Signs of Times

Five theses on the military coups in the Sahel region. By Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

We live in times of uncertainty. The climate crisis and the war in Ukraine probably suffice as keywords for global processes that mark a world order in totter. Visible shifts in the structure of the global distribution of hegemony are also the expansion of the BRICS alliance and the coups in the Sahel. Following a contribution by Moussa Tchangari and an interview with Olaf Bernau (both in German), we publish here a text by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni that contributes further aspects to the understanding of this era of change.

While the media always gives us the front story, academics and intellectuals carry the heavier burden of giving us the backstory—that which is behind what is apparent. What is apparent is escalating insecurities and series of military takeovers of power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

This short piece deploys wold-systems decolonial analysis as an ideal perspective in the search for what lies behind the increasing insecurities and military coups in the Sahel region. At the centre of any world-systems decolonial analysis are systems, structures, institutions and agencies which frame society, politics, power, and human behaviour.

Five theses are proffered from a world-systems decolonial analysis. The first is that what is termed terrorism, which is generating insecurities and the spate of military coups are nothing but signs of a troubled neoliberal internationalism and deepening internal fragilities within the societies in the Sahel region. So, there is convergence of crisis of world order and local fragilities generating terrorism, wars, and military take-overs as signs, syndromes and symptoms of a troubled modernity. These signs and syndromes have to be read together with others such as the ecological crises, the pandemics, global financial crises, rising tempers and angers of a generation of youth, and the risk of nuclear proliferation.

The second thesis is that the current conjuncture must be understood in the words of Walter D. Mignolo as “a change of era, no longer the era of changes.” Kishore Mahbubani has been in the forefront of positing that the world is in the cusp of a major change in the 21st century as the era of Western domination of the world since the 15th century is coming to an end and is poised to be replaced by the Global East led by China and India. The USA and Europe seem not to understand this change which is upon the world. Africa and Global Africa is also reviving the Bandung spirit/non-alignment and refusing to be camp-followers of the USA.

The third thesis is therefore that this change of era is trapped in what Antonio Gramsci termed an interregnum in which the old is taking time to die and the new is taking time to take shape and replace the old. In the interim, morbid symptoms are appearing including military takeovers of governments.

The fourth is that the Sahel region is just a theatre of eruptions of morbid systems just like the Ukraine and Syria. In these theatres of eruptions of insecurities, violence and wars—the global crisis converges with internal fragilities.

The fifth thesis is that whenever an existing world order has reached its graveyard before its burial it generates wars and conflicts. The wars and conflicts pit imperialist powers against each other and they tend to export their conflicts and wars to areas that are fragile, vulnerable, contested, and endowed with strategic natural resources. 

What is at state is a civilizational crisis that was long predicated by Aime Cesaire. Remember his words “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilization. A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles is a dying civilization.” Indeed, the Western-centric civilizational project (1500-2023) which Carl Schmitt depicted as the “second nomos of the earth” is experiencing its deepest crisis. What Ricardo Sanin-Restrepo depicted as the transcendental model of power underpinned by coloniality of power predicated on conquest, domination and control is struggling to defend itself besides generating conflicts and wars.

Military force is being deployed as compensation for a lost hegemony within a context in which US hegemony (1945-2023) is collapsing and Atlanticism is struggling to patch it up through such initiatives as re-westernization. This re-westernization is failing to withstand combined forces of de-westernization and resurgent and insurgent decolonization of 21st century otherwise known as decoloniality. In the words of Mignolo “diverse decolonial world-making praxis are erupting in all imaginable areas of life. The explosive preponderance of the words decoloniality/decolonization in the recent past points to the emerging decolonial sensorium which is demanding concepts and theories to capture the tragedies and hopes of the change of era.” Distinctively, the resurgent and insurgent decolonization/decoloniality of the 21st century has quickly animated political society, percolated into the sinews of public sphere and galvanised it into explorations of radical reworld of the world from the perspective of the people rather than states and elites.

