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What We Are Witnessing in Africa Is Not an Anti-Colonial Revolution

Let us stop celebrating coups aimed at furthering the interests of a few military elites as acts of anti-imperialist resistance.

Supporters of Niger's National Council of Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) protest outside the Niger and French airbase in Niamey on September 2, 2023., AFP

On August 17, Arikana Chihombori-Quao, former permanent representative of the African Union to the United States, claimed the recent military coups in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea were part of the early stages of an “African revolution” against Western neocolonialism.

“What is going on now in Africa is a revolution similar to what we saw with the demise of the mighty Roman Empire, similar to what we saw with the fall of the mighty British Empire,” Chihombori-Quao said in an interview with New York-based Nigerian news channel Arise TV.

This wave of military interventions is a reaction to the West’s ongoing “plunder of the continent’s natural resources”, she explained. “This is just the beginning of the African revolution and it is not going to stop.”

Chihombori-Quao went on to argue that these recent coups “led by our people” represent “children of Africa taking back what is ours” and have nothing in common with the brutal Western-led military interventions of the past.

Sure, Western powers committed particularly heinous crimes against young African democracies in the last century. The Western-orchestrated 1960 coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, saw the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, independence hero Patrice Lumumba, assassinated by a hastily put together firing squad and his remains dissolved in acid. All for the fear that he may have brought the DRC closer to the Soviet Union and given Moscow access to its precious natural resources.

These recent coups thankfully did not include such atrocities and were not overtly aimed at furthering the interests of colonial power. But does this automatically mean they were “led by our people”, and aimed at delivering on the people’s wish to end colonial plunder, as Chihombori-Quao claims?

Not so much.

First of all, every single one of these coups was led by powerful and privileged high-ranking army officers – men whose lives are far removed from the everyday experiences of “our people”. And these men appear more than willing to suppress the voice of the people, whenever it happens not to align with theirs. They have no problem with crippling democracy or even physically harming the very people they claim to represent when it fits their agenda.

These men not only upended the democratic process by toppling governments brought to power by reasonably free and fair elections, but are also dragging their feet about setting a date for new polls. Mali’s military government – like the unelected regimes in nearby Chad and Sudan – has repeatedly delayed a transition to democracy. There is not much hope for Niger, Burkina Faso or Guinea’s swift return to full democracy either.

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In May, the United Nations reported that Malian troops – with the help of foreign military personnel – tortured, raped and killed at least 500 civilians during a five-day anti-dissident operation in Moura in March 2022.

Around the same time, Human Rights Watch reported that on April 20, 2023, Burkinabe soldiers burned homes, looted property and summarily executed at least 156 civilians in a similar six-hour operation in Karma, northern Yatenga province.

Coup leaders like to talk the anti-imperialist talk because it gives them legitimacy and helps them garner public support, but they are much more reluctant to walk the walk.

Burkina Faso’s interim president, Ibrahim Traore, for example, likes to employ fierce anti-imperialist rhetoric at every opportunity.

Speaking at the Russia-Africa Summit in July, for example, Traore took a swipe at Africa’s older leaders, saying, “The heads of African states should not behave like puppets in the hands of the imperialists.”

But, ironically, he has openly demonstrated sycophantic affection for Vladimir Putin of Russia, a prominent and particularly brutal imperial force in Eastern Europe, and increasingly in Africa.

Traore is not the only “anti-imperialist coupist” in Africa who appears suspiciously blind to Russia’s demonstrably brutal imperialism.

The military government in Mali is known to be very close to the Kremlin and has had help from the Russian Wagner mercenary group in its efforts to stifle dissent. Niger’s coup generals have also openly asked Wagner for help in dealing with the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS.

So much for coup leaders standing with everyday Africans against imperial powers.

This, of course, is not meant to minimise the harm Western colonialism inflicted on Africa. The West has been for centuries, and remains to this day, the most destructive outside actor and the strongest force against swift, independent development and deepening of democracy on the continent.

Indeed, the remnants of the West’s abusive colonial arrangements are still crippling African states, politically and economically.

For example, 14 African countries, including Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, still use the neocolonial CFA franc – which is guaranteed by France and pegged to the euro – as its currency.

In return, France requires these countries to keep 50 percent of their foreign exchange reserves with the French treasury.

This adverse and costly financial entanglement has allowed Paris to exercise undue and outsized influence over CFA franc countries’ economic and political affairs.

As a result, most of these countries have struggled to flourish in the postcolonial era. Niger, for example, is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Along with Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, it occupies the lowest ranks on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

While Russia is undoubtedly a destructive imperial power, both in Africa and elsewhere, it is the West that is primarily responsible for Africa’s chronic economic and developmental shortcomings.

This is perhaps why Chihombori-Quao is turning a blind eye to the close relations Africa’s new military leaders have with Russia, and insisting on presenting them as anticolonial revolutionaries.

In fact, she seems to believe in the anti-imperialist credentials and anticolonial intentions of these generals so much that she describes their actions not as coups but an “ideological realignment of economic, political and social values”.

But what have these military regimes said or done so far to achieve that much-longed-for realignment? Are they charting a new path forward for an independent Africa, free of all imperial intervention and manipulation? Have they, for example, announced any plans for bringing an end to the CFA?

Sadly, it seems, these new military regimes, despite their anti-imperialist posturing, lack a strong ideological grounding and political direction.

I am an African. I know what colonialism has done, and what neocolonialism is still doing to these lands. As such, just like Chihombori-Quao, I also long for an African revolution to put an end to this plunder. I want predatory Western governments and companies to end their exploitation of Africa and all African nations to stand tall and independent in the international arena.

But I refuse to support undemocratic actions.

What we are witnessing in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and beyond is not the beginning of an “African revolution”. What we are witnessing is just a few military elites taking advantage of the genuine suffering and frustration of their people to further their interests. They are employing anti-imperialist rhetoric to win support from the streets, but doing very little to actually further Africa’s independence and free it from the clutches of outside powers.

Every coup, regardless of any anti-imperialist or populist facade it may put on, is an attack on democracy. Military rule, however people-oriented it may appear to be, is always a threat to the rule of law. And it is not the ideal vehicle for promoting solid economic growth and development.

Chihombori-Quao is right – African countries do have a moral and economic imperative to end neocolonialism. Nevertheless, they also have an obligation to respect people’s human rights and implement any necessary sociopolitical and economic changes to ensure true African independence within a democratic framework.

Let us stop celebrating harmful power plays by self-centred military elites as acts of anti-imperialist resistance, and focus instead on planting the seeds for a true African revolution that would end neocolonial theft of our resources for good, and empower everyday Africans to shape their own future free from oppression.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Tafi Mhaka is an Al Jazeera columnist, has a BA Honours degree from the University of Cape Town.

Al Jazeera is a Qatari state-owned Arabic-language international news television network