July's coup in Niger took observers by surprise, though it was West Africa's sixth coup in the past three years. Do these military takeovers share common causes and Anne-Cecile Robert with Le Monde Diplomatique asks.
The medical language of an 'epidemic' and 'contagion' being used to describe the six coups that have occurred in the Sahel region since 2020 is a sign of the anxiety and confusion over what's going on.
Commentators have been at a loss in trying to make sense of the sequence of two coups each in Mali and Burkina Faso, and one apiece in Guinea and Niger, with a further coup announced in neighbouring Gabon. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the spread of terrorism and simmering political tensions led the military to intervene.
But in Niger the number of jihadist attacks had significantly declined in recent months. And there was no direct Islamist threat in Guinea, where rebel soldiers in 2021 ousted Alpha Conde, whose third presidential mandate violated the constitution.
Researcher Yvan Guichoua suggests that, their differences aside, all these coups can be described as 'populist' , while Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe calls them 'neo-sovereigntist'. All the coup leaders have indeed denounced foreign interference as both illegitimate and ineffective.
'Rely only on ourselves,' was the message from Captain Ibrahim Traore, Burkina Faso's transitional president, in a speech in October 2022. 'Our people have decided to take their destiny into their own hands and build their autonomy with more reliable partners,' said Mali's defence minister, Colonel Sadio Camara, on 13 August in Moscow.
However, neither Russian influence nor the crisis of French imperialism - which economist Ndongo Samba Sylla and others have highlighted as a cause - in themselves explain recent events.
The series of coups in the Sahel principally indicates two phases coming to an end: first, the decade during which the management of the security crisis devastating the region was internationalised under the aegis of France and the UN. On this, Sahel states are now 'reclaiming the initiative', according to Jean-Herve Jezequel, project director for the Sahel at the International Crisis Group.
And second, it indicates the conclusion of the longer period of democratisation that began in 1991 after the cold war ended. This is a real 'authoritarian backlash', according to Senegalese political analyst Gilles Yabi, and one that has not been confined to Francophone Africa (with violent repression in Ethiopia, an ongoing post-election crisis in Kenya and civil war in Sudan).
There are now fears that a 'rebel cartel' will form in West Africa, a 'khaki coup alliance' which might bring the region to a tipping point, according to Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute.
The simultaneous, abrupt end of these phases caught observers off guard; Niger's coup on 28 July certainly had an opportunistic dimension, or at the very least, an unsettling quality.
But in seeking to preserve their corporatist interests, rebel officers have followed a broader trend that affects this region just as much as the rest of the world.
Instability in the Sahel looks like an enlarged version of ongoing geopolitical reconfigurations happening worldwide.
This includes coup leaders' neo-sovereigntism mirrors other states' attempts to assert independent foreign policies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Africa etc); the emergence of juntas is the latest manifestation of the crisis of democracy and of authoritarian tendencies seen globally; the failed international management of the Sahel security crisis reflects the global crisis of multilateralism; and the rejection of France in Africa, along with the rise of the United States (which has been very active in Niger since the coup), China and Russia, illustrates the reconfiguration of international relations.
Corruption and 'blunders'
In this shifting geopolitical context, a coup is an adjustment tool deployed in response to the crisis both of the state and of democracy.
The military's aim, at least in the short term, is to reduce tensions and contradictions by concentrating power in their own hands. In Africa, the armed forces have long claimed that they can unblock crisis situations made worse by the structural weakness of institutions and states themselves.
In the Sahel now, the pronunciamiento is also presented as a response to a security threat that civilian authorities struggle to contain.
*'Holding our noses, we supported the coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso because to some extent, they were justified. [The ousted leaders] had lost control,' Guinean writer Tierno Monenembo concedes.
The irony, of course, is that the armies in the region are themselves riddled with corruption and profiteering and have not demonstrated effectiveness or professionalism, as evidenced by the 'blunders' they regularly commit in their fight against terrorism. Moreover, the length of the transition period, which coup leaders claim will lead to civilians returning to power, often remains uncertain.
But how can states that are so dependent on outside support democratise? Only 45% of Niger's national budget comes from Nigerien resources . Poverty and wealth inequality make the country permanently unstable.
It's collaborating with Algeria and Nigeria to build the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP), which will supply southern Europe via the Mediterranean, a project whose financial prospects have whetted many appetites, including those of the military.
Niger ranks 189th out of 191 for human development and is in economic crisis following Covid and sanctions against Russia.
Though it is the world's third-largest uranium producer, 85% of its population have no access to electricity, despite the declared intention of fighting embezzlement (President Bazoum had notably ordered the arrest of Ibrahim Moussa, known as Ibou Karadje, former head of the presidential transport service, for misappropriating 8bn CFA (over $13m) of public funds).
Against the backdrop of wealth inequalities, tackling corruption and the struggle against irredentism (the country is an ethnic patchwork and Tuareg autonomy claims remain a serious issue), Nigeriens had already experienced four coups since independence (in 1974, 1996, 1999 and 2010) as well as a failed attempt in 2021.
Even allowing for the effects of manipulation and demagoguery amplified by social media, Niger's latest coup, like the recent ones in Burkina Faso and Mali, seems to have been accepted by the people, if not enthusiastically, then at least out of fear and fatalism.
