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Africa’s first coup d’état? A history of Niger’s Sawaba movement

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The Yearning for Relief by Klaas van Walraven

In a new book on Niger, Dutch author Klaas van Walraven charts the history of what he calls Africa’s first coup d’état. The Sawaba movement, formed in 1954, was opposed to French colonial rule and pushed for independence. It developed into a militant social movement, aligned with Eastern bloc states, as well as Algeria and Ghana. But it was stopped in its tracks, repressed by France’s fifth republic. Can we really call this Africa’s first coup?

Radio France Internationale

What is the Sawaba movement, or Nigerien Democratic Union?

Sawaba was a social movement that developed in the mid-1950s around a programme aimed at improving the social/economic situation of the little folk, the petit people, people who had recently migrated from the countryside to the cities. This was so effective that by 1955 French colonial officials were alarmed about how Sawaba was penetrating into the countryside with its message of social emancipation and more political autonomy. Sawaba was able, in early 1957, to form Niger’s first autonomous government under French sovereignty.

Why is this Africa’s first coup d’état?

Djibo Bakary the charismatic nationalist leader of Sawaba formed Niger’s first autonomous government. It continued ruling Niger until late 1958. The crisis in Algeria in the spring 1958 led to the formation of fifth republic in France. The Gaullists introduced a new constitution, by which African territories were allowed autonomy, but this fell short of independence. This was politically out-of-tune with the times. In several political circles in West Africa numerous activists were against this – students, trade unions – these people who wanted to vote ‘No’ in the referendum in September 1958 had the majority in Guinea, they also had the majority in Niger. The Sawabists wanted immediate independence but the difference with Guinea was that Niger was of great strategic importance to France. Everyone already knew that there was uranium in huge quantities the north of Niger and the Gaullists proceeded to intervene in the internal political affairs of Niger. The Sawaba government was toppled. Sawaba ministers were emasculated, all their power was taken from them, and that’s what I call Africa’s first modern coup d’état.

You discuss support given by the Algerians, the Ghanaians and Eastern bloc states. It seems the movement’s leadership had far-reaching international networks.

The strength of the Sawaba movement was partly tied to the trade union world and through the trade union world Sawaba had relations with the communist unions in France, the CGT. As a result of that many Sawabists, already before 1958, could travel widely and extensively in the Eastern bloc. When Sawaba was toppled by the Gaullists, Sawabists had little choice but to flee the borders of Niger and go abroad. It not only started having its own men trained in guerrilla war in Algeria, in the People’s Republic of China, in north Vietnam and later in Ghana. But it also began a so-called operation formation cadre. Djibo Bakary because of his international communist networks, he could command over 100 to 200 scholarships in the Eastern bloc. They started to send young Sawaba-orientated youth to enter into vocational training, academic training. The idea was that if they could topple the Nigerien government by violent means then they would have their own counter-cadres with which to take over the administration.

According to the book, there was not mass violence. But the repression by the French administration extended to hundreds of people.

It became impossible for Sawabists to continue with their lives, and political and social activities in Niger. The French put in a client regime, French influence continued long into the 1960s. There was the political police and that committee was run by French officials. When the Sawabists tried to get back by violent means in the mid-1960s and the invasions in 1964 failed, they were of course arrested, they were interrogated. Interrogation started with beatings and those who were not deemed forthcoming were subjected, sometimes to electro shocks, sometimes to so-called truth serums. It’s beyond any doubt that people were severely maltreated. In fact, the interrogation procedures bore an uncanny resemblance to what the French had done in Algeria in the so-called battle of Algiers in 1957.

You say this is a forgotten history – what are you trying to achieve by charting it?

It was only by the early 1990s that Sawabists could finally come out and tell their life stories. In Niger, younger generations have hardly heard about this period in the history of their country. I wrote the book partly for the Sawabist community, as these people told me, it’s hard to live without the public acknowledgement of their fate. These people were not angels, they used violence themselves. But the aspect of Niger’s history that they represent can only enrich the history of that country.

Written by Daniel Finnan

24 February 2013 at 13:45

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