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Blowback in the African Coup Belt

Starting in 2020, things started to get strange in Africa for those who knew what to look for. Normally, coups in Africa are nothing to write about. But starting in 2020, we saw six countries flip into a pro-Russian direction in just three years. Individually, they were a curiosity. Taken together, that rate of turnover outpaced even the most optimistic neoconservative ambitions for pro–United States regime changes in the Middle East. As General Wesley Clark summarized, “We’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”That fourth country, Libya, is where our story starts.Muammar Gaddafi and the Disposal ProblemIn 2011, the US and the North Atlantic Treaty

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Starting in 2020, things started to get strange in Africa for those who knew what to look for. Normally, coups in Africa are nothing to write about. But starting in 2020, we saw six countries flip into a pro-Russian direction in just three years. Individually, they were a curiosity. Taken together, that rate of turnover outpaced even the most optimistic neoconservative ambitions for pro–United States regime changes in the Middle East. As General Wesley Clark summarized, “We’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”

That fourth country, Libya, is where our story starts.

Muammar Gaddafi and the Disposal Problem

In 2011, the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization destroyed the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. They had wanted to do it for a long time. A true cosmopolitan, Gaddafi had provided lawyers, guns, and money to black nationalists in South Africa, Palestinian Nationalists in Tunisia, Irish Nationalists in the British Isles, White Nationalists in Canada, and Armenian Nationalists in Turkey. The one ideology for which the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution had no patience or tolerance was radical Islamic Salafi jihadism. In March 1998, Libya was the first country to issue an Interpol arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden. The warrant received no attention or action. Five months later, Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224.

In September 2001, President George W. Bush told Congress that “every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Gaddafi took the US up on the offer, dismantling its weapons of mass destruction program under the United Nations’ supervision. It paid over $1 billion in reparations to victims of terrorism to get removed from the State Sponsor of Terror list. In 2008, future US Ambassador to Libya (and Benghazi embassy casualty) J. Christopher Stephens reported that “Libya has been a strong partner in the war against terrorism and cooperation in liaison channels is excellent.”

Gaddafi had been highly suspicious of the citizens who chose to join the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan and surveilled them extensively, dutifully reporting them to other intelligence agencies whenever possible. In one particularly obscene case, a Guantanamo detainee named Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu was on the ground leading the Salafi jihadist group “Supporters of Sharia.” While hundreds are held in Guantanamo, being tortured without trial, the US knowingly released what it deemed a “probable member of al-Qaeda and a member of the African Extremist Network” to tear things up in Libya for them. A United Kingdom Parliamentary retrospective on the Libya overthrow later admitted, “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight. Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.”

Gaddafi made a series of dire warnings of what would happen if he died:

“Libya plays a vital role in regional peace and world peace,” he said in an interview with the France 24 television station. “We are an important partner in fighting al Qaeda.”

“There are millions of blacks who could come to the Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a role in security in the Mediterranean.”

Saif Gaddafi likewise warned, “Libya may become the Somalia of North Africa, of the Mediterranean. You will see the pirates in Sicily, in Crete, in Lampedusa. You will see millions of illegal immigrants. The terror will be next door.” While the Mediterranean didn’t see a resurgence of literal piracy, Gaddafi’s predictions were otherwise correct if not conservative.

Within five years, US military officials openly conceded that Libya was a failed state. In February 2015, the International Crisis Group warned, “On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves . . . will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially.”

As predicted, millions of blacks flocked to Libya’s Mediterranean coast to cross into France and Italy. Many were beaten, raped, and starved in what the United Nations Children’s Fund called “living hellholes” or even sold in open-air slave markets. On the Italian island of Lampedusa, it is not unheard of thirteen years later for hundreds or thousands of illegal African migrants to land in a single night. On May 22, 2017, in a manifestation of what former Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigative counsel Jack Blum called a “disposal problem,” a Manchester-born Libyan named Salman Abedi returned from his MI5-sponsored jihad in Libya and blew himself to pieces in the middle of an Ariana Grande concert. He killed himself and twenty-two others in an audience primarily composed of young girls.

As the second phase of Hillary Clinton’s “bank shot,” the overthrow of Libya’s government and the looting of its arsenals allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to direct those weapons to jihadis in Syria. The scourges of the Islamic world would also use this windfall of weapons to brutalize populations across Africa’s Sahel region, most notably in Mali. After 2011, countries in the Sahel experienced between a tenfold and twentyfold increase in deadly Islamic terror incidents from groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State following what Vision of Humanity calls a “Jihadization of Banditry.”

