Since 2021, military coups have ousted governments across much of West and Central Africa. The wave of coups started in Chad (April 2021), then spread to Mali (May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), Burkina Faso (January and September 2022), Niger (July), and most recently Gabon, where the Bongo family was dislodged from power after ruling the country since independence. All of these are former French colonies, so this chain of events indicates that the postcolonial settlement that has prevailed across Françafrique—defined by a shared French-controlled currency, the CFA, and the presence of French military bases—is in crisis.
The overthrow of elected leaders has usually been greeted by widespread public approval—and the main exception to this is itself telling. In Chad, where there were large protests against the seizure of power, the coup was led by Mahamat Déby after the death of his father, Idriss, who had been in power for more than 30 years. In other words, Chadians didn’t protest because this was a coup, but because—like citizens of neighboring countries who celebrated the recent military coups—they wanted to be rid of the old elite.
“The Western-led global order has failed Africa.”
Sixty years after political independence, in which promises of democratization and development have offered scant benefits for the vast majority of people, the Western-led global order has failed Africa. And this is where the wave of coups intersects with another story from the Global South: the growing clout of BRICS nations, lately on display in various attempts to develop alternatives to dollar hegemony. (For instance, India and Saudi Arabia just concluded their first oil deal denominated in rupees.) For Africa, gaining control of its credit market is a prerequisite for any form of meaningful decolonization. And that’s what de-dollarization might enable, although not if it means simply replacing the dollar with the yuan or ruble.
The current disorder in Africa is nothing compared to the chaos that four decades of neoliberalism have brought to the continent, ever since the oil crisis of the late 1970s. The rise of a unipolar American and Western European hegemony, far from bringing peace and prosperity, has led to poverty, hunger, entrenched corruption, and the plundering of natural resources. The popular anger now erupting across the continent is the inevitable result.
One way to assess the demise of earlier projects of sovereignty is through the African university, to which the continent’s early independence leaders assigned a crucial role. Many of them were writers, poets, philosophers—figures such as Amílcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Léopold Senghor. They knew that only with an independent framework of thought could African nations be truly autonomous. Inaugurating the Centre for African Studies at Legon, Ghana, in 1963, the revolutionary intellectual and independence leader Nkrumah declared: “The history, culture and institutions, languages and arts of Ghana and of Africa [should be studied] in new African-centered ways—in entire freedom from the propositions and presuppositions of the colonial epoch.”
Nkrumah made considerable efforts to turn this vision into reality. In Kumasi, old capital of the Asante empire around four hours’ drive north of Accra, he worked with local chiefs to acquire a vast swath of land, where the new university (today named after Nkrumah) was inaugurated. It is still an impressive campus, a verdant retreat in a city that has grown 10-fold since the 1960s, complete with an athletics track, plant nurseries for agricultural students’ training, and elegant villas for faculty. Doing all this in Kumasi was a statement of intent from Nkrumah, whose political power was disliked by the hereditary Asante royal family.
But Nkrumah didn’t last long, ousted in 1966 in a CIA-backed coup. And in that first wave of independence, the focal points of the struggle for meaningful African sovereignty kept shifting. By the late 1960s and early ’70s, an epicenter was the tiny country of Guinea-Bissau. Its independence struggle was pivotal in the Carnation Revolution, which ended the Estado Novo dictatorship in Portugal. During Guinea-Bissau’s independence war, its political leader Amílcar Cabral swept to global fame. Like Nkrumah, Cabral believed that decolonization required the cultivation of an independent African intellectual and cultural sphere. An agronomist turned freedom fighter, he was assassinated in Conakry in January 1973.
When independence finally came to Guinea-Bissau the year after Cabral’s death, the National Institute of Study and Research, or INEP, was created to lead a series of projects developing oral histories of the country. Its research center in Bissau was visited by scholars from across West Africa and beyond. Over time, though, INEP was to become a victim of circumstances. The heady days of the 1970s were quickly overshadowed, first by the oil crisis and then by a coup which installed a new leader, Nino Vieira, a former independence-war commander.
