I am often accused of being too optimistic at times and too pessimistic at other times. For example, a few years ago, I predicted that then-Eskom CEO André de Ruyter would be at the parastatal for a long time because he was doing exactly what people had put him there to do.
“How could you say anything remotely good about that man who is destroying workers’ lives and doing little to provide more electricity to the country?” That was the outcry from many corners. I pointed out to them that I was merely saying that water was wet. Stating the obvious. No value judgements there.
I also predicted that Karpowerships would eventually land in South Africa and connect to the grid one way or the other. I felt that the interests behind the initiative were too strong and too connected to go away with or without a fight.
Recent events as well as the infighting between the owners of the minority stake show that Karpowerships is slowly grinding its way to the South African grid. Inch by inch. Those who question the value-for-money side of the equation simply do not have the resources to compete.
Which brings me to Niger.
The coup belt of the world
A few weeks ago, Niger’s democratically elected leader Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown in a coup by the head of his palace guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani. The news out of Niger is that president Bazoum had been nudging Tchiani towards retirement, but the sly Tchiani, who had his fingers all over a couple of previous failed coups, had other plans. This time he managed to cut off access to the presidential palace and force the army chief of staff (!) to get behind him.
The prospect of another coup irked the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), whose president, newly elected Nigerian leader Bola Ahmed Tinubu issued an ultimatum to Niger: restore constitutional order or Ecowas will take you out.
General Tchiani did what any West African coup leader would do in this situation. Just days after sending out his soldiers to beat the crap out of a small group of organisations that were preparing to demonstrate against yet another coup, he funnelled money into community networks and they packed the General Seyni Kountche Stadium, chanting anti-West slogans.
Demonstrators also screamed into the microphones of foreign correspondents that Nigeriens were tired of francafrique, they were tired of seeing their uranium being used to light up all of France while they remained in the dark, many decades after so-called independence. The Russian flags came out of course and they threw a few stones at the French embassy and then went home, leaving social media influencers to do the rest.
Russia slowly coming out of the shadows
A number of things here. Firstly, many people were surprised by the number of Russian flags that people just happened to have lying around somewhere in Niger. They should not be. Russia has been investing a lot of money in Central and West African social media influencers for years. This has been going on ever since former Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi was taken out by Nato forces in fact. Deutsche Welle, Le Monde, BBC, CNN and others have covered this extensively.
Influencers like Kemi Seba got many millions of dollars to launch the anti-CFA Franc campaign while others including Roland Bayala, Choguel Maïga, Natalie Yamb, Harouna Douamba, Don Mello and Sylvain Afoua also received money to denounce francafrique.
Another major influencer, Franklin Nyamsi, who has been described as a genius by the Burkinabé media, maintains that he has not received any money from Russia although the French police have confirmed that his bank accounts have more money than he could have earned from his job as a professor in Rouen. They have since opened a money laundering case against him.
France has obviously protested loudly that they left Africa a long time ago and that the idea of francafrique is just a myth. Emmanuel Macron recently organised a France-Francophone Africa summit to convince Francophone Africa that it is well and truly independent, but young people are not fooled. James Baldwin once said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”
France is one of the biggest “buyers” of Nigerien uranium, but most Nigeriens have no access to electricity. Virtually all of Francophone Africa has no control over their currency because France is the de facto central bank of the CFA zone.
In Cameroon, the French embassy is inside a military complex. France has military bases all over the Sahel. In West Africa, if you go to shop in a supermarket, it is probably going to be a Carrefour, Auchan or Casino. Young Francophones understand very well that everything that works in their countries does not belong to them.
The Russian troll project meddled in elections in Ghana and Nigeria (unsuccessfully) before shifting all their attention to more vulnerable states like Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso.
In Mali, they helped Assimi Goita overthrow Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2020 and two years later, they helped the young Captain Ibrahim Traoré overthrow the less malleable Paul-Henri Damiba, nine months after he kicked out the democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.
