They took the world by surprise when they announced it some days ago, publishing the text of the agreement in full on their respective government websites. France may have been the most surprised. It had been caught off guard by these countries which had seen coups d’etat that overthrew pro-French regimes bound to Paris by agreements that give France license to monopolise the exploitation of their natural resources which it purchased at rates far below their prices on international markets. The most flagrant example of this is France’s exploitation of Niger’s uranium mines. The international demand for uranium has been growing because it powers nuclear power plants which are a less environmentally harmful way to generate electricity than plants powered by coal or other fossil fuels. In the past decade, France imported more than 17,500 tons of uranium per year from Niger for which it paid Niamey about 1.5 million Euro instead of the roughly 353 million Euros that quantity of uranium would have fetched on the open market. It is little wonder that Nigerians now insist that France owes their country the cumulative difference from the past ten years, which would come to more than 3.5 billion Euros.
Anger is growing in France at both the governmental and popular levels in reaction to the developments in the three above-mentioned African states that had once been French colonies. Tensions spiked again recently when Mali declared the French ambassador persona non grata and asked him to leave the country. Paris instructed the ambassador to remain at the embassy in Bamako and, in response, Malian forces surrounded the embassy and blocked the entry of all food supplies.
This is only a glimpse into the turbulent background that led the three countries to close ranks and sign a mutual defence agreement, one of the 17 articles of which states that an act of aggression against any one of them is an act of aggression against them all. Do they expect an imminent escalation that will force them to put the agreement into effect?
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly