Recent political developments in the West African sub-region, punctuated by a series of military coups, indicate that democratic rule is under serious attack, while military rule or dictatorship is on the rise. This erosion of democratic gains in the region has occurred mostly in French-speaking West Africa, also known as Francophone West Africa.
By Gabriel I.H. Williams
West Africa’s recent wave of military coup d’état, the latest which occurred on July 26, 2023, in uranium-rich Niger, started in Mali in August 2020 when disgruntled soldiers within the Malian armed forces staged a mutiny against the democratically elected government, detained the president and other senior officials, and forced the president to resign.
In September 2021, 83-year-old Guinean President Alpha Conde and other senior officials of his government were arrested and detained in a military power-grab led by the leader of the presidential guard, the security apparatus that was supposed to protect the president. There were also military coups in Burkina Faso in January 2022 and in the landlocked central African nation of Chad in February 2022.
This is why fears that the West African sub-region is gradually descending into a state of military domination and instability were heightened when the democratically elected president of Niger, one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, was overthrown and held captive in July by soldiers from the presidential guard. It comes as an unsettling shock that the soldiers, who were duty-bound to ensure the safety and security of the president, were the ones who seized him at gunpoint, as was the case in Guinea.
However, in a swift reaction to this latest military power-grab, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the 15-nation sub-regional bloc, which suspended the membership of Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso and demanded a return to democratic rule in those countries, has threatened military actions to dislodge the putschists and restore democratic and constitutional rule in Niger.
The Niger coup has intensified threats to regional stability and international security, at a time Islamic militancy is on the rise in the region. A destabilized Niger could further help to expand the reach of Islamic extremism in the Sahel, a region that has been in the grip of growing threat from various jihadist movements, which forces from the U.S., France and other countries have been battling in recent years.
Reports that the military junta in Niger has formed a security partnership with the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group, like that of its neighbors Burkina Faso and Mali, could further intensify regional instability. Wagner, which is reportedly active in several African countries, including the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Sudan, and Libya, could pose a grave threat to international law and order in Africa, where governments and non-state actors are offering the group the opportunity to extract natural resources in exchange for security protection. This is a very dangerous development, as it could undermine the rule of law and democratic governance in many African countries that are already fragile.
We cannot overemphasize the significance of ensuring a stable Niger, which is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, and it also has Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores, according to Reuters, quoting the World Nuclear Association (Niger is among the world’s biggest uranium producers; Reuters, July 30, 2023).
It is in view of the foregoing that we applaud the new President of Nigeria, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the current Chair of ECOWAS, for leading the charge to force the junta in Niger out of power in order to discourage the growing menace of military coups in West Africa. History will recall the efforts led by Nigeria, using its military and economic power, to restore stability to the West African sub-region during the respective civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Had it not been for the sacrifices made by Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries, Liberia would not only have collapsed during its brutal civil war that killed more than 250,000 people, but the entire sub-region would have been destabilized by rebel movements sponsored by then Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi.
We welcome ECOWAS’ intervention in Niger to restore constitutional order despite media reports that the coup has enjoyed a level of popularity within Niger and across the African Continent. The Niger crisis has sparked a debate where Africans are speaking out loudly against neo-colonialism and continued exploitation of the continent by foreign powers, especially the West. For example, the question has been raised as to how Niger can be one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium, yet about 80 percent of its population lacks electricity. Africans have expressed their frustration and discontent with corruption and other acts of bad governance by African leaders, who are backed by foreign powers. It is against the prevailing sentiments that change for the better would be difficult to realize under the status quo, which has caused many Africans to embrace the military takeover in Niger and other parts of the continent.