Remember that President Kaboré came to power after former president Blaise Compaoré’s ally, General Gilbert Diendéré had tried to muscle his way into the presidency after a popular uprising forced Blaise Compaoré into exile in Côte d’Ivoire. Blaise Compaoré is the guy who overthrew and murdered his classmate Thomas Sankara in 1987.
Both a climate and institutional crisis
The second thing I want to say is that the reason behind all the coups in the Sahel is weak institutions and especially climate change which has caused a massive ecosystem collapse over the last century.
The modern institutions of the countries of the Sahel are extremely weak and generally unfamiliar to the people who ironically ran successful kingdoms for over a thousand years before climate change and colonialism eroded their gains.
Sundiata Keita developed one of the first constitutions in the world, the Kouroukan Fouga, in the 13th century. The entire world knew about Mansa Musa and his trip to Mecca; they heard about Timbuktu; they heard about the Askias, Sunni Ali, Turé, Ishak and Abu Bakr, who took over 200 boats and set sail to find out what lay on the other side of the Atlantic.
Today, West Africa is all about strong men. Popular Malian civil society leaders like Ras Bath and Rokia Doumbia, who helped Goita come to power, are languishing in jail. Government services do not work and people have to get more or less everything for themselves: water, electricity, roads, houses, schools…
After the collapse of Libya, terrorist organisations have been causing mayhem in the area, wiping out defenceless village after defenceless village.
The Sahel will not become stable in the absence of strong, capable communities and institutions. I hesitate to say countries here because the idea of countries under current borders has still not become an acceptable principle in this part of the world where the notion of the Westphalian state was decreed from above by France and others.
Also, in a region where there is very little vegetation left after decades of nomadic cattle herding, drought and little rainfall, people are having a hard time feeding themselves. The Sahara Desert is gaining a few centimetres every year as it moves southwards. Western allies have generally supplied only weapons and training to military leaders without focussing enough on building resilience within rural communities where most of the people reside.
In one of the fastest-growing areas in the world, where most people are young, the focus should be on rejuvenating the environment and educating young people so that they can take care of themselves and their communities. Many young people are cheering military leaders because they just want to eat and go to school, and they need somebody who can give them that.
There will be no quick fixes here. There is one brilliant project that has not been funded to the level that it should have been many years ago: the “Great Green Wall”. That should change quickly.
Thomas Sankara and the Great Green Wall
When Thomas Sankara came to power in Burkina Faso, he seized many customary lands from chiefs and redistributed them to the poor. He also mobilised all Burkinabé to plant trees, and by the time he was assassinated, he had overseen the planting of over 10 million trees. In his short lifetime, Sankara had already witnessed a number of droughts and that is why he always said that he had three battles: emancipation from neocolonialism, women’s emancipation and environmental protections.
Speaking in Bobo Dioulasso in 1986, Sankara said, “abusive cutting of firewood is forbidden: it is a crime! Animals are forbidden to roam: it is a crime! Setting of bush fires is forbidden: it is a crime!”
Sankara said in the same speech that “ownership or simple rental of the hundreds of social housing units built since 4 August 1983 is strictly conditional on the beneficiaries undertaking to plant a minimum number of trees and to look after them like the apple of their eye.”
Very little was done to slow down the Sahel after Sankara’s overthrow. His assassination, followed by another assassination a year later, that of Norbert Zongo (whose widow, a trade union leader I had the honour to meet at a rail workers’ conference in Johannesburg a few years ago), created paranoia within Compaoré’s government and he spent most of his money in defence projects and creating oligarchs beholden to him.
Mali and Niger did not do enough to green the environment and build resilient communities either. Today, we are reaping the consequences of that neglect.
The Sahel green wall initiative is actually Thomas Sankara’s idea. If we really want a strong Sahel, we must increase advocacy for a massive tree-planting exercise so that the Great Green Wall becomes a reality.
Again, there will be no quick fixes. We must also advocate for strong people-led institutions capable of finding local solutions to local problems like the ingenious Sahelians have done for millennia, rather than cheering on strong men who will themselves be on the pile of coup casualties in the not-too-distant future. DM