Vieira presided over the transition to democracy after the end of the Cold War, with elections in 1994. However, a civil war followed in 1998, widely said to be related to infighting over gun-running to rebels in the neighboring southern Senegalese province of Casamance (with which Guinea-Bissau has long historical ties). The Senegalese forces supporting Vieira used INEP as a military barracks. Historical documents dating as far back as the 18th century were thrown into the quad, while the transformation of INEP’s offices into a military training camp destroyed the oral-history archive its director, Peter Karibe Mendy, had painstakingly constructed over the previous decade.
When I first visited INEP in May 2011, I saw that this tragedy was part of a much bigger crisis. The institute’s reading room was widely used, but a quick glance made it clear that book-buying had stopped in the 1980s. The era of democratization, far from freeing up the pathways of thought and intellectual exchange, coincided with a complete hemorrhaging of all funds that might have been used to do this. It didn’t take much thinking to work out why: The collapse of the country’s major partner in the USSR had been followed by the rise of Western-imposed structural adjustment policies, which had hollowed out the state to pay off debts from the oil crisis.
“The destruction of African public institutions was presented in a positive light.”
The destruction of African public institutions was presented in a positive light to Western stakeholders. The art of masking asset-stripping as “capacity building” meant that few cared much about the reality—certainly not the UN officials receiving “danger money” to enjoy three-hour lunches at downtown restaurants. They could wax lyrical in their reports about the success of liberal democracy to their managers in Geneva, New York, or Washington.
Guinea-Bissau was and is an isolated country, receiving at most seven scheduled flights a week from anywhere in the world. On my 2011 trip, I met a figure with close ties to the ruling party, who spoke enthusiastically of the excellent flight connections to Angola from Bissau: You could fly to Praia in Cape Verde via Dakar and wait there for a connection the next day to Luanda. When I saw a jet trail overhead and expressed surprise, someone replied, “It probably belongs to a drug dealer.” The hollow shell that was the curation of an African nation’s image for donors was one thing; the acid of anger corroding Africans’ own experience was another.
On my next visit to INEP in 2017, I flew in “direct” from Freetown in Sierra Leone—a journey of 500 miles that took 24 hours via a long layover in Casablanca. Freetown is the home of the oldest modern university in Africa, Fourah Bay College. Founded in 1827, it was a major center in the 20th century for the training of administrators, writers, and doctors across Anglophone West Africa. And still today, the university’s Kennedy Tower recalls the heady days of independence and the importance that universities had to the project of nationhood. At FBC, I had been taken down to the basement of the library, where the rooms were covered with dust, and it was so dark that you had to use a mobile-phone flashlight to read the titles on the shelves; it was clear that, as in Bissau, no books had been bought for decades.
The dire state of public institutions like FBC and INEP can begin to explain the political upheavals in Africa today. The end of the Cold War coincided with the collapse of public institutions that had been central to African efforts at nation-building. Moreover, the departure of the Soviet Union from the scene meant the end of large training programs that had enabled many Africans to earn advanced degrees in the Eastern Bloc. Neoliberalizing structural adjustment, pushed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, finished off the job of institutional evisceration.
To be sure, many private universities stepped in, but facilities in most of them remain poor, and lack the public ambitions that came with the universities founded to advance independence. Museums, too, have been springing up across the continent, often funded by China, with important new institutions in Benin City, Dakar, and Luanda. But many lie almost empty—yet to be filled by objects returned from museums in the West in which they have lain for more than a century.
What happened to universities, and to the dream of cultural and intellectual sovereignty they represented, also happened across all manner of other realms—fisheries, industry, and mining. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Africans want no more of this version of “development.”
Driving the roads of many African nations today, you come across a surprising number of billboards. Many of them look old, with faded lettering. They will tell you that the such-and-such project has been financed by the World Bank, the IMF, the European Union, and similar partners. And you will then be confused, because the place in question doesn’t seem like it’s been the beneficiary of any project at all other than the erection of a redundant billboard. Meanwhile, for those who do live there, life continues, as it always has. One friend put it to me like this: “They won’t let us forget it, we have to be reminded for years, surrounded by these useless billboards.”
So what happens to the aid projects commemorated this way? There are generally two sides to the story: the project itself, and then the aftermath. A government official in Sahelian West Africa recently described to me what happened with a World Bank project he was involved in. This was a $60 million initiative that would see the complete remodeling of a major tourism site in his country. But most of the money from this loan would never enter Africa in the first place and was instead funneled back into Western economies.
