Several French government statements in August suggested that France might become involved militarily in Niger in order to restore constitutional order.
On July 26, a putsch by the Nigerien army deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, who had been elected by universal suffrage in April 2021, with 55 per cent of the vote in the second round. Since then, this Sahelian Muslim country, two and a half times the size of France and with a population of 25 million, has been governed by a junta of generals.
It has taken the name of National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). It has just appointed a technocrat as Prime Minister. This former finance minister heads a 21-member government. The defence and Interior portfolios have been given to generals who are members of the junta.
Despite its distant Bonapartist past, France is right to dislike military coups and to prefer democracies to dictatorships. Democracies are unquestionably more effective than dictatorships in ensuring peace and prosperity for nations.
It would be healthy for France’s universities and public media to propagate, at home and abroad, the idea that the language of the ballot box is everywhere preferable to that of arms.
But it would be sheer folly for France to intervene militarily to re-establish constitutional order in Niger, if only in support of a group of countries from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This intra-African war would result in a bloodbath, with no guarantee that it would improve the well-being of the Niger population in the medium term.
And, in the end, France alone would be held responsible for this humanitarian disaster.
The desire to impose French law and peace in Africa by force has a name: it’s called colonisation. We rightly consider it uncivilised to overthrow a democratically-elected government by force. But wanting to restore Mohamed Bazoum to his rightful throne, by force of the French army and three African contingents – who would immediately be seen as French auxiliaries – is called a colonial mission. The leftist Jules Ferry spoke of “the civilising mission of colonisation”.
Niger has been an independent country for sixty-three years. President de Gaulle’s France freely decided to decolonise it. It is no longer up to France to decide who should govern Niger.
Niger’s political destiny belongs to the Nigeriens themselves, and to no one else. Culturally, we have every right to defend, urbi et orbi, our good democratic principles. Militarily, we have no right to apply them by force to anyone but ourselves. Interference is the return through the window of the colonial impulse.
Western military interventions are always carried out in the name of the best intentions. In Kabul, NATO’s aim was to “rebuild, democratise and develop Afghanistan”, as stated in the Bonn Conference of 5 December 2001.
In 2021, considering that it had failed and that the game had gone on long enough, America returned to the Taliban the power it had wrested from them by force twenty years earlier. So much for the hopes of democracy it had raised among the educated youth of Afghanistan’s major cities.
In Baghdad in 2003, for the Anglo-Saxons, the aim was to overthrow a tyrant allegedly in possession of weapons of mass destruction, and to install in Iraq a democracy that would set an example for the entire Arab-Muslim world. The free suffrage implanted by the American occupier only served to deepen the country’s ethnic divisions, which soon descended into a terrible civil war.
In 2011, French President Sarkozy took the initiative of forcibly overthrowing the dictatorial Gaddafi regime in Libya, in order to kick-start the “democratic Arab Spring” movement in North Africa and the Levant.
Unwittingly and unknowingly, he committed the most serious foreign policy error of the entire Fifth Republic. The trio of Libyan opponents he endorsed on the steps of the Elysée soon proved totally incapable of governing. The country plunged into chaos, and the weapons looted from Gaddafi’s arsenals spread throughout the region, soon destabilising the entire belt of Sahelian countries, all good friends of France at the time.
In 2013, France was dragged into a second war in Mali, to repair the damage of the first. But as it failed to re-establish peace in the Sahel, with some 5,000 soldiers, over an area of more than five million square kilometres, the Sahelian populations first began to doubt France, then to loudly express their frustrations, and now their rejection.
This is where we are today. France’s use of its “hard power” against Gaddafi’s Libya, in the name of democratic ideals, has ended up creating a regional catastrophe.
Over the past two decades, Western meddling expeditions in the Arab-Muslim world, all undertaken in the name of democracy, have ended in disaster.
Westerners rightly detest political dictatorship. But they have failed to understand that, for a nation, there are far worse things than dictatorship: anarchy. And even worse than anarchy, civil war.
Are we ready to guarantee the people of Niger that their situation will be better after our military intervention than before? That we will stay in Niger for as long as it takes to establish peace and good governance? That we won’t do what the Americans did in Kabul, and that we won’t leave Niger a failure? The reality is: no.
We have to face the facts: we no longer have the means – political, moral, diplomatic, human, military or financial – to embark on colonial-style military expeditions aimed at imposing our vision of the law on lands that are far removed, both in terms of distance and culture. Since we don’t have the means to stay until we succeed, it’s crucial that we refrain from intervening.
Does this mean we should forget Africa? No. We should devote even more diplomatic and economic effort to Africa. But we should respond to Africans’ reasonable requests for help, on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis, without trying to impose by force global political and economic models developed in the West.
Two generations ago, we renounced colonisation. It would be absurd to revive it today.
This article was first published in le Figaro.