The “Coup Epidemic” Trends in West Africa
The Republic of the Niger has joined the growing list of countries to witness a coup d’état in the last three years in the West African sub-region. Burkina Faso had its own share when Christian Kabore was ousted in January of 2022 through a coup led by Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Barely 8 months after, Damiba was removed from office by a faction of the army led by Ibrahim Traore because of Damiba’s inability to defeat the jihadists terrorizing specific regions of the country and to boost the security architecture of the country.
Mali’s spate of coups in the last decade started in 2012 when mutinous Malian troops stormed the presidential compound, state television, and military barracks in Bamako, the country’s capital, in response to their dissatisfaction with how the Tuareg insurgency was being handled. Fast-forward to eight years later, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was deposed by a military coalition in August 2020. This came after months of upheaval in Mali because of anomalies in parliamentary elections held in March and April and discontent over the abduction of opposition leader Soumaila Cissé. That is not all; on the evening of May 24, 2021, the Malian Army under the command of Vice President Assimi Gota overthrew the government of Mali and deposed President Bah N’daw and stripped his powers and those of Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, and Minister of Defense Souleymane Doucouré. Their reason: because they tried to “sabotage” the transition to civilian rule.
In Niger, the recent coup which has led to the installment of General Abdulrahmane Tchiani as the new head of state was said to have been carried out because of the government’s inability to tackle insecurity, economic stagnation, and concerns in the election campaign over the ethnicity and legitimacy of President Bazoum, amongst other reasons. While these are the common reasons that these coup plotters give, it is imperative to critically evaluate these assertions instead of just making blanket statements about how democracy has been sabotaged and why the elected president should be returned to office. Instead of demanding a return of the president, I think the main questions that should be asked are what are the reasons for ousting a democratically elected government? And why are people celebrating the removal of a democratically elected president?
The Real Reason for the Ousting of “Democratically Elected” Governments
In every society that believes in the ideals of democracy, no one would dream of wanting a military dictatorship, not to mention experiencing one. My parents and relatives who experienced military regimes in the early years of Nigeria’s independence tell me bleak stories about those days. They are the first people who would condemn a coup wholeheartedly. But when you see how people celebrate the removal of a democratic government, like in Niger, one must wonder why this is the case. We must question what the democratically elected government has done to undermine public confidence to the extent that the people now look to a military dictatorship as their beacon of hope.
Every now and then, when a coup breaks out in West Africa, international organizations are swift to condemn the act whilst calling for the democratically elected president of the country to be reinstated back into office. However, I have wondered if we are asking the right questions. Firstly, whenever a coup happens, there is always a reason behind it. While common reasons are said to be the desperation of power-hungry senior army generals, there are other reasons as well such as the failure of the government to fulfill their electoral mandates and to do what they said they would do. These people get to power and become demigods and refuse to serve the people they swore an oath to serve either through incompetence or just sheer wickedness and lack of empathy. While nothing is justified for the ousting of a democratically elected president, it is high time we started holding African leaders to account for how they use the power given to them by the people before any coup breaks out.
Secondly, the African Union and ECOWAS have failed tremendously in condemning the rise of past coups in the region whilst strengthening the actions of leaders who have not governed justly and have rained tears and blood on their people. What I am alluding to here is that these regional bodies have not held these leaders to account. They did not push them to pursue prosperity, peace, and justice but rather, ignored the problems these leaders have caused to their people whether through changing the constitution to allow them to run for a further term or ensuring that elections were not free and fair. Amid all this, these leaders flock around with the military who have been charged to keep them safe. Eventually, the coup that leads to their removal is led by these very same men in uniform who are close to power, close to them, and are meant to protect them.
I think the AU and ECOWAS can do better in holding leaders to account and ensuring that they fulfill their promises and treat their citizens well. This is the only way that we can avoid further coups in the region. It is not enough to condemn a coup situation that people are weirdly happy about. But rather, we must begin to question why these leaders are deposed in the first place.
