The military coup in Niger has been provoking so much excitement within the West African sub-region and globally with opinions divided as to the political, developmental and moral implications of that putsch that ousted the government of President Mohammed Bazoum. It’s against this backdrop that many have questioned the propriety of the response of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to the coup, which includes a possible use of force to bring about reversion to the status quo in the Sahel nation.
Among the arguments against such interventionism is that the coup is a legitimate attempt by Nigeriens to take their destiny in their own hands in the light of the devious grip on the nation by the imperial France, a grip that has for decades allegedly suffocated the nation by denying her the vital oxygen of autonomy she requires for development. Stated differently, France appears being blamed for all the developmental woes bedeviling the poor Niger, hence the coup remains justified as long as it’s an avenue to end France’s damaging influence.
With a sense of history of Africa’s chequered journey, I honestly find it puzzling that many people are being persuaded by this argument. This is Niger’s fifth successful military coup, each coming with a promise of inaugurating the much sought-after new era of unimpeded march to the promised land. Instructively, this is a very familiar territory for many West African nations including Nigeria. It has been an unwinnable battle against our many historical demons, including that of colonialism.
This consciousness of our colonial demon was first provoked by post-colonial scholars and activists whose voices became dominant especially in the post-World War II era. Prominent among them were Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Leopold Senghor, Julius Nyerere, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny among others. Their intellectual legacy was eventually sustained, albeit with nuances, by later theorists like Nigeria’s Claude Ake and Egypt’s Samir Amin.
While I have never ceased to be thrilled by the critical depth of arguments of these scholars regarding Africa’s development experience, I am more than convinced that events down the years have indeed made it compelling for the postulations of these great thinkers to be revisited so as to take that which our later experience has proven valid and discard whatever history has rendered untenable. These thinkers had argued that Africa’s development was tied to their being free from control and undue influence by foreign powers. The early emphasis, especially soon after the Second World War, was on ending colonialism. The prevailing sentiment is encapsulated in the famous truism of Kwame Nkurumah; “Seek ye first the political kingdom and every other thing will be added unto you.”
However, when the political kingdom did come, it appeared nothing would be added, rather things began to get worse for the independent African nations. In West Africa, the disenchantment soon triggered a coup in Togo as Emmanuel Bodjolle-led junta ousted President Sylvanus Olympio in 1963. Nigeria’s own coup followed in January 1966, while Ghana’s Nkurumah was toppled the next month. Since then it has been coups and coups across Africa with the fortune of the nations not getting any better as junta after junta took their turns. Niger is the latest in this game of musical chairs.
Admittedly, there’s some obvious truth in the argument that Africa’s colonial past as well as the attendant neocolonialism has been a drawback in her march to development. The colonialists had created a structure of dependence that irresistibly tied the former colonies to their (colonisers’) apron strings, such that these western powers continue to enjoy economic advantage at the expense of their erstwhile colonies. The francophone countries of West Africa are worst-hit by this parasitic relationship following the policy of assimilation implemented by the imperial France.
Nonetheless, the above colonial circumstance in no way tells the complete story of Africa’s perennial failure. India, like Nigeria and some other African countries, was colonised by Britain. Her independence came just 13 years before that of Nigeria and 10 years before that of Ghana. But then India has quickly emerged from ashes of colonialism to build herself into becoming an emerging world power. Despite a suffocating population and colonial hangover, she has broken the barriers in science, industry and commerce. She has developed nuclear weapons and is today among the top five military powers on the planet earth. She’s up there competing with the likes of the United States in space science. In 10 days’ time, her spacecraft “Chandrayaan-3” will be the first man-made object to land on the south pole of the moon, making India the fourth nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon after the US, the former USSR and China. “Chandrayaan-3”, which left the earth on July 14, has been orbiting the moon for some days now preparatory for the historic descent to the surface of that celestial body on August 23. Meanwhile, since 24 September 2014, India’s space probe (“Mangalyaan”) has been orbiting the mars having traveled for 14 months from the earth to reach the red planet; a piece of scientific wonder which only two nations plus the European Space Agency had previously achieved. India’s exploits in ICT, medicine and agriculture are globally famous. Our leaders and wealthy men now travel to India for the world class healthcare our land lacks.
But on the contrary, Nigeria and other African nations that share the same colonial history with India are finding it difficult doing the simplest of things. Among their major excuses for their repeated failure is their colonial history! Many decades after colonialism have seen these nations fail to justify the pre-independence hope that sacking the colonial masters was almost all that was needed to make the previously colonized countries great. Little wonder the blame has shifted to neocolonialism as the new demon stalling the continent’s development. But I am personally unconvinced that neocolonialism is the major cause of our failure as a people.
The difference between the fortune of India and that of fellow colonised nations in Africa lies in the former’s ability to pursue its vision of greatness through purposeful and disciplined leadership. Despite the encumbrances of the colonial past, a determined nation can still tap from the limitless opportunities which the modern sphere offers to chart her development course. For instance, while India resolutely pursued science and ICT innovations, fellow colonized nations like Nigeria and Niger remained tied to extractive industries of petroleum and uranium respectively. Instructively, the much taunted exploitation of the Third World by the West is rooted in the extractive sphere where the West is accused of shortchanging the nations that own the mineral resources. In Niger, it is about uranium which former colonial masters, France, has continued to enjoy the lion’s share of the economic benefit given Niger’s lack of scientific and industrial capacity to convert raw uranium to a useable nuclear fuel. Thus, uranium mined from Nigerien’s earth has to be transported to France where French companies undertake the technologically sophisticated enrichment process.
