Niger coup: a further blow for democracy in West Africa
Niger’s coup risks further normalising military rule in West Africa, with Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali already ruled by juntas. It could also offer another opportunity for Russian mercenaries to extend their role in the region, as they have done in Mali, among other countries. While anger at continuing insurgency and France’s military presence have fuelled some public support for the coup, regional experience suggests the junta could stay for the long haul, leading to further pressure on civic freedoms. Niger’s international partners must support regional efforts to restore civilian rule, and civil society must make itself part of the democratic solution.
There’s still much uncertainty about what will result from Niger’s coup.
The West African country has experienced several coups and coup attempts since it achieved independence from France in 1960. The most recent attempt came in 2021 just before President Mohamad Bazoum was sworn in. But the events of 26 July, when Bazoum was detained by his presidential guard, appear to have taken most people by surprise. Two days later, General Abdourahamane Tchiani assumed power as head of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland. The constitution and parliament have been suspended and multiple ministers arrested.
What happens next is uncertain because the regional community and the government’s international partners have taken an unusually strong stance. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) quickly imposed sanctions and closed land and air borders. The capital city, Niamey, has been plunged into darkness due to a block on electricity imports from Nigeria. France and the European Union (EU) quickly cut off development aid and financial support, and the World Bank has suspended funding. Niger’s economy, heavily reliant on international support, faces unprecedented strain.
Many eyes are on Niger because of where it sits – in the Sahel region, plagued by jihadist insurgency, and bordered by Burkina Faso and Mali, two countries also under military rule that have cultivated extensive links with Russia. The question is whether Niger will go down the same regressive path.
Cautious optimism fades
There was cautious optimism when Bazoum came to power in a February 2021 presidential run-off vote. This marked the first time one Nigerien president had peacefully handed power to another, albeit both presidents came from the same party.
At the same time, it was by no means a model election. The Observatory of the Electoral Process, a civil society group that deployed thousands of observers, reported irregularities including vote buying, misappropriation of ballot boxes and voting cards, and poor security. The defeated candidate rejected the result, sparking protests in which at least two people were killed and 468 were arrested, with the internet blocked for 10 days.
Some welcome developments followed in 2022, such as the adoption of a law to protect human rights defenders and the amendment of a deeply regressive cybercrimes law. But in the main, civil and political freedoms remained restricted, including through laws that undermine human rights, systematic protest bans targeted at pro-democracy activism, internet restrictions, and harassment, mass arrests and criminalisation of activists and journalists. The M62 social movement, a persistent thorn in the government’s side, was targeted. In April its leader received a nine-month jail sentence.
The government didn’t do enough to uphold and expand rights and freedoms – but the experience of West Africa suggests that its replacement by the military can only make things worse.
A coup belt in the making?
The implications of Niger’s coup transcend its borders. It brings the creeping danger that military rule is becoming the regional norm. Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali all have military governments too. With Chad and Sudan to Niger’s east also under military rule, a ‘coup belt’ now stretches coast-to-coast across Africa.
In countries that have undergone coups, the military has come to power promising reform and pledging to get to grips with insecurity and the scourge of corruption. The latter would be an odd promise for Niger’s military to make, since it was recently mired in a major scandal over corruption in military procurement. Anti-corruption protests were among those banned and anti-corruption campaigners were harassed and criminalised. The military’s claims to be responding to poor governance and insecurity seem flimsy, the coup likely more motivated by a determination to protect military power.
Across the region, promises of rapid transition have gone unfulfilled, giving way to extended spells of military rule, under which civic freedoms have further deteriorated. In Guinea last year, the junta, in power since 2021, banned protests, dissolved an opposition coalition and extended its period of rule until at least 2024. Mali has been under military rule since 2020 and last year the junta announced a ban on the activities of civil society organisations receiving French funding. Burkina Faso experienced two military coups last year and the junta then cracked down on media freedoms and the right to protest.
In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the context is one of jihadist insurgency. People living with violence and insecurity often blame the government for its inability to protect them. Many have supported coups hoping the military will do a better job of combatting insurgency – although there’s no evidence of improvement in countries that have undergone coups.
Across countries, social movements that have been calling out government failures and were subjected to repression as a result have been among those welcoming coups. That was the case when the military took power in Mali and it’s happened again in Niger. The M62 movement helped organise protests in favour of the coup and against sanctions, including one of several thousand people on independence day, 3 August. Other civil society groups are said to have been involved in the protests – which aren’t being met with anything like the repression protests normally receive. M62 and other groups have since met with the junta to discuss its priorities.
