By Larry Madowo, CNN International Correspondent
Many Africans were outraged when a group of regional leaders decided on Friday to deploy a standby force to Niger “to restore constitutional order” after a coup d’état on July 26.
“These are Western puppets controlled by France,” was the common theme after the second emergency summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on the situation in Niger. The military junta in Niger has quickly gained public support in the former French colony as well as across the continent by fashioning themselves as liberators.
The French embassy in Niamey was trashed by protesters just days after the head of the presidential guard General Abdourahamane Tchiani overthrew his boss, detained him inside his palace, and declared himself the new leader of Niger.
The French scrambled to evacuate their nationals and other Europeans out of the country as Russian flags became ubiquitous in pro-junta rallies nationwide. The military men in charge quickly announced they were canceling all security cooperation contracts with France going back to 1977.
As ECOWAS threatened to use force if President Mohamed Bazoum was not released from detention and reinstated, viral social media posts celebrated the coup leaders for standing up to neocolonialism. Pundits who would not have found Niger on a map a week earlier became overnight experts on the country, blaming Bazoum for all his nation’s socio-economic problems.
The more France, the US and ECOWAS defended Bazoum, who was only elected in 2021, the more he was caricatured as errand boy of the West. The other military governments in the region declared support for Niger’s coup leaders, bolstering their case with the citizenry and the wider African public.
The information warfare that has followed the military takeover is Niger is further proof that one man’s coup is another man’s revolution. Fortuitously for the military junta, they overthrew Bazoum’s administration just as the Russia-Africa Summit kicked off in St Petersburg.
Officially, the Kremlin condemned the coup, but President Vladmir Putin has cast himself as a more reliable friend of Africa without the colonial baggage of France or other European nations. Moscow may also benefit from memories of the Soviet Union’s substantial soft power in Africa as well as its support for liberation movements.
Niger’s neighbours had their transitional military presidents Assimi Goïta (Mali) and Ibrahim Traore (Burkina Faso) elevated in Russia, posing triumphantly next to Putin. The canonization of coup leaders was complete.
On African timelines, anybody who opposes the military takeover is dismissed as a propagandist for the West, an apologist for neocolonialism and a slave to imperial interests.
Granted, there is legitimate anti-French sentiment in the region after decades of French influence over its former colonies in Africa, nicknamed Françafrique. The military junta in Niger has weaponized that with populist pronouncements, basking in the glory of those who have declared them heroes of pan-Africanism.
The real reason behind the coup in Niger is that President Bazoum was said to be preparing to fire General Tchiani after 12 years leading the presidential guard.
Sources and Western diplomats say Bazoum inherited the general from his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou and planned to replace him as part of changes to the security sector. Instead, General Tchiani is playing president despite international condemnation and detaining his old boss Bazoum as a human shield should ECOWAS forces try to intervene.
His supporters say conventional democracy hasn’t worked out well for African countries and he seems popular so they should be left alone. But leaders in the region fear that this is “one coup too many” and if they do nothing, they may be next.