First, there were the costs of the German consultants specified by the World Bank. At an early meeting, the consulting company declared outrage at the day-rate salary the consultant was to receive, which at $750 (with rent-free accommodation and a car with driver thrown in) wasn’t enough, in a country where this is almost twice the national average yearly wage. On top of this were the two annual return flights for the consultant (plus spouse), the luxury villa rented for accommodation, and the Land Cruisers for monitoring operations. The local office, of course, required toasters and other luxuries hardly anyone in the country would dream of using. Then there were the administrative costs of the company in Germany to “facilitate” the project.
Once all of this has been accounted for, my friend told me, two-thirds of the loan had gone back to Europe, and nothing had been done in the country at all. This isn’t unusual: The political economist Carlos Oya has demonstrated that about 80 percent of most “aid” budgets are for Western operational costs. In this tourism project, what made matters worse was that, on top of the $60 million loan, the government was required to make a $6 million contribution of its own—an amount, my friend told me, that would have been more than enough to complete much of the project given local costs and salaries if the external management team were removed from the equation. It was unclear how anyone decided that this was a worthwhile project; and yet, the local authorities felt that they had “no choice” but to accept it.
Such loans have to be repaid, and the price can prove devastating. Since the 1980s, countries such as Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Cabo Verde, and Mauritania have raised money to repay international loans by licensing fishing rights to trawlers from China, Russia, and the European Union. The result has been the destruction of fishing stocks and the decline of nutrition. By 2001, research was showing a decline in fishing catches in Mauritania and Senegal owing to overfishing by EU fleets. The size of the fish in the national dish of tchebidjen today in Senegal is noticeably smaller than it was when I first visited the country in 1995. The fish tends to be small and bony, caught from the rivers and not the ocean. This is hardly surprising, since a major consequence of these broader trends has been a collapse in Atlantic fish stocks.
It was the European Union that pioneered these agreements, signing the first one with Senegal in 1979. Moreover, research shows that the catches declared are but a small proportion of the amounts really taken by these trading “partners.” Between 2000 and 2010, a 2015 PLOS One study found, the European Union extracted 1,836,900 tons of fish but declared only 524,300, or 29 percent. In Senegal, the fishing treaties for that decade only covered 19.5 percent of the EU’s captures and 2 percent of China’s, when illegal fishing is included. By 2014, unregulated fishing exports from Senegal alone were estimated to be costing the country $300 million annually.
The obvious consequences are impoverishment and hunger, which have been factors in heightened emigration. Desperate African attempts at migration to Spain’s Tenerife and Italy’s Lampedusa have increased by more than 50 percent overall since the 1990s and by over 200 percent from some countries. Given the link between EU fisheries policy and this exponential rise in migration, and the issue’s importance in domestic European politics, reconsidering fisheries policy should be an obvious step for European policymakers. But when I chanced to meet an EU commercial representative at a bar in Cape Verde in 2008, he didn’t even know the fishing contracts existed. Performing to European voters on migration may be important, but only so long as it doesn’t get in the way of providing plentiful fish suppers in Barcelona or the Côte d’Azur.
Of course, the West is now only one part of the equation: China is an increasingly important player when it comes to fishing stock deals. China declared just 8 percent of the 2,251,000 tons it extracted, according to the 2015 PLOS One study. A senior Gambian public official recently described how Chinese fishing vessels were overfishing Gambian waters, and then reselling the fish back in markets in the capital Banjul. The Chinese have lately completed the construction of an important new bridge across the Gambia River at Basse Santa Su. But even with such projects, the Chinese model is similar to the European one, relying on highly paid Chinese technicians, withholding local training, and financed by loans that must be repaid through Gambian resources like fish and minerals.
“Unless Africa can gain control of its systems of credit, meaningful sovereignty will be elusive.”
The creditor is in power: This is a clear lesson from the painful economic and political history of the African continent, from the distant past to the present. Unless Africa can gain control of its systems of credit, meaningful sovereignty will remain elusive. The BRICS coalition reveals some awareness of this, but China’s example shows the limitations of this model where a new external creditor simply replaces the previous one. Nevertheless, for all the anxiety recently stoked by the Western media about Russia’s increasing involvement in the continent, many Africans see it as a boon: The more external powers jostling for influence, the better, since it at least gives Africans options to play the outsiders against each other.
