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Potent Policies of Empire

Rahmane Idrissa
The contest in Mali between the West and Russia is not a front in a new cold war but rather part of a scramble for Africa’s resources.
Protesters in Bamako, Mali hold a banner that reads MERCI WAGNER

Florent Vergnes/AFP via Getty Images

Protesters at a demonstration organized by the pan-Africanist platform Yerewolo to celebrate France’s announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, Bamako, February 19, 2022

In an April communiqué dressed up as an interview with Jeune Afrique, the Francophone African weekly of record, Victoria Nuland, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, assured the paper’s readers that there is no “new cold war” underway in today’s world. There is only the imperative to defend “our system which favors freedom, which defends the self-determination of states, their independence, their sovereignty in opposition to authoritarian regimes, whether in Russia, in China, in Iran or in North Korea.” Nuland did not clarify who the possessive “our” refers to, but most Jeune Afrique readers would think she meant the West.

That assumption would raise questions which the interviewer, if there was one, did not ask: does the West actually favor freedom? Don’t the Palestinians, for instance, deserve freedom? Have the Americans forgotten that, just two decades ago, they had denied Iraq self-determination, independence and sovereignty? And why are only four authoritarian states mentioned? Why not Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Myanmar, and so many others? Is it because the particular states Nuland mentioned are part of some sort of bloc opposed by the West? Isn’t that what a cold war is: an opposition of two blocs, and a summons to align with either “our system” or theirs?

Nuland’s communiqué, part of an effort to make the case to Africans that they should be indignant about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reads like a cold-war era propaganda piece from the “free world.” Yet she is right that there is no cold war afoot—just not for the reasons she gave. The cold war was a battle of empires with competing political faiths. But authoritarianism is not a political faith, and the West’s attempts at missionizing for democracy are themselves too undemocratic to credit with conviction.

If there is no cold war underway, however, there is something with an older pedigree happening in Africa: a scramble for the continent’s resources. It is less intense than the nineteenth-century looting, and not quite as brazen—the idea is not to possess colonies. Still, it has geopolitical consequences. The first scramble was started by the French and the British; in the current one, China has been rapidly joined by Russia, India, Turkey, and other minor players. The West, ensconced in enclave economies like mining and in the more easily lucrative sectors of the continent’s economy such as coffee and cocoa, defends old positions and monitors geopolitical red lines.

Until recently, the main challenge came from China, which the West accuses of recolonizing Africa through debt, knowing that the word “colonization” is always a shrill alarm call on the continent. Meanwhile, Russia, with its much smaller capitals, has sought to make inroads in mining sectors, in the armament sector (it is the second biggest arms seller in the world after the US), and in security. Outside its own former satellites in central Asia, Russia carries out its security export through the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force that can engage in the foulest violence without directly implicating the Russian state, as it is paid for its services by its customers and not by Moscow. None of this is good news for Africa, as recent developments in Mali indicate.


Two years ago, Mali’s army toppled the country’s elected ruler, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, after months of street protest. Buoyed by the unpopularity of Keïta and of the seedy political class that had come out of the country’s thirty-year-old democratization, the coup-makers set up a junta with an open-ended lease of life and some populist backing in a fringe of the political class and the civil society. They have pledged to free Mali from the Jihadists entrenched in the country’s central and northern regions since a war in 2012, and to restore “sovereignty,” a word with populist connotations in the Malian context.

The junta directs its bid for sovereignty against the French, who have maintained a military presence in northern Mali since they came to the country’s rescue in 2013 after its army collapsed under attack from Jihadists and Tuareg rebels. Over the years, the French presence—which was supplemented by an assorted European force—has been recast in Malian public opinion as a form of recolonization, and the prime cause of the country’s troubles. The junta and populist politicians have exploited this strident anti-French feeling to secure popular support.

The discourse on sovereignty is apparently no obstacle for appealing to another foreign force, Russia’s Wagner Group. According to US intelligence, the junta is now forking over ten million dollars monthly for the mercenaries’ services, and risks mortgaging the country’s mineral riches—the same riches which, in the paranoid scenarios that course through Sahelian public opinion, the Franco-Europeans are there to grab. French help is free in financial terms but comes with political conditions such as support for the Algiers Accord, an agreement signed in 2015 with Tuareg rebels that remains deeply unpopular in the country’s densely populated south. If, in contrast, a mercenary force has little regard for state sovereignty, it does have the businessman’s respect for the paying customer.


The junta believes that force is an efficient solution to Jihadism, and that the Franco-Europeans’ concerns about human rights violations and mass murders are an annoyance. Wagner shares no such compunctions. Since March, its mercenaries and the armaments they brought along have amplified the Malian army’s tactic of responding to terror with terror in the center of the country, where the Fulani—the principal community from which Jihadists are recruited—have become a target. In March, hundreds of them were killed in a notorious action in the village of Moura. A good number of Jihadists are said to have fallen amid many more innocents. Moura was only the most brutal—the killings allegedly lasted four days—of a string of similar actions in central Mali.