Back to Niger…
For Niger, it is important that the ECOWAS tread with caution in their attempt to reinstate the already ousted Bazoum. The 8 days ultimatum given by the regional body to reinstate Bazoum before going in with military force is ill-advised. This has not been well-received by the Military Junta in Niger who vowed to defend their land at all costs. The military regimes of Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso also pledged their support to the Nigeriens declaring that an attack on Niger is an attack against their own countries as well. I have a few hypotheses of why this attempt to use military force by ECOWAS is being very quickly sought. Firstly, the West most especially France is backing ECOWAS to use military intervention to restore democracy because of their interest in Niger. A country led by a military junta who does not pay allegiance to the West, especially France might not sit right with the French government as this might hurt their interests in the country. For instance, their benefits from the country’s large uranium deposits and the fact that the French have an army base in Niger are strong reasons to want to reinstate Bazoum quickly. Also, a military dictatorship that pays no allegiance to Paris might see a removal of the French military base in the country as we have seen in Burkina Faso.
Second, is the issue of France’s dwindling popularity in the West African sub-region. As a result of this, the French might be worried about another country descending into a military regime that is anti-French, hence, the continual spread of strong anti-French sentiment in the region. Thirdly, President Tinubu of Nigeria who was illegitimately declared president a few months ago seats at the helm of affairs of the ECOWAS. He would be willing to cement his legitimacy as president in the eyes of Western powers by dancing to the tune of the West. The tune they are currently playing is one of military intervention. When this happens, all hell would break loose and common people will suffer the consequences. This is why it is imperative for ECOWAS to tread with caution and utilize all avenues to negotiate and dialogue with the military junta rather than declare war on the country. A military intervention would be catastrophic, especially for ordinary people. In addition, it could also be that ECOWAS leaders want to send a strong message to other military personnel in the region to beware and not meddle in politics.
Some solutions which I think should be explored instead of a military intervention are firstly, ECOWAS can put some pressure on the military junta to give a timeline of when a transition back to democracy should be expected. This way, they can prepare for fresh elections and elect another democratic leader if Bazoum has fallen out of trust with the public. Secondly, to solve the problem of the rise of coups, African leaders must stop using the army as their personal security. When you have the army close to the helm of power, it is only a matter of time before a coup is staged. Thirdly, ECOWAS and the AU must take a strong stance on any form of coup (either civilian or military) in the region and by extension on the continent. They must use whatever power to punish or sanction leaders or ex-leaders who have failed their people and stop giving continental or regional positions to them.
African leaders commit civilian coups against their own people in the form of corruption, nepotism, undermining the rule of law, nonchalance in providing welfare amenities, and the likes.
Have you ever heard of a Civilian Coup?
African leaders commit civilian coups against their own people in the form of corruption, nepotism, undermining the rule of law, nonchalance in providing welfare amenities, and the likes. This is as bad as a military coup, and both should be condemned. All coups, either by those in agbadas and suits or khaki uniforms must be condemned. It is also worth highlighting that Nigeriens, just like several other Africans do not care about whoever is in power. All they want is infrastructure, good schools to send their children to, food on the table, jobs, and the like. Whoever leads the affairs of the country democratically or militarily matters less to these people.
It is hoped that this zest and resilience that the ECOWAS is using to stop the military Junta in Niger from undermining democracy would also be used when democratically elected leaders are sabotaging the judiciary, rigging elections, diverting public funds, engaging in medical tourism abroad at the expense of their citizens who have no access to credible healthcare or undermining the rule of law. This same energy of finding a solution (not going to war) must be explored when these leaders err. But sadly, this has not been the case with these leaders. Hence, why the common Nigerien and citizens of other African nations are confused as to why they are swift to act against the military takeover in Niger but not swift to tackle corruption, insecurity, and bad infrastructure.
In the end, the main takeaway from all of these is that leaders should prioritize their country’s progress over their individual needs and wants. After all, the public gave them a mandate to serve them and if they cannot do this, then they should resign and allow for a more competent and ethical hand to take the wheel. If not, another coup situation might just be on the horizon. This should be a time for some somber reflections for African leaders.