Can West Africa Survive the Coup in Niger?

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy Research Institute on August 22, 2023

On July 26, a military junta seized power in Niger. The junta arrested the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum and suspended the constitution. A few hours later thousands of Nigeriens, with Russian and Nigerien flags, took the streets to show their support to the putschists and demanded the end of France’s presence in the country. As anticipated, regional and international organizations including the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, and many countries condemned the coup and evacuated some of their citizens.  

Following the coup, ECOWAS warned of possible military intervention against the junta, imposed economic sanctions, and cut off electricity to Niger. Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace, and security, stated that military action would only be considered as a last resort, but preparations would be made in case it became necessary.

Although the real reasons for the coup remain unclear, the putschists used poor governance, poverty, and unsuccessful military campaigns against a jihadist insurgency as justifications. In recent years, the increasing number of coups in Africa, particularly in Francophone Africa, has become a major concern for the West African bloc and the future of democracy in the region.

Niger, with a population of over 26 million, was a promising example of a fledgling democracy in the region. It holds a crucial strategic position for Western powers in their fight against terrorism. The United States has approximately 1,000 American soldiers stationed there, as well as France, which maintains a military base in the area. 

Despite their immense natural resources, many Francophone African countries, including Niger, face issues of extreme poverty, clientelism, corruption, and the local population often does not see the benefits of the exploitation of their natural resources. “They’ve exploited all the riches of my country such as uranium, petrol, and gold. The poorest Nigeriens are unable to eat three times a day because of France” affirmed a Nigerien businessman.

The Unwanted French Reality Versus the Russian Mirage

While many Western countries condemned the coup, Russia only expressed concerns over the situation in Niger. “We are in favor of the prompt restoration of the rule of law in the country. We are in favor of restraint on all sides, which would help avoid casualties,” affirmed Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov. However, Russia’s support for other undemocratic countries in the region, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, calls that statement into question.

The recent Russia-Africa summit demonstrated Russia’s clear intention to further its interests on the continent, specifically in Francophone Africa. Although the number of participating countries was lower compared to the 2019 summit, the event still highlighted Russia’s commitment to engaging with Africa. Russia’s objectives in West Africa align with those of its allies in the region: the end of France’s presence in the region and its replacement by Russia. The waving of Russian flags during pro-coup protests and the burning of French flags recently in Niger, and previously in Mali and Burkina Faso, are just the top of the iceberg, and Russia might use those allies as tools to fulfill its goals. 

The situation in Francophone Africa is perilous. Despite sixty years of independence and the sale of billions of dollars worth of natural resources, most of the population lives in abject poverty, lacking basic necessities, such as electricity and adequate food. Unemployment is rampant, and many people have been displaced or killed in terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, there is no clear development plan in place that can provide hope and a vision for the population. Anti-French sentiment has grown out of decades of socio-economic stagnation, coupled with a feeling that their presidents are imposed upon them. France’s support of questionable dynastic regimes and its dismissive attitude towards the concerns of Africans have only added to this resentment. In light of this, many Africans are turning to Russia as a more reliable ally due to its support during the decolonization era and the Western nations’ inconsistent approach to international matters, such as censuring Russia for human rights abuses while overlooking similar transgressions by their allies, like Saudi Arabia. 

All propaganda, including Russian propaganda, poses a grave threat to Africa and its aspirations to build a strong, developed, and modern continent. The root cause of Africa’s vulnerability to external interference is the failure of many African leaders to recognize the importance of their duties, to chart a clear path for the continent’s development without relying on foreign aid, and to stand firm against international rules and policies that do not serve Africa’s interests. This has led to a resurgence of Sankarism, which praises a pragmatic pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist ideology. That ideology is not only growing among civilians but also among military personnel, who are willing to risk their life to explore non-democratic alternatives to create a better future for their country.

ECOWAS’ Misstep Could Lead to Its Implosion

The creation of ECOWAS in May 1975 was led by General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian head of state, and Gnassingbe Eyadema, his Togolese counterpart. These leaders recognized the benefits of regional integration. Since its inception, ECOWAS has played a crucial role in promoting stability, peace, and economic integration in the region. It has successfully facilitated peace talks to resolve conflicts, such as in Guinea Bissau, and has also utilized force in the past, as seen in Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, many West Africans perceive ECOWAS as a club of presidents whose objectives do not sincerely align with the aspirations of the people.

