“People make the revolution:” charting an anti-imperialist path in West Africa

Achy Ekissi of the Communist Party of Côte d’Ivoire talks about the coup in Niger, the political changes in the Sahel and the struggle against imperialism. He also talks about the role of the left in these processes

October 26, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Rally in Niamey on August 6 in support of Niger's coup leaders and against foreign intervention.

French troops departed from the Ouallam military base in Niger on October 22, as part of a total withdrawal of France’s military presence from the West African state. The move was confirmed by Paris at the end of September, nearly two months after Niger’s military leadership, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), seized power in a coup. 

The takeover, which ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, was met with popular support as thousands of people took to the streets in defense of Niger’s sovereignty against French neocolonialism and exploitation. 

While the coup invited a swift and hostile response from the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including a threat of military action backed by the West, progressive forces on the continent and in different parts of the world stood firmly with the people of Niger.

Though ECOWAS has since backed away from a direct intervention, the sweeping sanctions that it imposed on land-locked Niger— including border closures with Benin and Nigeria, the freezing of state assets held in the regional central bank and commercial banks, and the suspension of development financing—remain in place.

These harsh measures, coupled with food insecurity, and insecurity resulting from attacks by armed groups, has led to an 81% increase in the number of those in need of humanitarian protection. Nigeria, which accounted for over 70% of Niger’s energy supply, has cut off power since the coup. Niger’s exclusion from the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) has meant that it does not have access to the regional debt market to finance its budget or conduct banking transactions. Sanctions are currently also preventing Niamey from paying its debts. 

Rising inflation, driven by high food prices, is projected to push over 700,000 people — accounting for 44.1% of Niger’s population — into extreme poverty in 2023. 

The coup on July 26 followed similar military takeovers in former French colonies in the Sahel region, which has been ravaged by armed conflict in the aftermath of NATO’s disastrous invasion of Libya in 2011. Beginning with Operation Serval in Mali in 2013, France deployed military forces to the region under the stated purpose of combating these insurgencies. 

However, as armed violence grew, despite France’s nearly-decade long military presence, countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso saw major unrest, which were followed by successive military coups between 2020 and 2022. Under a popularly-backed military leadership in these countries, France withdrew from Mali in 2022 and was ordered out of Burkina Faso in early 2023. 

Niger has now joined the ranks of its Sahelian neighbors. At a time when these countries are witnessing a major resurgence of armed attacks, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have come together to form the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) to expand cooperation on key matters including defense. Ouagadougou and Bamako have also lifted national export restrictions on cereal to support Niger.

In the wake of these developments, there has been a lot of hand-wringing, especially by France and the US and their allies in Africa, about a supposed “coup contagion” in West Africa. Even countries which were hailed by the West as “bastions of peace and stability,” such as Senegal, have seen mass unrest in recent years where, amid high levels of unemployment and poverty, people have explicitly targeted symbols of French neocolonial exploitation.

As part of their withdrawal plan from Niger, French troops have been granted a transit corridor through neighboring Chad, whose Paris-backed government recently oversaw the violent repression of protests against French forces. 

The sight of a few Russian flags being waved during the mass protests that have broken out in countries of West Africa has led to cynical and paternalistic dismissals of the political changes taking place in the Sahel as being influenced or directed by foreign actors, particularly Russia.

Peoples Dispatch spoke with Achy Ekissi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Côte d’Ivoire, about the recent developments in the Sahel region, and importantly, how progressive forces and social movements should position themselves to uphold popular aspirations for sovereignty.

Peoples Dispatch: The Sahel region has seen a series of uprisings and coups d’état in recent years. How do you see the role of popular movements in challenging oppressive regimes and promoting social change? 

Achy Ekissi: Some people think that the popular uprisings today in the Sahel, whether in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, or Niger, were sparked off by foreign powers, in particular, [Russia]. In reality, these movements were born from the awareness of the peoples of West Africa against French imperialism. Indeed, [it is] because the domination of French imperialism has gone too far. This domination is being felt more and more, and is increasingly perceived and resented.

There are two reasons for this: first, the Pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist movement in this region has done an enormous amount of agitations and propaganda to denounce French imperialism. Secondly, French imperialism has made so many mistakes in clinging to certain reactionary regimes that, in the end, the people have decided to attack these regimes and French imperialism. 

PD: In the context of recent uprisings and coups d’état, how can socialist movements in Côte d’Ivoire and the Sahel support people’s aspirations for genuine democracy and social justice?

AE: That is the fundamental question, because all these changes that we are seeing are indeed changes that have been brought about by coups d’états. Now, a coups d’état is the work of a group of soldiers, however, they may not necessarily be soldiers of the people. These are groups of soldiers who are going to battle either with their former employer, that is, the power that employs them, or even, to settle contradictions among themselves.

Today, popular movements have pushed putschist governments to don the garb of anti-imperialism. In practice, these movements have forced these regimes to move in a certain direction— that of the liberation of West Africa. However, it is the socialist parties and the communist parties, who, today must be in the popular movement, they must support it. This is the only way to overcome putschist actions. 

PD: Uprisings often stem from grievances linked to economic inequality and political repression. What’s the best way to address these issues?