This brings us to another dimension of development projects: namely, the profiteering of national elites through what the political scientist Jean-François Bayart calls extraversion—the strategies of African political leaders to maintain and enhance their economic and political power by working with powerful external forces. As Bayart notes, there is nothing new in this structure: In his classic 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the radical Guyanese historian Walter Rodney showed how much of African economic history dating back centuries can be understood through the lens of African and European elites collaborating at the expense of the African poor.
This is why many Africans feel they have little meaningful sovereignty under the liberal-democratic order of the post-Cold War era. In spite of the increasingly expensive electoral processes, communities have seen little positive impact. This may explain why a recent Afrobarometer report found that in many African countries, traditional chiefs were more respected than elected officials. As the report summarized, “chiefs achieve consistently higher citizen ratings for trust and performance, and are seen as markedly less corrupt, when compared to elected leaders and government officials, and the gaps are widening. Chiefs find support not only among elderly rural men, but also among women, urban residents, youth, and the most educated.” A more damning indictment of the failings of the democratic model promoted across Africa since the 1980s is hard to find.
Today, the major creditor blocs—the West, China, Russia—vie among themselves, cultivating relationships with local elites to stake their claims. For China, that means shiny new Confucius Institutes springing up in new media centers at universities like Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, an entire new campus at the University of Cabo Verde in Praia, and free three-month study trips to China for promising students of Mandarin. For Russia, it now seems to mean material help to remove hated governing elites. For Western diplomats and aid workers, the good old days of the expense-account lunch in Africa are under threat.
“There is an eerily familiar feel to the current political context.”
In fact, many of these dynamics aren’t new. Chinese and Russian partnerships were a key part of the African experience of the first Cold War, so it is hardly a surprise that they should again be significant in what now seems to be the second one. For years in Dakar, there has been an artists’ colony, the Village des Arts: Artists come from across West Africa to live for free in houses originally provided for the Chinese workers who built the Senegalese national stadium in the 1960s. In Tanzania, the old Tazara railway from Dar-es-Salaam to Zambia was built by the Chinese in the 1970s. Just as now, access to African natural resources was part of these older deals. Rumor had it that large amounts of mineral reserves were extracted as part of the railway building process in Tanzania, while on my first visit to the continent, in 1994, I met a fisherman in Mozambique who said that the seas were empty, fished dry by Soviet trawlers in the 1980s. Plus ça change. There is an eerily familiar feel to the current political context, even if the global media is generally presenting it as something new.
However, there are several new social dynamics which may bring a more lasting change this time around. First, and probably most important, is the role of the African diaspora returning from the West. This has completely changed since the 1980s: Today, the diaspora is incomparably bigger and richer, and highly educated. New neighborhoods have sprung up in urban areas, in which large villas have been erected by returnees building their retirement homes. The pace of change is incredible: The whole coastline 60 miles west of Accra in Ghana to Winneba is now built up with this type of development.
Those arriving in this reverse exodus have good access to information and networks, and their importance in the local economies—more than 50 percent of private investment in Africa is from remittances—means their political voice is ever stronger. Most diasporans are satisfied neither with the policies of foreign powers nor with local ruling elites’ failure to safeguard national interests against them—and they are becoming a force to which national governments must pay heed, if they are to survive.
These return migration patterns are connected to another massive change on the continent, which is urbanization. Many Africans now live in megacities such as Kinshasa, Lagos, and Nairobi, cities that have grown vastly since the crisis of the 1980s. But the infrastructure of these cities is in a desperate state. Traffic grinds to a complete halt, even in smaller cities like Freetown. Efforts to improve this with infrastructure projects such as flyovers lead to the prolonged mothballing of vital trunk roads, with cars sent down pot-holed sandy tracks in slow and painful diversions. This kind of project is currently bringing Banjul and Lilongwe to a standstill in places; in each case major roads vital to these cities’ movements have been virtually closed for two years. The resulting frustrations exacerbate popular discontent. While many of the diasporic returnees have the money to cushion themselves from these discomforts, much of the urban population is impoverished and very young—and revolutionaries tend to be young. The median age on the continent is below 20 years old, and the new generation of Africans has little attachment to old paternalistic colonial ties that have done nothing for them. As the past few months have made clear, they want change, and know the existing structures make it very hard to change anything.
