Democracy is no longer a ‘hurray-word’ in West Africa

What does the military takeover in Niger mean for the wider region?

Supporters of coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023.
Supporters of coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023. Credit: AP Photo / Sam Mednick / Alamy Stock Photo

While democracy is seen as a given in many countries around the world and as a beacon of hope in non-democratised nations, it is no longer a ‘hurray-word’ in some other parts, especially in West Africa. In the space of three years, four countries in the region have lost their democratic status and the number of military takeovers is alarming. There have been seven coup d’états in the region, with four being successful. Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali and more recently Republic of Niger have all been taken over by men in khaki and dark glasses.

West Africa is known for its abundance in human and natural resources. While the human resources are under-utilised, the region retains vast quantities of natural resources, such as gold, timber, oil and gas. Despite their availability, economic stagnation, poverty, inequality and corruption remain a bane to development. All of these issues could be attributed to poor leadership.

Democracy was envisaged to solve some of these problems but this has not been the case, as good governance and prosperity (supposed dividends of democracy) remain a mirage. While the demise of democracy in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso happened without much media coverage, the return to military rule in Niger after 10 years of uninterrupted democratic rule – the first time in its history – has gained international attention and intense media coverage.

Why does it matter? What implication does this have on the region? Why are European countries worried about the situation in Niger? These are some of the questions I have been asked several times since the collapse of democracy in the country.

West Africa has several anglophone and francophone countries, but all the coups have been in francophone ones. Resentment towards France is increasing in the region, with old allies falling out quite rapidly. Many citizens of these countries have questioned the relevance of a strong relationship with France due to the stagnancy in development and increase in insecurity. Instead, there’s a growing openness towards non-traditional and ‘non-colonialists’ partners, such as Russia and China. Both countries promise ‘non-interference’ with domestic politics and a mutual relationship of ‘equals’.

Niger is an important country to others in West Africa, the Sahel and Europe. Having borders with seven countries, what happens in Niger impacts on these countries. In West Africa and the Sahel, Niger contributes to the fight against terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province. In the last decade, Niger has also been an important partner of the European Union in curbing mass illegal migration through the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Prior to the signing of several bilateral and multilateral deals between Niger and the EU, Niger was a major hub for illegal migration in Africa.

Apart from the fight against insurgency and terrorism, which is likely to be impacted as a result of the coup d’état, there are further implications for Niger’s western allies. France and the United States have established a long-term military alliance with Niger and both countries have military bases and troops in the country. Recently, the United States opened one of its largest drone bases in Niger, entrenching an already established security partnership. In addition, France has invested billions of dollars in Niger’s uranium mines, hence, a breakdown in relationships as a result of this coup would negatively impact on France’s economic interest. For the EU, the prospect of a large number of migrants arriving in Libya through Niger would be reminiscent of what happened in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived at the borders of Europe having travelled across the Mediterranean.

The prospect of more countries falling into the hands of the military remains a worry to democracy and the rule of law. Before the latest coup in Niger, there was a discussion among the initial three military regimes to form a ‘military alliance’. The aim of the alliance is to cement their collective interests and fight their common enemies – in this instance, terrorist groups ravaging the region. They have also been quick to welcome the new military junta in Niger, threatening anyone who tries to use force to restore democracy in the country.

In light of these developments, the remaining democratic leaders in West Africa need to think deeply about how to address the issues raised by their citizens. In all, there have been agitations for economic development, peace and security before the military struck. These same issues have been cited by the military regimes as justification for seizing power. If adequate steps are not taken, the region risks losing even more established democracies to autocracy.

Following the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to use all available measures, including the use of force, to restore democracy in Niger. The truth is democracy cannot be forced on people, especially when thousands of young people have held protests to support the military takeover in the country. The use of force will likely result in turmoil and the total destabilisation of the region. The main option remains dialogue but the chances of having the civilian president reinstated are slim based on the outcomes of previous coups in the region.

One key lesson is that democracy means nothing to ordinary citizens if it does not impact on their lives and livelihoods positively. History tells us that many of the established democracies today have undergone several twists and turns before getting to where they are today. The advent of the internet and social media, however, makes it easy for citizens all over the world to compare and contrast their living conditions with other countries of similar demography or statistics, making it more imperative for democratic leaders to deliver the dividends of democracy. If this does not happen, democracy will be less likely to be a ‘hurray-word’ and military authorities will continue to lurk in the corners, especially in developing countries.


Olayinka Ajala