The issue of double standards in handling coups, whether a military takeover or revolution de palais, in the West African region is a crucial matter. ECOWAS has decided to resort to military force in Niger if diplomatic efforts fail in reinstating the democratically elected president. While this decision may seem noble, it could also potentially lead to its implosion. Additionally, the stance of Mali and Burkina Faso, which consider any military intervention against Niger as a declaration of war against them, highlights not only the fragility of the union but also the differing political visions within the union. 

Currently, there are two conflicting groups present in the regional entity. The first group is made up of anti-coup leaders, pro-West, but not truly democrats. This group consists primarily of elected civilians, such as the presidents of Nigeria and Ivory Coast. The second group is made up of pan-Africanists who are pro-Russia and mostly young soldiers, such as the leaders of the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter appears to have a larger support base among the population across their countries. The outcome of ECOWAS’ decision to take military action or not will have significant consequences for the region’s stability.

The refusal of the putschists in Niger to return power to Bazoum and ECOWAS’ decision to use military force could result in the regional organization splitting into two entities. A federation comprising Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and possibly Guinea could emerge, challenging the remaining members of ECOWAS. This option could lead to more instability and worsen the suffering of the populations in the region. However, If ECOWAS decides not to intervene militarily, Mali and Burkina Faso might gain more influence in the region, and unfortunately, other coups may follow. This is a dilemma ECOWAS has to address. 

To truly regain the trust and confidence of West Africans, ECOWAS must understand the new current political reality in some of its member states. Instead of being utilized by powerful nations and presidents who fear becoming victims of coups in the future due to poor governance in their countries, ECOWAS should prioritize dialogue and peaceful approaches in Niger, and ask itself who will benefit from the military intervention, the killing of thousands of Africans, and a potential dismemberment of the union. Turning Niger into a kind of Ukraine with pro-Russia and pro-West fighting is not the solution.

Conclusion

West Africa is facing various challenges that hinder its development and stability, including political instability, terrorism, pseudo-democratic elections, climate change, youth unemployment, and widespread resentment towards Western countries, particularly France. ECOWAS’ response to any crisis should prioritize the interests of its people over the whims of its leaderss. A democratic ECOWAS should work towards solving its population’s problems rather than creating new ones. ECOWAS should neither accept military coups nor unconstitutional changes. Until ECOWAS addresses the challenges that make it unreliable to its citizens, more violent methods for change will persist. Africa is changing, and Francophone African populations are tired of living in extreme poverty for decades. The United States should act intelligently to advance the goals of regional stability in West Africa.

Niger is an independent and sovereign country, just like Ukraine. The country belongs to its people, not any other nation or international institution. To address the situation in Niger, the international community needs to adopt a constructive and diplomatic approach. A dignified solution can be sought through diplomacy by, for instance, establishing a four-stage crisis resolution timetable, led by a half-military, half-civilian team, with a one-year transition period. The four stages, after the short transitional period, will include a new presidential election without the candidacy of the coup leader, a referendum on the presence of foreign military troops in the country, a conference to provide financial and security aid to Nigeriens with the participation of international partners, and finally, a national reconciliation to promote peace and unity. The duration of the four stages should be decided by Nigeriens (military, religious, civil society, and political actors), ECOWAS, and international partners chosen by Nigeriens.

Threats, sanctions, and border closures are unproductive, and military interventions from ECOWAS may not yield the desired outcomes. Such actions may fuel anti-French sentiments and promote pro-Russian views in Niger and beyond. Rather than taking a confrontational approach, ECOWAS should examine the reasons for recent coups and why many people in affected countries support the putschists. The regional organization must reconsider its stance and collaborate with West African populations, including elites, civil society, and the military, to create a new vision for democracy and prosperity for all. Otherwise, ECOWAS risks losing its legitimacy and fading away in the coming years.

Komlan Avoulete

Komlan Avoulete is an independent analyst focusing on African affairs and US-Africa relations. Komlan holds a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and International Relations, specializing in International Security and Africa, from Seton Hall University. His Master’s research focuses on terrorist incidents within the Economic Community of West African States. He advocates for the strengthening of US-Africa relations, promotion of public diplomacy, human rights, education, and good governance in Africa.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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