French Africa and the Series of Coups

After seizing power in 1969, Gaddafi moved in 1973 to seize land in the former French colony of Chad based on older colonial boundaries between Italy and France. In 1979, Libya intervened in the Chadian civil war on the side of Goukouni Oueddei. When Oueddei demanded the withdrawal of Libyan troops, Libya withdrew from the nondisputed territories. Goukouni implicitly affirmed the new border. France backed Hissène Habré to take over in 1982. General Idriss Déby played a pivotal role in dislodging Libyan troops from northern Chad, but France and President Habré feared his growing influence, exiling him to Sudan.

Gaddafi began supporting Déby’s efforts to raise an army and take over Chad in 1990. When Déby successfully took power, the former rivals became quick friends. Libya withdrew from the disputed strip in 1994, and the two countries locked in a series of security, trade, and refugee resettlement agreements. Most importantly, the two cooperated extensively as two points in a chain along with Nigeria against Islamic militants. In 2021, Déby was killed in battle against Saudi-funded rebels, backed by elements of one of Libya’s three competing revolutionary governments.

During his rapprochement with the West, Gaddafi and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi signed the 2008 Treaty of Benghazi. Italy apologized for colonialism and agreed to pay Libya $5 billion in reparations over twenty years. More importantly, Italy and the European Union would fully modernize Libya’s border patrol infrastructure, including satellite detection and a joint Italian-Libyan coastal patrol to stop the flow of illegal migrants into Europe. With Gaddafi’s death and the failure of any Libyan faction to consolidate control, this infrastructure fell to tatters.

In January 2019, Italy’s populist right began a diplomatic offensive against France, blaming the Republic’s policies in Africa for the migrant flood. At a rally, deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio posed the question, “If today people are leaving Africa is it because some European countries, with France taking the lead, have never stopped colonizing tens of African states?”

Matteo Salvini likewise said,

There are countries that steal wealth from Africa and France is definitely one of them. France has no interest in making Libya a better place. Paris is interested in taking control of the oil there. And their interests are opposed to the Italian ones. I’m proud to govern a generous country. We don’t take lessons on humanity from France, let alone from Macron. In recent years, France turned back thousands of migrants, including women and children. They took them back to Italy in the middle of the night, like animals. Again, I don’t take lesson from Macron.

Future prime minister Giorgia Meloni joined the attack, explaining to a television audience the CFA franc, “the colonial currency that France prints for 14 African nations to which it applies seigniorage and by virtue of which it exploits the resources of these nations.” Holding a picture of a child at the bottom of a Burkina Faso gold mine, she concluded that “the solution is not to take Africans and bring them to Europe, the solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans who exploit it.”

In its defense, the CFA franc has historically been less inflationary than currencies in adjacent African nations. Still, for once, it was not completely unfair and ahistorical to single out France as particularly incompetent. France’s former colonies have fared unusually poorly relative to those of other colonial powers. From de jure decolonization in 1960 until the end of the Cold War, France launched over a hundred military expeditions into its former African colonies. After the Cold War, more than three-quarters of the coups in sub-Saharan Africa were in former French colonies.

Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger were the worst hit by the Islamic terror wave. Straddling the border between the three countries is the “Islamic State of the Greater Sahara.” After repeated failures of the French-backed governments to dislodge the insurgents, the militaries seized power with popular support. Sudan, Guinea, and Gabon were likewise overthrown, creating a continuous “coup belt” running from Sudan on the Red Sea to Guinea on the Atlantic. On March 24, Senegal elected Bassirou Diomaye as president, who has vowed to take the country off the CFA franc.

Russia, Russia, Russia

The new military governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger formed the Alliance of Sahel States, all of them leaving the Nigeria-dominated and Western-backed Economic Community of West African States. They then announced that French troops were no longer welcome in the countries, and that they would instead be welcoming protection and training from Russia’s Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group was originally a mercenary company run by the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. In July 2023, Russia hosted a summit in Saint Petersburg, at which Putin announced he would write off $23 billion in debt owed by various African countries. The conference was one of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s last appearances in public after his failed June 2023 coup and before his accidental August 2023 plane crash. Wagner in Africa has been renamed as the Africa Corps, rumored to be directly managed by Russian military intelligence. Russia began offering “regime survival packages” to countries in Africa, in exchange for access to mineral resources. Russia threatens to cut off privileged French access to Nigeran uranium reserves, which are responsible for the production of 12 percent of France’s electricity.

The US also has a direct stake in the form of two Africa Command bases in Niger, one of which completed construction in 2019 as an intelligence center and a launchpad for Reaper drones. The Agadez and Niamey bases are critical to surveillance across Central Africa. Besides an unknown number of intelligence agents, there are one thousand US troops in the country, and the new Niger government has insisted that they are not welcome. US Undersecretary of State for Africa Molly Phee visited Niger twice in March, but so far, the Nigerien government has shown no sign of budging.

After September 11, 2001, the neoconservatives schemed to dominate the entire Middle East and North Africa. Instead, imperial arrogance and outright perfidy may well have put the country on the path to losing it all.

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