In Nigeria, a similar situation is seen in the oil & gas sector where foreign oil companies have dominated business in the face of our inability to locally midwife upstream and midstream technology and infrastructure. This is in sharp contrast to the route taken by other oil & gas-endowed nations like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Besides, these nations, like India, have also done so well in exploring development opportunities in science and industry as against relying solely on the petroleum sector.
The modern development structure is such that has taken away power from owners of mineral resources and vested same in users of mineral resources; in other words, from those who possess raw materials to those who can process them. This shift in power became complete since the Industrial Revolution. Hence, failure by African leaders to creatively steer their countries away from too much reliance on the extractive industry has and will continue to feed that demon of neocolonialism which we have so much blamed for our woes.
Secondly, I am fully convinced that failure by nations like Nigeria and Niger to even domestically develop the technological and infrastructural capacity needed to take full control of their respective petroleum and uranium industries cannot be blamed on any past colonial masters. Is it Britain that has prevented Nigeria all these years from building the planned trans-Saharan pipeline needed to transport the nation’s gas to European markets via Niger and Algeria, an infrastructure indispensable for ending the current situation wherein the nation’s huge natural gas deposits (running into trillions of cubic metres) have remained largely unusable? Or was Britain responsible for rendering our only government-owned oil company, the NNPC, so corrupt and inept that it could not maintain any of the four refineries it owns?
A friend of mine who recently completed his doctorate in energy law made a very instructive finding in regard to what we are talking about here. This scholar tested the validity of the often repeated claim that Nigeria’s failure to secure the environment of the oil-rich Niger Delta is blamable on the British colonial masters who, occupied with profit motives, failed to enact good laws required to protect the environment from the collateral damage associated with petroleum mining; in other words, the British failed to lay good legal and institutional foundation for environmental protection in the sector. But contrary to this claim, his analysis indicated that laws enacted for Nigeria’s petroleum industry by Britain were exactly the same laws that operated in the same industry in the colonial masters’ country. Stated differently, the colonial masters merely imported their domestic laws into the colony. Furthermore, the researcher discovered that after independence, Nigeria largely copied the petroleum laws subsequently enacted in Britain from October 1, 1960s onwards. This implies that Nigeria and Britain largely maintained a uniform set of petroleum laws before and after the two nations severed ties as colonial masters and colonial subjects respectively. Why then are the two nations having different results from the same laws; Britain having its petroleum industry operate in the best environmentally friendly manner as against the Nigeria’s opposite experience? The researcher answered this question by observing that while Britain has diligently and strictly enforced her own laws, Nigeria has allowed corruption and ineptitude to render her own laws redundant. Corrupt Nigerian public officials have, rather than insist on compliance with the laws, connived with foreign oil firms to circumvent regulations. I am pretty sure similar findings will be made if the same inquiry is made into the uranium industry in Niger Republic.
Merely cutting ties with perceived oppressors does not necessarily guarantee growth as supporters of the Niger coup seem to suggest. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s land reform which in the early 1990s assumed an activist posture wherein land was forcibly taken from foreigners for redistribution did not stop the nation from its socio-economic degeneration that became nearly cataclysmic at a point. The colonial Zimbabwe ended up becoming a better enclave than the independent Zimbabwe. In South Africa, the white rule was widely seen as a new form of colonial domination after the imperial Britain formally relinquished power in 1910; however, since the end of apartheid and realisation of what is considered genuine independence, South Africa has been on a downward trend; the nation has got worse, so much so that even the blacks that got so excited by their apartheid victory, at times, get so suffocated by limited opportunities that they turn their frustration on foreigners, including those that were their strong ally in the titanic fight against apartheid – Nigerians. The infamous xenophobia.
Truth is that generally speaking, the African states left behind by the colonial masters were much better enclaves than what these states turned to soon after commencement of self-rule. Nigeria is a huge example as testified to by near complete collapse of public services such as electricity and water supply which under foreign rule ran very efficiently. The problem of Africa is failure of domestic leadership. This is what is feeding the demon of neocolonialism as typically seen in how our perennial inability to successfully implement domestically midwifed policies has continued to render us slaves to the Bretton Woods institutions of World Bank and IMF. For instance, our failure to efficiently run our public corporations such as NEPA, the NNPC and others has easily led us into embracing the false narrative about the indispensability of privatization and subsidy removal as promoted by these neocolonial bodies. “Government is a bad manager of businesses” has been the slogan which labours under the fact that countries like China, Russia and others have successfully run state businesses in power supply, oil & gas, and industry among others. Russia’s two formidable petroleum giants, Rosneft and Gazprom, emphatically shame our own grossly incompetent NNPC. Similarly, the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), the largest utility company on the planet, is a huge shame to our NEPA.
Africa is a place where no policy works as a result of bad and corrupt leadership. In Nigeria we have tried and failed with state enterprise which has worked in China and Russia. We were then led by the West into the neoliberalist ideology where the state removes itself from running enterprises (privatization), yet the result is getting worse. We in Africa have become like a bad workman who continues to complain about his tools. Our colonial past has been part of these tools we have always quarreled with.
My wish is that the new coupist messiahs in Niger prove history wrong this time. As they seek to severe ties with France, they are being courted by Russia who many now see as the modern day liberator of those held down by the West’s imperial demon. No one should forget history. No nation plays the messiah without her self-interest being the primary motivation. Russia is no exception. Her activities (then as USSR) in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan among others are still too recent a history for anyone to forget. No saviour of Africa will come from outside Africa.
Above all, more than a half of a century after independence, still blaming the colonial masters is nothing but a half a century of foolery. Africa arise!
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.