Don’t let this crisis go to waste: restore democracy in Niger now

On July 26, military leaders in the landlocked West African country of Niger announced that they had overthrown their government.

Led by General “Omar” Abdourahmane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, they imprisoned the president, Mohamed Bazoum; dissolved parliament; created a “National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country”; suspended the constitution; and closed the country’s borders.

Niger, like most of its neighbours in the Sahel – the vast continent-spanning drying swathe of land south of the Sahara – has been fighting against Islamist insurgencies for most of the last decade, as the region has transformed into the global epicentre of jihadist violence.

Unlike most of them, however, it has not repudiated the help of French and American forces. In fact, both maintain a significant presence in Niger, with over 1,000 troops each; America even operates two drone bases there.

The putschists justified their actions with the preposterous claim that Mr Bazoum’s government was losing control of the country’s security.

This was silly because, of all similarly-afflicted Sahelian countries, Niger has had the strongest grip on its security lately, with the lowest number of jihadist-linked deaths, as well as the most durable ceasefires. Besides, the security situation in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, where military leaders also overthrew civilian governments, has become much worse, indicating that military rule is not the solution to jihadism.

The real reason for the putsch is more banal. President Bazoum, it turns out, was apparently planning to sack General Tchiani, following an escalating personal feud between them. Tchiani has been implicated in a previous unsuccessful coup attempt, against Mr Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou. He managed to shake off suspicions and remain in Mr Issoufou’s good books. It’s possible that Mr Bazoum had finally seen through his duplicity and was keen to get rid of him.

Before the coup, Niger was on a promising democratic trajectory. Mr Bazoum was the first to peacefully take over from another elected leader when, after winning the 2020 elections, he succeeded Issoufou to the presidency in 2021. Though the country has experienced several coups since independence from France in 1960, it has made great strides towards democracy and stable civilian rule in the last decade.

And stability has been very good to Niger. Its economy has been growing at a good clip, and was projected to accelerate in the near future, rising by up to 12 percent in 2024, according to the African Development Bank. Moreover, as its neighbours devolved into economically-stunted military dictatorships and fell into Russia’s orbit, Niger remained firmly in the good graces of Western countries, which have supplied it with considerable amounts of humanitarian and development aid.

The country needs these benefits. 


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Though it only has 24 million people right now, it also has the world’s highest birth-rate, with an average of seven children per woman. It is also the third poorest, by nominal per capita GDP. Literacy, maternal and infant mortality, along with all other indicators of well-being are also rock-bottom, though they had started to look up. Its economy will need to continue expanding rapidly to keep up with the population; otherwise, its demography might prove fatal.

Unfortunately, with the coup, the military leaders are threatening to not only bring these gains to an abrupt end. This is why they must not be allowed to succeed.

However, while a lot of news coverage has centred on the reactions of Niger’s Western allies, which have all condemned the coup, expressed their support for Mr Bazoum’s government, and are starting to evacuate their citizens, I think this story is much better told through an African lens.

This is important because Western countries, especially France, haven’t done their standing any favours in the region. Their decades-long mishandling of their colonial legacy has radicalised many locals against them, creating room for countries like Russia, whose autocratic model hardly befits the continent, to cast themselves as legitimate alternative partners to African countries.

Indeed, following the coup in Niger, some pro-coup protestors took to the streets waving Russian flags, even though there was no indication that Russia had anything to do with the putsch. What’s more, though this is certainly speculative, it is possible that the coup leaders themselves drew some of their confidence from the possibility of clinching Russian support (Russia, to its credit, condemned the coup.)

Very few Africans want to see more Western meddling. So, even though they have skin in the game, both France and the United States, along with the rest of the West, must be very tactful in how they handle this crisis. To retain the support of the Nigerien populace, and that of the rest of the region, they will have to limit their involvement to the bare minimum needed to safeguard their interests.

Niger’s neighbours, and the rest of Africa, however, can afford to be much more brazen. A native resistance to the coup is bound, by definition, to be much more legitimate than a foreign-led one. Africans must not, as the saying goes, let this crisis go to waste. Now is as good a time as any we will ever have for the continent to rally behind democracy and the rule of law.

And, thankfully, African countries have shown up spectacularly this time. Most of them have sternly condemned the coup, with Kenya’s President, William Ruto, proclaiming, “Africa has suffered a serious setback.” Almost unanimously, they have called for the restoration of the democratic government of Mr Bazoum (who, importantly, is also yet to resign).

Backing this up, the regional economic block, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), after a crisis summit on Sunday, July 30, issued a stern warning to the Nigerien junta, demanding that they undo the coup and return power to Mr Bazoum within a week, or risk an invasion. It also imposed a slate of sanctions against the leaders and established a no-fly zone over the country.

The ball is now in the court of General Tchiani and his pals. Despite their bluster about defending the homeland, and absurd murmurs of support from the emaciated juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, analysis shows they can’t hold up for long against a full-scale ECOWAS invasion. Their goose is cooked. Now is the time to negotiate for safe passage into exile, which ECOWAS is unlikely to deny, and return to Nigeriens the government they chose.

It is the right thing to do.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image credit: the leaders of Niger's coup / screenshot CBC News

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