Moura was a Jihadist-run community, and public opinion in Mali has tended to side with the army, at least gauging by the productions of a fervently nationalist and “sovereignist” press. “One does not make omelets without breaking eggs,” a columnist for the paper Le Matin wrote, after commenting on “alleged abuses that are exploited to sap the morale of the people and the army.” The West is reminded of Mỹ Lai and French violence in Algeria; meanwhile, Russia intervened at the United Nations to block French attempts at securing an international condemnation of the massacre. Moves like these are what seem to recall the inter-imperial rivalries that defined the cold war.


The symbolic inception of the cold war has become Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech of March 1946, but for the South it began a quarter century earlier, with a different speech: Lenin’s address to the second congress of the Communist International on July 19, 1920. That day, Lenin exulted that “the imperialist war” of 1914–1918 had “drawn the dependent peoples into world history”—that is, because the British and French had enlisted Indian and Black African troops in their national forces. (Lenin was glad the European bourgeoisies had taught the colonized to use guns, “a very useful thing” for the coming revolution.) He urged the Soviet movement to methodically organize for the long-term subversion of the colonial iron curtain.

His words inaugurated the European far left’s tutelage, instructed by Moscow, of liberationist nationalism in Africa. When the French empire allowed multipartyism across its colonies in 1946, the African Democratic Rally that then sprang to life affiliated immediately with the French Communist Party. When, in 1960, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba wanted to fight Belgian recolonization of the mining treasure chest in Katanga, he secured Soviet military aid. In the 1960s, African politics became so suffused with Soviet conventions that the majority of the single parties that ran the show in most countries, even those in the Western camp, had politburos and grand congresses and spoke the language of Marxism. In Francophone Africa, the peasantry, which was seen in the continent’s non-industrial economies as the functional equivalent of the proletariat, was called paysannat (instead of the dictionary’s paysannerie), the “at” suffix rhetorically raising it to the station of a revolutionary class.

This affinity was an effect of empire. Africa’s homegrown ideology was Pan-Africanism, not Marxism; its anthem was Bob Marley’s “Africa Unite,” not “L’Internationale”. The first act of independence in Africa was the foundation of the Organization of African Unity, and the dream was for an African bloc to establish African autonomy—not to join either the Eastern or the Western bloc. But in the 1960s, the US and the USSR wielded potent policies of empire, each aiming, like colonial metropoles, to remake others in their own image. The African bloc in the making looked for autonomy in nonalignment but was split into those who associated with the US and those who consorted with the USSR.

There was another twist. After the Suez Crisis, Britain offloaded its imperial policy to the US and turned into America’s biddable satellite. France refused this fate and salvaged some of its own autonomy by corralling its former sub-Saharan colonies into a neocolonial construct now often decried with the pejorative “Françafrique.” This was a glacis—a zone of influence in which a status quo advantageous to the imperial patron was forcibly imposed—on par with the one America foisted on Latin America, and the USSR on eastern Europe and central Asia. In such exclusive domains, the patron exerted control through frequent military interventions, shadow diplomacy, and what the French language colorfully calls barbouzeries—secret agents’ machinations.


The Soviet glacis collapsed at one fell swoop in 1991. Those of the Americans and the French took a few more years to melt away. In Africa, France’s neocolonial policies went into crisis in 1994. In January of that year, the International Monetary Fund slashed by half the value of the currency it managed for its African clients, destroying a psychological bond of trust; and in April, one of its interventions was embroiled in the Rwandan genocide. Five years later, the French closed their ministry for cooperation, a department that had worked exclusively in former colonies and organized France’s soft power there with matchless dynamism. The “Coopé,” as its agents affectionately called it, funded African cinema, gave out thousands of scholarships to African students each year, printed comics for African children and handed them out by the dozen in every Francophone African primary school (these magazines, I recall, had back pages for meeting pen pals across the region), and organized gigantic shipments of world literature and liberal education books that steadily trickled down to school and municipal libraries in the remote small towns of countries like Niger and Chad. This cultural campaign came to an end, and the Hôtel de Montesquiou, the ministry’s Parisian headquarters, was sold in 2008 to Russian oligarchs and purchased four years later by China. The eighteenth-century mansion now houses the Chinese embassy in Paris.

The popular phrase that summed up these developments in Francophone Africa was that “France has interests only.” The saying initially expressed disappointment at a specific event. In the early 1990s, a democracy movement—the African Spring, as it was not called—erupted in Sub-Saharan Africa, and many Francophone countries held “sovereign national conferences,” reminiscent in a way of France’s 1789 estates-general, which, in some cases, ended authoritarian rule. At a Franco-African summit in 1990, the French president François Mitterrand promised his country’s support for those who embraced democracy. But right afterward, when the IMF compelled democratizers to sign up for punishing structural adjustment programs that emptied their political transformation of its substance, France watched from the sidelines and did nothing.

