The post-independence journey of democratic governance in West Africa is a complex tapestry marked by triumphs and tribulations. Despite commendable efforts within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the struggle for democratic consolidation faces challenges—political instability, economic hardships, corruption, and contested elections. Issues of governance effectiveness and equitable resource distribution persist, overshadowing sporadic progress in some nations. A disconcerting trend emerges as leaders manipulate democratic processes for personal gains, bending constitutions and perpetuating rule indefinitely. The enduring reign of certain families in Togo and Gabon, spanning over 55 and 56 years respectively, highlights the region’s challenges. Leaders in Cameroon and Rwanda skillfully alter constitutions, remaining in power for over 41 and 23 years respectively. Despite ongoing protests by their people, the leaders of the world’s great democracies still recognize these countries as democratic. West Africa stands at a crossroads, urging international attention and support for genuine democratic governance to take root and flourish.
Democracy in Question: Military Coups, Legitimacy, and Credibility
The ongoing military coup in Niger has once again exposed the intricate challenges facing democracy in West Africa. The unpopularity of so-called “democratically elected leaders” among their own people demands global attention to scrutinize the state of democracy in Africa today. These leaders are labeled as such because they either rigged their way to victory or overturned elections through bribery in the judiciary. Thus, highlighting doubts about the legitimacy of their election processes. The scenes of Nigeriens celebrating the removal of their President, Mohamed Bazoum, ostensibly elected democratically, raise pressing questions about the legitimacy of such leaders. Who truly voted for this president, and can we assert that he was elected democratically by the people, as democracy is widely understood to be the government of the people, by the people, and for the people? These events compel us to examine the current state of democracy in Africa. Are elections still free, fair, and credible, ensuring that the people’s votes truly count in the end? The waning trust in democratic processes across Africa is palpable, as people increasingly doubt whether their votes carry any weight.
Before the recent Niger and Gabon coups in 2023, Sub-Saharan Africa saw six military coups since 2020. Most arose from public protests against economic hardships, political corruption, and disputed elections. Mali had two coups, with the first toppling President Keita. Guinea and Sudan experienced similar scenarios, with the military seizing control amid political instability and popular dissent. Burkina Faso faced two coups within eight months. The Niger coup, notably supported by many in Africa, has highlighted concerns about French influence, underscoring a complex political landscape in the region.
Shifting Alliances and International Response
The recent military coup in Niger, garnering global attention, has witnessed widespread African support for the takeover, primarily seen as a reaction against perceived French influence in the country. Italy, through Prime Minister Meloni, has previously accused France of exploiting its former African colonies, including Niger. To comprehend the events in Niger, on July 26, 2023, President Mohamed Bazoum and his family were detained at the presidential palace in Niamey. Interior Minister Hamadou Souley faced arrest as well. General Abdourahamane Tchiani orchestrated the military coup, announcing President Bazoum’s removal on state TV that evening. The coup led to the dissolution of the constitution, suspension of state institutions, and the establishment of a National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland. Simultaneously, the military closed borders, imposed a nationwide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and warned against external intervention. On July 28, Tchiani declared himself president, accusing Bazoum of poor economic management. Acting as a peacekeeping force in the region, ECOWAS issued a one-week ultimatum on July 30, demanding Bazoum’s reinstatement.
The international community’s responses vary. The African Union Peace and Security Council ordered soldiers to return to their barracks and restore constitutional democracy within 15 days, warning of punitive measures if they failed to comply. The United Nations Security Council condemned the coup and supported ECOWAS and the African Union’s positions. The French government declared support for an ECOWAS military intervention. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani urged an extension of the ultimatum. Senegal, Benin, and Ivory Coast confirmed participation in a military intervention if approved by ECOWAS. In contrast, Russia warned against ECOWAS military intervention, suggesting potential destabilization. Cape Verde and Chad opposed intervention, refusing to participate, while Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea expressed support for the junta. Turkey opposed military intervention in Niger. The United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, supported West African efforts to restore constitutional order in Niger. It is a global concern that African countries have remained neutral since the cold war between the Western Bloc and Eastern Bloc. The failure of promoting true democracy in Africa today has given room to African countries to take a bold stance and form new alliances with former Eastern Bloc countries.