France, the west and Russia
M62 wants all foreign forces to leave Niger, and protests have taken place outside the French embassy, with protesters setting the walls of the compound alight. The role of France and the west is a key motivator of protest anger in Niger, as in Burkina Faso and Mali.
Anger is understandable. The former colonial power, France plundered West Africa’s considerable mineral wealth and ruled with brutality. Even after independence it played a heavy economic and political role in Francophone Africa, propping up some outrageous dictators in return.
Its more recent regional role has been as the leader of international forces intended to combat jihadist insurgents who spilled over from Libya’s civil war. It was initially welcomed by governments and many people, but the relationship soured, not least because its anti-insurgent actions were seen as ineffectual. Social movements have been active in protests against the French military presence, including in Niger, where at least two people were killed in a protest against a French military convoy in November 2021.
Nowhere has seen stronger pushback than Mali, which once provided the regional base for French and other international forces. The French government criticised the coup and backed sanctions, and last year the Mali junta insisted that French troops withdraw. The last soldiers left in August 2022. Deteriorating relations also led to the withdrawal of French troops from Burkina Faso.
Niger then became France’s regional base, making the ousted president an essential partner for France and the west. The state of civic space didn’t matter because Niger was the lynchpin after other relationships crumbled.
The junta has torn up military cooperation agreements with France and suspended French broadcasters. The concern must now be that Niger will follow the path of Mali in making friends with Russia. Russian private military companies, notably the shadowy Wagner group, are at the core of Russia’s African presence, and the recent confrontation between Wagner and the Russian state doesn’t appear to have changed that. Wagner is thought to be playing some kind of role in as many as 18 African countries. In Mali, Wagner mercenaries are actively involved in combat – and killing civilians. Increased Russian involvement is often preceded by intensive campaigns of pro-Russia, anti-France disinformation – something Bazoum said was circulating in Niger ahead of the coup.
If France’s relationship with West Africa was extractive, then so is Wagner’s. Vital resources such as diamonds and gold flow to Moscow. Niger has gold and is also one of the world’s biggest uranium producers – something France needs for the nuclear power that supplies around 70 per cent of its electricity. The junta has reportedly frozen uranium exports to France, and while the French government says it has adequate supplies from other sources, it’s a potential complicating factor for western states’ hopes of switching away from Russian uranium.
Currently it’s only speculation that Niger’s junta might follow the path of Mali, in part sparked by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s apparent announcement welcoming the coup and offering his forces’ services. M62 and other groups haven’t called for Russian intervention, and M62 asked people not to fly Russian flags at the independence day protests. But as happened in Burkina Faso and Mali, there has been visible support for Russia in pro-coup protests.
Test for ECOWAS
Beyond the challenge the coup poses for France and other western states, it presents a problem for ECOWAS, which finds the credibility of its commitment to democracy on the line. More than a quarter of its 15 members are now under military rule – and civic space is subject to serious constraints almost everywhere.
ECOWAS was accused of not acting on the early warning signs of previous coups and failing to offer a robust response when they happened. It has gradually got tougher, and when Nigerian President Bola Tinubu took over as chair in July, keen to talk up Nigeria’s role as a regional leader, he made clear that no more coups would be tolerated. Now those words face a huge test.
In Niger, ECOWAS has gone further than sanctions, threatening the use of force if the military didn’t step down within a week – a deadline that has already passed. Military-led governments are clearly supporting each other: a hawkish response to this threat from the junta was backed by its peers in Burkina Faso and Mali, which said that a military intervention would be treated as a declaration of war. The junta in Guinea also condemned sanctions. Escalating the tension, Niger’s military claimed France planned to attack the presidential palace in order to free Bazoum. France and other western states are evacuating their citizens.
No one’s interests would be served by further violence, and a peaceful path to rapid transition needs to be found. There’s no prospect of human rights being respected under military rule, and once people start protesting against the military, repression can be expected. Instead, Niger’s near future must be democratic governance in which a full range of civil society can act, with people free to mobilise, speak out and protest. Civil society should be careful not to be co-opted by the junta and not find itself complicit in the substitution of Russian mercenaries for French forces. Civil society should instead make itself part of the solution by making the case for effective and functioning democracy – in Niger and beyond.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The military junta should immediately step aside in favour of a rapid transition to democratic civilian rule.
France and other western states should support the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States and other bodies such as the African Union to resolve the crisis.
The current junta and any future government of Niger should commit to respecting the full range of civic freedoms, including the right to speak out, express dissent and protest.
Cover photo by AFP via Getty Images