While attempted demonstrations of support for President Bazoum were nipped in the bud - with dozens of arrests, intimidation and violence against journalists - democracy as promoted by leaders and regional organisations for decades has, in the population's eyes, failed to deliver.
'Let's banish coups from our space'
The coup has sparked intense debate in Africa about the virtues and limitations of an 'imported political system'. 'We absolutely must banish coups from our space,' Alioune Tine, founder of the Africajom Center, wrote on X (formerly Twitter), 'but also banish the deep-rooted political causes that create them: misgovernance, corruption and impunity.'
Coup leaders try to construct an alternative form of legitimacy by relying on the street, seeking popular support, especially among the young and from religious authorities and traditional leaders.
The growth of terrorism has destabilised Sahel countries since the intervention of NATO forces in Libya in 2011 and the dispersal of ISIS fighters in the region after their defeat in Syria and Iraq in 2019, but it's now based on local dynamics. Whenever jihadists establish themselves, through the use of summary justice and atrocities, they can restore a form of order amid the ruins of the state.
They dispense justice, protect traders, settle land conflicts and open schools within a sharia framework that discriminates against women.
'Jihadist rule rests on two inseparable foundations: terror and the dramatic absence of public services,' says anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan of the Laboratory for the Study and Research on Social Dynamics and Local Development (LASDEL) in Niamey, Niger. 'Providing people with effective and lasting public security services becomes an absolute priority in simultaneously attacking these two foundations'.
In this context, France's exclusively security-oriented approach has not improved the situation, despite eliminating hundreds of terrorists since 2014.
France's obstinate refusal to learn from this in Mali meant its policy was exported to Niger, thereby risking destabilising that country. In addition, the ongoing presence of foreign forces creates a parallel economy that diverts resources and aggravates local social fractures.
The arrogance of foreign powers - France in particular - dictating their vision and methods on the ground, without necessarily achieving results fuels resentment among African military commanders. Beyond its own colonial and post-colonial responsibilities, France symbolises an international order that is out of touch and ineffective.
It has a repellent effect on those who organise coups, whose neo-sovereigntism can, as in Mali, live with disadvantageous deals made with China and generous concessions to military contractor Wagner.
The failure of the fight against terrorism is blamed on the international community, which is equated with a West that's losing its moral authority. Mali, for instance, was unafraid to demand the departure of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are facing the same crisis of legitimacy that is besetting other multilateral organisations. Societies in the region find these organisations' aggressive language and the sanctions they impose hollow and unfair, penalising people more than regimes, such as when they block trade by closing borders.
'Failed response to security challenge'
The African Union has never been strong in the face of security crises. The oft-cited example is the Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) created by ECOWAS and led by Nigeria, which fulfilled its peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone but was criticised for carrying out extrajudicial killings.
Furthermore, ECOWAS has never exerted pressure on regional heads of state tempted to seek unconstitutional third terms (Alassane Ouattara in Cote d'Ivoire, Alpha Conde in Guinea etc). It 'has failed in two important regards,' says Central African journalist Seidik Abba, 'by staying out of coup prevention (Guinea, Mali) and in its response to the security challenge'.
The organisation's current awakening is a response to the risk of regional destabilisation and also due to the activism of its current Nigerian president, Bola Tinubu, who is motivated both by domestic political issues and by his country's continent-wide power status.
The prospect of military intervention, always sensitive in this region, sharply divides Africa: except for Cape Verde, ECOWAS leaders (minus the four countries where there have been coups, whose membership has been suspended) are in favour, but they face internal resistance from parliaments and media.
On 19 August the African Union merely 'noted' ECOWAS's preference, while reiterating that they favoured diplomacy; neighbouring powers, especially Algeria and Chad, are reluctant.
Any military intervention carries risks, especially in populated areas: people in Niamey, a city that was already in opposition hands in the time of President Bazoum, are mobilising to defend the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), established by rebel generals.
Faced with these challenges, the leaders of military coups have failed to articulate clear political programmes beyond patriotic slogans and a 'pragmatic' form of Pan-Africanism, as Guinean colonel Mamadi Doumbuya put it.
Some highly symbolic measures have however been taken, such as Burkina Faso's termination of its taxation treaty with France and the Guinean authorities ordering foreign companies to establish headquarters there and calling for the local processing of raw materials.
Will coup leaders use their countries' resources for their nations' benefit - and 'endogenous development', as Doumbouya and his Burkinabe counterpart have claimed - or exploit them for their own gain?
Burkina Faso's transitional president, Ibrahim Traore, attracted attention at the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg this July by bluntly criticising African leaders for 'begging' when their continent is rich in minerals: 'A slave who does not rebel does not deserve pity. The African Union must stop condemning Africans who decide to fight against their own puppet regimes of the West.'
While he wears a red beret to cultivate a resemblance to Thomas Sankara, the Marxist revolutionary officer who was Burkinabe president in the 1980s, Traore has not yet put forward a more detailed vision of how the international division of labour could be changed to end Africa's subordination.
Ali Lamine Zeine, the prime minister appointed by Niger's CNSP on 7 August, is an economist who represented his country at the African Development Bank and was the architect of the dialogue with international financial institutions in the 2000s. As such, he defended policies that have suffocated young African states.
by Anne-Cecile Robert and Le Monde Diplomatique