In fact, three decades after Britain, France was finally retiring its imperial policy. The heart simply was no longer in it. Globalization had ended the market strategies for which French firms needed mercantilist protections in Africa, and the continent’s vanishing share of world trade bred indifference and contempt in the West. A cover headline of The Economist in 2000 called Africa “the hopeless continent,” and six years later in a visit to Bamako, Mali’s capital, future French president Nicolas Sarkozy curtly, if disingenuously, told an expectant public that “economically, France does not need Africa.” Among other things, France pondered ambiguous plans to reduce its military footprint on the continent, and Sarkozy announced, in a speech at Cape Town in February 2008, an end of France’s role as the so-called “gendarme of Africa.” Yet in the end it hung on to a solid string of military bases that run like a belt from Côte d’Ivoire to Gabon and Djibouti through Chad. You never know what “interests” might still need defending one day.


In the 2010s, this setup indeed became central for the defense of Franco-European interests in the Sahel. If the Roman Empire’s limes were the lines of defense at the remote confines of imperial territory, then the Sahel is the limes of European empire. In the early twentieth century, it consisted in part of “military territories” (some Sahelian colonies stayed especially long in that particular administrative box) that tamed “restless nomads” and fought off “fanatical” religious influences. Today, the European Union tasks it with keeping “irregular migrants” at bay and fighting off “extremist” religious influences from the Arab world. In the past decade, France has used its African bases twice in efforts to end the Jihadist onslaught in Mali: Operation Serval (eighteen months in Mali starting in 2013), and Operation Barkhane (across the Sahel since 2014, with an expiration date set for this year by President Macron). To the Sahel governments, France billed itself as a security exporter free of charge and even offered a bonus in development aid.

But there were problems. In 2016, the French ended a failing security-export operation in the Central African Republic, leaving the country to its turbulent devices. Wagner moved in and brought the insecurity under control—albeit in an Orwellian fashion, by producing more of it. In the process, it has reportedly bled the Central African Republic dry of its mining income and its customs revenue, leading the government to steeply increase taxes and water and electricity prices and get very interested in cryptocurrencies. The French again watched from the sidelines and events in the country occasioned only distracted international media coverage. The Central African Republic is not a big geopolitical interest—not even for the French.

But Mali, and by extension the Sahel, is another matter. Here, too, the French appeared unable to end the “insecurity”—a euphemism both for the Jihadists’ relentless attacks and for their control of rural territories in central and northern Mali—for the good reason that success in the Sahel does not depend on military force but on extensive government intervention in all spheres of life, far from the piecemeal NGO work that goes on. Such a thing cannot be exported by France, unless it actually recolonizes the Sahel. (Even during colonialism, however, government work in the region was very scarce.) Barring that, the French experimented with several tacks, including coordinating development aid through a new initiative called the Coalition for the Sahel. They involved their European allies and enlisted US help. In short, the West was all in.

To no avail. After nearly ten years without success, the Franco-Europeans are now seen as occupiers who are in the land to recolonize it—the sempiternal African dread—rather than end Jihadism, which in the course of these efforts has expanded to parts of Niger and Burkina Faso that border Mali. Judging by the views published in the region’s press and social media, the Sahel’s intellectuals are now reliving the era of national liberation on a loop. And in that era, the USSR was the liberator, France the oppressor. The roles are thus firmly cast in the heady romance of anti-imperialism, where the USSR’s “successor,” Russia, features as the white savior. In the Central African Republic Wagner produces garish propaganda action movies on that theme. And in Mali, it repeats the vile exploits it had carried out there, now under the glare of the West’s media and surveillance services.

Governments in Niger and Burkina Faso have not gone the way of Mali. Niger, in fact, actively cultivates the French alliance despite the Francophobia in its public opinion, especially in the western part of the country that suffers from Jihadist attacks. Burkina Faso, which has also been governed by a junta since a coup in late January, sports the same streaks of Francophobia and love for Russian intervention, but its military rulers diplomatically hew to lines of action agreeable to the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). These bodies encourage democratic governance and reject Wagner. ECOWAS has imposed bruising sanctions on Mali, including closing its borders and disconnecting it from the ports of Dakar and Abidjan, which are vital to the landlocked country’s foreign trade. Burkina wants to avoid such pain.

And yet Mali, the strategic country in the middle of the Sahel, remains a pertinent geopolitical interest of the West in Africa. As with Ukraine, the West is not going to let it fall to Russia without fighting. But this is not a front in a new cold war. Putin’s Russia has no social and political model to propose to itself or anyone else, and one suspects that, here as in most cases, the West has “interests only.”

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