Overlaying all of this are many other questions. There is the significant role of funding from Saudi Arabia in challenging traditional Sufi forms of Islam in many parts of West Africa, producing tensions between urban and rural areas, and between young and old. There is the impact of mass migration, both within countries and those attempting to go “the backway” to Europe, often leaving rural areas with few working-age men and creating all kinds of imbalances. There is the rage of those too remote from any hope of having access to capital, such as in northern Mozambique, where the monthly salary of live-in domestic help is around $10 a month. There is also the transformative role of mobile phones in forging angry collectives of WhatsApp warriors.
But while people are glued to their phones, as elsewhere, they often have little access to the internet. This is especially true in rural areas, where fixed terminal connections are very few, and mobile data is out of reach. In situations where even professionals with salaries may not earn more than $100 per month, there just is no money for this luxury. Even if there were, the download speeds in rural areas are glacial. Meanwhile, the WhatsApp groups leave everyone painfully aware of how this leaves them far behind the rest of the world. All this can begin to explain the domino effect of the recent political coups. On my recent visit to Senegal, where elections are scheduled for next year, a friend told me with something close to satisfaction that if the incumbent Macky Sall stood for a third term, “there will be a revolution in Senegal.”
On Sundays, everyone in Banjul goes to the beach. The long, gorgeous coastline of the capital becomes a haven for young Gambians playing football, meeting friends, and posing for selfies. On my recent visit, a friend told me that there wasn’t a single person there who didn’t dream of going “the backway” to Europe. I asked him how many people he knew who had died on the journey across the Sahara to Libya, or the Atlantic to Tenerife, and he replied that he knew 10 people from his village alone who had perished.
The current model has sown the seeds of its current crisis. People seek to flee because they are hungry, and there is no work. Desperation is caused by many factors: fisheries contracts, the inability of the debt-burdened state to provide work, and the desperately low salaries even of those who do have a job. All this drives the migration—and then, in turn, feeds populist reaction in Europe, which seeks an end of the liberal order for different reasons. Meanwhile, the building of a consumer society means that the removal of fancy fish dinners isn’t on the Western political menu. Far better—or at least, easier—to pretend none of this is happening.
“Disastrous Covid containment policies became the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Africans see neoliberalism as decades past its sell-by date. Mention the IMF or the World Bank to an educated urbanite, and you will know the meaning of disgust. Anger was already festering, and then the social destruction wrought by disastrous Covid containment policies became the straw that broke the camel’s back. Huge increases in the marriage of adolescent girls, the loss of all the promise of economic growth in the 2010s, and the debt crisis that has followed mean that people have very little left to lose. But in this way, and as Thomas Fazi and I have argued, the Covid response wasn’t an aberration: It was the logical endgame of decades of economic and social devastation.
Having fomented such destruction, and supported prolongation of the war in Ukraine, Western governments now seem bewildered by the entirely predictable outcome of the return of cold-war competition in Africa. The manifest contradictions of Western policies seem impossible to square—because they are. Where China offers promising students study visits and scholarships (as the Soviet Bloc used to do), Western nations offer routine visa refusals and a rhetoric of being tough on migration, while pursuing policies that intensify push factors. Such developments only accelerate the end of the unipolar world.
In Africa, people are daring to hope. The rising influence of Russia has opened up new political possibilities, even if it doesn’t alter the basic dynamic of dependence on external patrons. Those returning from the diaspora, too, bring new ways of doing things. Finally, the war in Ukraine and the polarization in the West driven by the Covid response mean also that the BRICS nations are in a stronger position to offer alternatives. Whether all this amounts to a prospect of meaningful sovereignty for African nations, or its dilution by a different foreign power, is still to be determined. Whatever happens, it often seems as if a cyclical return not just to the Cold War but to the conditions of the first half of the 19th century is underway. At that time, a chain of revolutions swept across West Africa from northern Nigeria to Senegambia. Corrupt elites with ties to transnational traders were overthrown by entirely new governments. Then, as now, the shape of the world ahead depended on the consequences.