The recent coup in Niger against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Bazoum has again thrown into the front burner the fate of liberal democracy in Africa, in particular the West African sub region. Since the ‘Third Wave’ of democracy started in the continent in the 1990s, there has been a certain belief that liberal democracy, despite its twists and tumbles, is gradually entrenching itself in the continent.
A democratic space is quite elastic and can contract or expand without this elasticity necessarily being a threat to the survival of democracy. In recent years however the number of constitutional coups (change of constitution by African leaders to extend their term limits) and military coups have raised questions of whether we are indeed witnessing democratic reversals in the continent. For instance, since 2010, there have been over 40 coups and attempted coups in Africa, with about 20 of these occurring in West Africa and the Sahel (including Chad). Niger itself has had about four military regimes since independence in 1960 but has managed to organize three democratic elections since 2011which saw its former President Mahamadou Issoufou respect the constitution’s term limits and passed the baton to the 64-year old Mohammed Bazoum. That was regarded as a no mean accomplishment for a country surrounded by neighbours that are facing insurgencies, extremism and armed coups.
The recent coup in Niger, a country of 25 million people which is often ranked the poorest country in the world, follows others since 2020 in Guinea (2021), Burkina Faso (2022), Chad’s ‘dynastic coup’ (2021), and Mali (2020 and 2021). The coup plotters have, as they are wont to do, suspended the country’s constitution and installed Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani as Head of State.
There are several lessons from the coup:
One, liberal democracy is still struggling to entrench itself in Africa between forces who believe that its worst form is better than any other alternative and other forces who feel so disenchanted with its practice that they want to try something else, including delinking from the state into primordial contrivances. This explains why the coup had both supporters and others opposed to it, almost on equal measure. Supporters of the coup took to the streets and burnt the headquarters of the ruling party, accusing the party of corruption and not doing enough to improve the security situation in the country or ending the long-running jihadist insurgency. Some also say that the coup was spurred by attempts to remove Gen Abdourahamane Tchiani as commander of the presidential guard, which eventually carried out the coup. Essentially the support and opposition to the coup reflects the tension between democratic and anti-democratic forces in many African countries.
Two, Africa has continued to be a theatre for a proxy confrontation between the big powers. Since 1999 when Putin came to power in Russia and began aggressive efforts to reclaim the lost glory of the defunct Soviet Union (which it largely inherited), it has sought to project power on the global stage and has sought to win new friends and revive old friendships in the continent. The Western powers, in particular the USA, have sought to contain this expansionism in what could be termed a revival of the Truman Doctrine – a doctrine enunciated by President Truman in 1947 to contain Soviet expansionism anywhere, and often used by historians to date the beginning of the Cold war. For instance, though both the USA and France have military bases in Niger, anti-Western sentiments have been strong in the country. In fact, some of the demonstrators in favour of the coup had Russian flags. Mohamed Bazoum himself was pro-West and was seen by the West as their ally in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel and in the efforts to stop illegal migration to the West through the Mediterranean Sea. Expectedly therefore Western countries have strongly condemned the coup – formally because they support democratic rule but probably more because they see in Bazoum an ally that will help stop growing Russian influence in French West Africa. In fact, Bazoum was reported to have accused the Russian military contractor, Wagner, (which is very active in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Central African Republic, and Sudan – among other African counties) of spreading misinformation against his government. There is no doubt that both Wagner and Russia will like to get a foothold in Niger, which accounts for 7% of the world’s supply of uranium. The West believes that the new military junta, if they are allowed to succeed, will be pro-Russia.
Three, the crisis of governance in Africa is breeding a general disaffection with the practice of democracy at a time no visible alternative seems to be in sight. The free speech guarantee in liberal democracy has enabled citizens to expose many acts of bad governance including corruption and nepotism, which in turn creates an impression that liberal democracy is responsible for such malfeasances – further alienating some people. At the same time many African leaders have failed to uphold the basic tenets of democracy – like rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights, conduct of free and fair elections and guaranteeing security of lives and property. Periodic elections, which could have afforded the citizens the opportunity to change their leaders, have generally proven to be a farce, further alienating the citizens both from the state system and from the electoral process. In situations of anomie such as this, the military is given the ammunition to strike.
Four, supranational institutions like the Economic Community of West African States (which recently gave the Nigerien military junta seven days to restore constitutional order in the country) have in recent times been unable to force its will on coup makers and sit tight leaders as it did in years past. For instance, the sub regional organization compelled President Laurent Gbagbo to vacate office after he was defeated by Alassane Ouattara in the 2010 Presidential Election in Côte d’Ivoire. It also restored the presidential mandate of Adama Barrow of Gambia in 2016 after Yahya Jammeh refused to vacate office after losing in the presidential polls. In recent years however ECOWAS has been unable to restore constitutional order following the coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, Guinea (2021) and Burkina Faso (2022). A major reason for this is that most presidents of ECOWAS nations have defaulted on the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance through electoral malpractice and tenure elongation. For instance, President Alpha Conde’s decision to seek a third term has always been cited as the major reason for the coup in Guinea. In Côte d’Ivoire, 81-year-old Alasane Quattara whose mandate was restored through the intervention of ECOWAS in 2010 after President Gbagbo refused to accept defeat had no qualms amending the country’s constitution to give himself a third term. In Senegal, the President has just given up his third term bid after massive mobilisation against him. Essentially when the political class makes mockery of democracy, they not only invite disenchanted citizens to de-link from the state they also unwittingly invite the military, as the only institution with the legal monopoly of force, to intervene. Additionally, supranational institutions like ECOWAS and the African Union not only kowtow to powers like the USA and Europe because of their dominance in the global system but also because of their power of the purse. Essentially therefore the ability of African leaders to force coup makers in the continent to restore constitutional order is increasingly limited. Quite often they are forced to work with extra African powers as junior partners.