Niger Coup Underlines Challenge to Democracy Across West Africa

A three-week barrage of international condemnation and economic sanctions has failed to crack their determination to hold on to power.

On the morning of 26 July, soldiers loyal to General Abdourahamane Tiani detained Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum. That night they declared a full military takeover by the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP).

A three-week barrage of international condemnation and economic sanctions has failed to crack their determination to hold on to power.

The coup presents a challenge that extends far beyond Niger. The stakes are high for West Africa, a region that has seen six coups in three years, as an emergent ‘putschist-populist’ politics threatens hard-won democratic progress.

The CNSP have tried to force Bazoum into resigning in the hope of rebranding themselves as pragmatic managers of a political transition. So far, he has stood firm. In response, the CNSP is threatening to charge Bazoum with ‘high treason’.

At first, coup leaders were bluntly refusing to engage with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), or even the United Nations: the first delegation from Abuja got no further than the airport, while the second was warned off before attempting the trip.

ECOWAS has responded in kind, immediately imposing heavy economic sanctions and threatening a military intervention if the junta does not restore Bazoum to office. The sanctions are already biting, with the price of imported foodstuffs on the rise and the power supply now subject to sporadic interruption.

Coup leaders claim to have been motivated by security and governance concerns, post-hoc justifications that have met with hostile reactions from within Africa and beyond.

While Niger’s democracy was certainly flawed, it also had significant strengths. President Mahamadou Issoufou (2011-21) complied with the two-term limit, and voting for his successor was broadly free and fair.

Once in office, Bazoum travelled widely and listened to a wide range of voices. He has also made significant progress in security and development, by reducing jihadist violence, expanding girls’ access to secondary education, and supporting the return home of villagers displaced by conflict.

This track record matters because it highlights the essentially parochial and personal motivation of the junta, particularly some officers’ resentment at Bazoum’s dismissal of armed forces chief of staff General Salifou Mody in April and rumours he was on the verge of sacking General Tiani.

Support has only come from fellow military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, and from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the self-promoting head of the Wagner mercenary group, who has spotted a new potential client.

Isolated and under pressure, the coup leaders may feel they have little option but to double down.  

For ECOWAS, the future of democracy across West Africa is at stake. At a high point in 2017, constitutional civilian-led government prevailed across all 15 West African countries.

Yet the region has now seen six military coups in less than three years, including two each in Mali and Burkina Faso. Decades of progress away from the authoritarian regimes of the past are in jeopardy.

The nature of Niger’s coup has further increased these concerns. In Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso there were structural drivers that explained political change, however unwelcome its form.

Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, had neglected northern and central regions, elections had been manipulated and urban protests repressed with lethal force.

Guinea’s president, Alpha Condé, had rigged a constitutional referendum on a third term, while Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Christian Kaboré seemed at a loss in the face of jihadist attacks that repeatedly claimed heavy army casualties.

By comparison, the motives behind the coup in Niger look narrow and short-sighted, an old-fashioned power-grab that sacrifices stability and gradual progress on development and security for the personal gain of a few elite military leaders.

The coup puts the campaign against jihadist groups in jeopardy – militant attacks have surged over recent days as the junta recalls troops to Niamey – and risks fracturing a hitherto relatively cohesive national polity.

The accelerating trend of military coups across West Africa has evolved into a more fundamental ideological challenge to the long-standing ECOWAS model of civilian-led constitutional and pluralist government, buttressed by close development and military partnerships with the West and the UN system.

A new brand of military regimes is taking root in a context where young, urban West Africans are increasingly disenchanted with the traditional political class and there is widespread resentment of France, the former colonial power and most visible external partner in many countries.

That Niger could fall, despite its progress on familiar metrics of democracy and security, underlines that the roots of West Africa’s coups lie not just in misgovernance or palace politics, but also in the complex interplay of emerging identities, new social attitudes and popular rejection of business-as-usual politics.

The rapid appearance of Russian flags on the streets of Niamey after the coup – as in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou last year – is evidence of these complex social realities, rather than a measure of Russian influence.

Regional leaders are aware of these hard truths. ECOWAS must urgently figure out how to address the democratic erosion across West Africa.

As for Niger, it remains unclear whether the coup can be reversed without further destabilizing the region.

ECOWAS has failed to secure popular support – or the backing of other AU member states – for its threat to use force against the Nigerien junta. Sanctions, meanwhile, are a blunt instrument that allow putschists to present themselves as defenders of the people subjected to hardship by bullying regional neighbours.

That leaves only the slow, unglamorous – but occasionally effective – option: politics and diplomacy.

John Kitoka is a Management Consultant and Political Commentator based in Dar es Salaam. He can be reached through his cell: 0755-622697 and his email: kitoka2000@gmail.com

 

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