At another level, the neoliberal project (1973-2023) predicated on claims of advancement of liberal democracy and market-driven global capitalism is also crumbling. The consequences are pauperization and polarizations at a world scale. To invoke the Nigerian intellectual and novelists—things are falling apart—the centre is not holding. Inequalities and poverty had widened more than in any other era. The post-Cold War neoliberal democracy triumphalism and the claims of end of history are paralysed.  

Why is the Sahel region becoming a geopolitical epicentre of insecurities and military coups? A convergence of factors makes the Sahel a geopolitical epicentre of crises. The long-standing ecological challenges linked to climate change and desertification, the emergent proliferation of terrorism since the NATO invasion of Libya in 2011, the diminishing French neo-colonial dominance and the end of Francafrique, the new scramble for strategic natural resources (uranium and other minerals) by dominant global powers accentuated by the ongoing imperialist war in the Ukraine, the generational dynamics of an angry youth in civil society and in the military seeking to take control of modes of production, and failure of neoliberal democracy that has been used over the years to cover the nakedness of compradorial civilian authoritarianism—makes the Sahel region an epicentre of troubled waters in which imperialists and forces are happy to fish.  In short, the Sahel region has always been haunted by various local internal fragilities and they have converged with the crisis of contemporary internationalism to erupt into a site of terrorism and military coups.

What is emerging poignantly is the increased questioning of the post-colonial world order within the “Francophone” states as well as heightened consciousness of French neo-colonialism in general and monetary imperialism in particular. France is increasingly losing its grip over “Francophone” Africa, which emerged from the 1958 referendum at the height of political decolonization. This raises the fundamental question of how to read the re-worlding of the world from the Sahel coup-belt as it is inextricably intertwined with the wider challenges of coloniality of neoliberal internationalism, which has lost its shine. In the Sahel region just like in other threatres of crises one does not only find an interested France but also the European Union (EU), the United States of America, China, and Russia.

For example, in Niger, one found a U.S military base as well as French and German military presence—all of them failing to contain terrorism. The matter arising is that terrorism as a phenomenon needs explanation itself and cannot be used to explain another phenomenon like the spate of military coups in the Sahel region. Both terrorism and military coups have to be explained. The very concept of “terrorism” occludes rather than enable deeper critical decolonial analysis of the troubles rocking the Sahel region. Is it not possible that what causes terrorism simultaneously causes the military coups? Who is behind both terrorists and coupists?

What is also emerging poignantly from a world-systems decolonial analysis is that there are no African problems which is not a global problem simultaneously. Since the dawn of the transcendental coloniality of power, no geopolitical region is left unsubjected to domination, interference, manipulation and control. The attempts by EU, France and the USA to hide behind Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to provoke another “Ukraine” in Africa through military invasion of Niger speaks volumes about shenanigans of global coloniality. Russia is also emerging as actively trying to replace France in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Basically, forces of what Kuan-Hising Chen termed “de-Cold War” are locking horns with great power initiatives to divide the world once more ideologically with the USA being in the forefront of trying to mobilise the world behind it.

While those regimes that have been exposed to the military takeover and their protectors are still trying to claim democracy as their justification to be restored the reality is that most of them were never democrats in their political practices. They seem to limit democracy to being elected even under very undemocratic environment as the basis of their claims to power even against the popular support for the military coups. At the same time the seeming popular support for the military coups are in reality a rejection of civilian dictatorship rather than endorsement of military juntas. The military leaders who have taken over governments are using various justifications for their unconstitutional actions post-facto. Should we accept their rhetoric and justifications? Again, a convergence of global and local factors makes the Sahel region fertile for military coups but military juntas have never proven to be the best forces for reworlding the world from the popular perspective of the dominated and pauperised society.  If anything, the military juntas have undermined the gains of the popular forces in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

The popular forces emerging from political society have realised that state sovereignty does not easily translate into people’s sovereignty. It is within this context that notion of restoration of citizen power as is pushed forward by the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and his party (Citizens Coalition for Change-CCC) in Zimbabwe emerges post the 2017 military coup. In Venezuela, the initiative is to create communes as incubators of communal power. These two examples speak to the possibilities of decolonizing the political community itself through decoupling the nation from the unholy marriage of “nation-state” and this seems to be far from the mind of military juntas.       

Published: 12. September 2023

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