challenges rules out the possibility for Europe to act unilaterally and ignore the role played by its counterparts (Weiss, 2019, p. 94). Europe should therefore work on better defending its model, both domestically and abroad. To do so, it should focus on strengthening democracy on its own soil and prove its validity and legitimacy, in order to then be able to revive it abroad with more conviction and credibility (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 31). It also ought to be more mindful of the Nigerien population’s needs and demands, in particular by resuming the work on the memory of colonisation. In that view, it should first work on rebuilding stronger and more equal relations with the African continent in order to convince its interlocutors of the merits of its model, by proving it rather than imposing it. Moreover, it should not refrain from pointing at the discrepancies in Russia’s narratives, yet it should be aware of the slipperiness of potential judgments of values towards its opponent’s model. As rightly argued by various scholars, and to conclude this article, Europe, in its aim at reviving the influence of liberal democracy abroad, should thus work on demonstrating the benefits and validity of its model, rather than attacking those that it aims at rallying around it. (Guiffard, 2023).
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