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Does Niger's Coup Affirm Democratic Backsliding Theories in West Africa?

With the headquarters of the ruling party burning in the back, supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger on Thursday, July 27 2023.

WASHINGTON — Analysts say the toppling of a democratically elected regime in Niger last week gives credence to theories by advocates that West Africa’s democracy is failing, adding the current development in the nation warrants international attention.

On Sunday, regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS, threatened to use force on Niger's coup leaders if they fail to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum within the week.

The threat followed an imposition of economic and travel sanctions on the nation's new military leaders, the closure of borders between ECOWAS countries and Niger, banning of commercial flights, the stoppage of aid and the halting of financial transactions.

Niger’s military is voicing support for the coup while warning the international community against "interference," which they said would lead to "massacre" and "chaos."

Kamissa Camara, senior advisor on Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, USIP, told VOA that the recent coup in Niger could be a message from young citizens in Africa that democracy is no longer appealing to the continent, and that what they might be seeking is "customized democracy."

She says coup leaders capitalized on insecurity within the Sahel — which has considerably deteriorated over the last decade — to illegally grab power and urge the international community to find "strategic ways" to engage the junta.

"I think these leaders are very aware of the international context in which these coups are occurring, and they do not necessarily want to be isolated. So, they do mention the security situation, which everybody agrees with to justify the coup, to appeal to the international community ... and maybe to secure a future for themselves."

Six countries in Africa are currently under military rule, all within the Sahel belt. Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Sudan and now Niger, have witnessed at least one coup in the last three years.

Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger are part of the ECOWAS bloc.

Camara says that the lack of a regional military force within ECOWAS could be an incentive for increased coups in the sub-region, saying such a force is likely to help combat rising appetite for illegal power grabs.

"But we have to give credit to ECOWAS for the high-level negotiations that the regional body has been conducting to prevent coups from happening, but also to try and restore deposed presidents ... even though negotiations have failed, ECOWAS has tried even without the right tools."

USIP: Africa could be Seeking ‘Customized Democracy'
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Kabir Adamu, Abuja-based security risk management and intelligence analyst, told VOA that an alleged foiled coup attempt in the lead up to Bazoum’s swearing in ceremony in March makes this overthrow "unsurprising."

However, Adamu noted, the progress made by the Bazoum administration including reconciling political differences in the country and a reported 11% economic growth by the World Bank, disputes claims by coup leaders of mismanagement.

"(The power grab) seems to show the fact that democracy as we know it appears to be failing in the West African sub-region. And in fact, in Africa as a whole," he said. "And it buttresses the fact that governance should be about the people and where people don’t see or feel the effect of that governance, then sadly what happened in Niger would continue to repeat itself."

Adamu said the overthrow of a legitimate government in the Sahelian country could also reinforce recent theories suggesting that geopolitical developments outside Africa "are having a huge impact on the continent," citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example.

"There are suggestions that there are involvement of foreign powers and almost all the coups that have occurred in Africa, including the recent one in Niger," he said.

The United States says there is no credible evidence of involvement by Russia or its paramilitary mercenary Wagner Group in Niger.

Paul Ejime, a London-based international affairs analyst and former ECOWAS official, told VOA that failure by politicians to deliver when they ascend into public office could be stoking internal wrangling, while questioning whether it is people failing democracy and not vice versa.

"But let me be clear … the military is not wired for political governance, their role is for the protection and defense of national sovereignty," he said.

Ejime says with four ECOWAS nations experiencing a recent coup, military personnel are seemingly taking cues, using the same template, "and if care is not taken, there could be more."