AE: Today, the main contradiction that we have is between the peoples of West Africa and French imperialism. The best way to approach this question is to support popular movements against French imperialism. These movements must give themselves leaders, must necessarily give themselves vanguard parties, who will follow in the wake of the work that is being done, who will push movements forward until we achieve all that we want, namely, the liberation of Africa from France, from the yoke of imperialism and then, the establishment of democratic and anti-imperialist regimes. It is about getting imperialist military bases out of these countries and returning power to the people. That is the only way to make real progress.

The masses, while being in support of soldiers today, have to fight to give themselves their own leadership, strong enough to be able to take charge of the movement.

PD: Coups d’état often have complex international dimensions. What strategies can be employed to challenge foreign interference and promote self-determination in the region? 

AE: We need to lay the foundations of the anti-imperialist struggle. However, talking vaguely about non-interference is not productive. You have imperialism which is dominant, and which has its armies stationed in the region. You start by getting rid of this imperialism. Niger, where the French army is in the process of leaving, is a case in point! 

So, there’s a basis for a struggle that goes beyond the fact that you are a soldier, or a communist, or this or that. It is a patriotic struggle that does not want these armies. This is the first act. The second act is to go beyond the fact that the French army has left— there is the management of power. Here, we need to ensure that it is patriotic organizations that take over the management of the country. 

PD: Some argue that uprisings and coups can be an opportunity for progressive change. Reflecting on these arguments, do you think progressives can seize the opportunity by pushing for policies that benefit the working class and marginalized communities? 

AE: Revolution is made by the people, it cannot be commanded. You do not know when the people will rise up, and revolution can come from any number of circumstances. We see it in Africa today, where soldiers have gone to oust the power that wants to oppress them. 

At first, it is not a priori to resolve the problems or aspirations of the popular masses. But it is an opening, and this breach can be used by revolutionaries, by revolutionary parties, to advance towards liberation. This means that we cannot simply say, “Okay, the military ousted Blaise Compaoré [the former president of Burkina Faso] or they ousted Bazoum, and expect that the military will realize the aspirations of the people. 

The military can only realize people’s aspirations if they put themselves under the leadership of revolutionary parties and organizations. 

PD: The recent coup in Niger has raised concerns about the fragility of democratic institutions. What is your view on democratic processes in the region? 

AE: Whenever there has been an uprising, or a coup, these are not spontaneous events or situations. There are triggers. In the case of Niger, the worm was already in the fruit, so to speak. There was a deep political crisis. 

The crisis was that a man like Bazoum came to power by organizing massive fraud. This was the first issue, and it displeased people within his own camp. Second, he began to purge people from his camp. Meanwhile, the people were suffering and were fed up by those in power. So, one by one, the crisis deepened. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Bazoum wanted to remove and replace members of his presidential guard. [Following the coup on July 26], what happened when imperialism saw that its colt had been ousted? Imperialism flexed its muscles and wanted to battle the military that had done it [the coup]. It began to rain down sanctions and demand that the military withdraw from power and reinstate Bazoum. 

The soldiers then had no choice but to turn to the popular demonstrations that supported the coup, and that is a good thing for the people. Today, these soldiers are with the people to fight French imperialism. Will this really lead to the fulfillment of their aspirations? You’d have to be God to know that, but what we can say is that we encourage the people of Niger to fight for their deepest aspirations. 

PD: Uprisings and coups d’état very often lead to population displacements and humanitarian crises. What do you think is the best way to meet the needs of internally displaced people and refugees in the Sahel? 

AE: Humanitarian issues are resolved by those who have the humanitarian means. Today, it is the UN…there are those that are refusing [aid] and imposing sanctions on Niger. Is there an alternative? African solidarity is the only alternative left, possible through governments who have the means to help Niger, who are sensitive to what is going on and who are against sanctions. Because it is the sanctions that are the problem. It is imperialism’s actions that are the problem. 

There’s a popular mobilization in the country which we must hope for and encourage. We must ask the people of Africa—in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, just about everywhere—to give their support, if only, at first, moral support, support for the struggles, and then perhaps even material support. 

PD: Material support in what sense? What would be used to help the people of Niger? 

AE: Let us begin with political support. Support, for example, begins with blowing up border closures, sanctions, and other such measures. Today, there is still no real mobilization against sanctions. Popular mobilization to have these sanctions lifted is the first thing to do. And then, once these sanctions have ceased, we can send in food and supplies to be precise. 

Now people in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Benin, who are on the brink of war, have a dual responsibility. The first is to prevent their governments, to denounce them, so that they stop the preparation of an aggression against Niger. Secondly, these countries should be aware that after Niger, it could be their turn. 

They should prepare themselves for the possibility of unrest in their countries, orchestrated by imperialism and its agents. 

PD: How do you see socialist movements collaborating with other progressive forces, both locally and internationally, to support efforts for social and political transformation in Niger and the Sahel region, particularly amid the ongoing uprisings and political upheavals?

AE: It is a very good initiative that socialist movements can mobilize to come to the aid of the people of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Secondly, it has to be said that the creation of the Alliance of Sahel States is an important element. However, this must not be confined to the level of the military. 

People need arrangements to fight against imperialist domination, and in the West African sub-region, it is primarily French domination. So we support these alliances, we support these mobilizations, and we support the fight to help Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.   

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.