Charting the Path Forward: Democracy and Stability
On August 10, the junta announced a new government, inaugurating 21 ministers led by Prime Minister Zeine, appointed just two days earlier. Simultaneously, ECOWAS held its second emergency meeting to address the situation in Niger. Nigerian President Tinubu referred to the coup as a “threat to West Africa.” The ECOWAS summit ordered the immediate activation of its standby military force in Niger, while the junta threatened harm to President Bazoum if ECOWAS launched an intervention. ECOWAS, functioning as a peacekeeping force in the region, occasionally deploys joint military forces to intervene in member countries with proper authorization from national laws.
The Nigerian Senate earlier rejected President Tinubu’s request to authorize military intervention in Niger, instead urging a diplomatic resolution and a cautious approach. On August 19, Tchiani announced a three-year transition to civilian rule and initiated a 30-day period for national dialogue to propose a new constitutional framework. In response, ECOWAS rejected the junta’s three-year transition plan, insisting on the swiftest possible transfer of power. President Tinubu proposed that the junta shorten its transition to nine months, while ECOWAS sanctions against the junta would persist until “positive adjustments” were made, interpreted as a quicker return to civilian rule.
On August 27, Nigerien citizens staged a protest near the French military base in Niamey, demanding the departure of the French military from Niger. French President Emmanuel Macron had earlier defended French military operations in West Africa. In retaliation, on August 28, the junta issued an ultimatum for the French ambassador, Sylvain Itté, to be recalled within 30 days. President Macron stated that he would not recall the ambassador and referred to the junta as “illegitimate authorities.”
The junta followed through on its ultimatum on August 31 by ordering Ambassador Itté’s removal, revoking his diplomatic immunity, and revoking the visas of his family. Furthermore, on September 24, President Macron announced that France would withdraw its troops from Niger before the end of 2023, recalling Ambassador Itté and other diplomatic staff. The French presidency confirmed that Sylvain Itté, the French ambassador in Niger, had been evacuated following the junta’s expulsion order.
The wave of demonstrations in support of the military junta, organized by the M62 movement, signals a growing sentiment among Nigeriens who had previously opposed the government of Bazoum and Operation Barkhane. Thousands of protesters carried Nigerien, Russian, and North Korean flags while chanting slogans like “down with France, out with Barkhane, we don’t care about ECOWAS, the European Union, and the African Union!” This development, alongside sentiments expressing the desire to arrest former dignitaries for corruption, reveals the complexities surrounding the coup.
The implications of these events heighten the distrust of Western democracy promotion in Africa and encourage a rising trend of African nations seeking support from Russia, signaling further potential for military takeovers. Such developments present challenges for the global fight against Islamic extremists operating in the region, as these actors exploit the prevailing gaps and receive increased support. As the dust settles, it is evident that the world’s leading democracies must reassess their engagement with African nations during democratic transitions. This is essential to uphold true democracy and protect the African people’s rights and interests, with the understanding that democracy encompasses more than just elections. It also involves the safeguarding of democratic institutions, the rule of law, and respect for citizens’ rights. The present situation in Niger and other parts of Africa necessitates a collective effort to address these challenges and ensure the promotion and protection of democracy for the benefit of African people and global stability. The consequences of failing to do so are dire and could leave the door open for non-democratic actors to exploit the situation.
The international community must recognize that true democracy goes beyond elections, encompassing the protection of democratic institutions, the rule of law, and people’s rights. It is imperative for global leaders to actively support genuine democracy in Africa, preventing further erosion of its legitimacy and potential global consequences. Countries like the US and EU, which send election observer missions to African countries, should not only conduct assessments but also act on the findings. They must refuse to acknowledge outcomes of fraudulent elections and impose sanctions on those responsible for election violence and institutions failing to uphold the rule of law. Taking proactive measures to encourage civic activism, freedom of the press, and protests is vital for fostering a robust democratic environment in Africa. It is crucial for Africa to establish a strong foundation for democracy.
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Written by Benignus Onyebuchi Abasurum