Whatever may be the justifications for the putsch in Niger or other parts of Africa, it is our considered opinion that military coups are inimical to sustainable peace and progress in Africa, given the arbitrary and brutal nature of military regimes. Here are some of the reasons why:
Soldiers are trained to fight war and maintain security; they are not trained to lead civilian administration or exercise civilian authority. When a military coup occurs, as is the case in Niger, the country’s constitution is suspended and martial law is declared, which give military leaders unlimited authority to make and enforce laws through the promulgation of decrees that violate the basic rights of the people. For example, while allowing its supporters to freely parade in the streets, the junta in Niger has banned anti-regime demonstrations, while many people have reportedly been arrested for expressing opposition to the coup.
Secondly, military coups usually deprive a country of quality leadership in terms of having individuals with the competence and integrity to serve in various capacities of public service. Incompetence, corruption, and human rights violations have dragged many African countries under military rule into civil wars that have caused the lives of millions of people and entire countries almost completely ravaged.
The ongoing civil war in Sudan, where thousands of defenseless people have recently lost their lives, is an example of misrule by successive military regimes in Africa’s third largest country.
My native country Liberia, founded by ex-slaves and freeborn blacks from the United States in the early 1800s, is a tragic example of how military rule can lead to the destruction of a country. Despite its domestic challenges, Liberia was regarded to be one of Africa’s most stable and promising nations until the April 12, 1980 military coup, in which the President was assassinated, and 13 senior officials of his government were publicly executed in front of a crowd of thousands. The coup was greeted by a euphoric mass of Liberians, who were made to believe that the soldiers would provide good leadership to transform the country. Liberians overwhelmingly embraced the coup because of their frustration and contempt for the ruling establishment at the time.
Unfortunately, Liberians soon found themselves under the yoke of a very corrupt, incompetent, and murderous military regime led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, which dragged Liberia into 14 years of one of the most brutal civil wars in recent African history, leaving the country almost destroyed completely. For example, since the civil war ended in 2003, electricity and pipe-born water are yet to be restored in many parts of the capital Monrovia. The country’s health and education institutions, which were among the best in Africa before the 1980 coup, are near collapse in a state of dysfunction, as is the case with most of Liberia’s infrastructure. Liberia is currently on the brink of instability due to the colossal failure of the government of George Weah, the retired international soccer star Liberians overwhelmingly elected in 2017 amid the belief that he would transform the lives of majority of Liberia’s impoverished because he hailed from a poor background. However, rampant corruption, extrajudicial killings and other acts of human rights violations have occurred during Weah’s government, as reported by various credible sources, including the media and U.S. State Department country reports on Liberia.
Therefore, it is a blatant falsehood that a military takeover would provide solution to problems in African countries. To the contrary, coups undermine sustainable peace and progress, as exemplified by the history of military coups in Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, among others. Ghana also exemplifies a country that has enjoyed tremendous progress in recent years because Ghanaians have embraced democratic governance and departed from the destructive course of military rule.
Accordingly, we call on the Biden administration, as well as other international bodies, such as the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), and European Union (EU) to fully support ECOWAS to dislodge the putschists and restore constitutional order in Niger.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the Niger crisis is pointing to two things: Firstly, coups are a setback to African wellbeing and development, and should not be tolerated under any circumstance. Secondly, we must take seriously one of the triggers of coups – neocolonial exploitations coupled with constitutional manipulations by African autocrats often in collaboration with their Western friends.
It is regrettable to note that even though ECOWAS is on the right side of history regarding the Niger crisis, it is losing the war in the court of public opinion because of what appears to be lackluster public relations to effectively articulate its position. In this regard, we stand prepared to volunteer our professional media services, if need be, to help spread the word that ECOWAS is a force for good.
About the Author
Gabriel I.H. Williams is a career journalist, former Liberian deputy Minister of Information and diplomat at the Liberian Embassy in the United States. He served as acting president of the Press Union of Liberia during the early years of Liberia’s civil war and was a founding leader of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas. He is author of “Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia” (2019) and “Liberia, The Heart of Darkness: Accounts of Liberia’s Civil War and its Destabilizing Effects in West Africa” (2002). He can be reached at [email protected].