The coup d’etat in Niger in July 2023 marked the sixth successful change of government in two years in the Sahel, the swathe of territory just south of North Africa. The coup also meant that the entire space from Sudan in the east to Burkina Faso in the west, a distance of over 5,600 km, is now under military rule; this has been described by Declan Walsh in The New York Times as “the longest corridor of military rule on Earth”.
Each coup emerged from certain local and specific impulses, but the pattern has been similar: an announcement on state media by uniformed personnel of a military takeover followed by the detention of the former head of state, the dissolution of the National Assembly, and the suspension of the constitution.
The recent spate of coups in the Sahel began with Chad in April 2021; here, the armed forces took control after Idriss Deby, the country’s long-standing President, was killed in fighting with rebel groups. Immediately following the President’s death, his son Mahamat Deby, backed by the military, took over the government in violation of the constitution.
There were two coups in Mali: the first in August 2020 when a group of colonels replaced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after public protests over increasing insecurity, rigged elections, and rampant corruption. Then, in 2021 the Vice President, Assimi Goita, installed in the earlier coup took over the country as the interim head of state.
The situation in Sudan is more complex: in 2019, the armed forces overthrew President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled for over three decades. The generals agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s pro-democracy movement as part of a transition to full democracy.
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However, in October 2021, the army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, supported by the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, got rid of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet and became President. In March 2023, the army chief and the militia head fell out and plunged Sudan into a destructive civil conflict in which thousands have been killed and several million have been displaced.
Two other coups followed in quick succession: in Burkina Faso in January 2022 and inNiger in July 2023. The coup in Gabon, outside the Sahel in Central Africa, in August 2023, was a “palace coup”, a change of President within the ruling clan.
In Burkina Faso, first the President was removed by the army for failing to protect the country from Islamic militants; his successor was then deposed in September 2022 by Captain Ibrahim Traore, who at 34 years became the youngest head of state in the world. After expelling French troops in February 2023, the coup leaders, fearing external attacks, mobilised volunteers for “The Defence of the Homeland”, reached out to Iran, and received a Russian military delegation.
In Niger, the coup removed the democratically elected President, Mohamed Bazoum, who enjoyed close ties with France and the US. The coup leaders blamed him for natural resource supply deals with France that had been lucrative for French importers and demanded the withdrawal of the French ambassador and French troops stationed in the country. After the initial tough posturing, France recalled its ambassador and began the withdrawal of its soldiers. By the end of December, the last French soldier had left Niger.
Africa’s political culture
The commentators Melvis Ndiloseh and Alexander Hudson said in International IDEA, an intergovernmental organisation that supports democracy worldwide, that the recent coups in the Sahel were a “new model of coup” in that they were led by young military officers, were less violent, and in most cases enjoyed considerable public support. With the exception of Sudan, the coup leaders were between 34 and 41 years old, and the coups were generally bloodless; the displaced incumbents or their supporters were not killed. The coup in Mali in 2020 apparently enjoyed the support of 82 per cent of the people, while sanctions imposed on the country after the 2021 coup increased popular support for the coup leaders.
African states have been prone to coups for several decades: between 1950 and 2022, of the 242 successful coups globally, 106 (44 per cent) were in Africa. Observers noted that at least 45 of the 54 states in Africa have experienced at least one coup attempt since 1950. Nearly 80 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa now lives in countries whose regimes have been classified as “electoral autocracies”, that is, countries where elections cannot be described as free and fair.
In fact, after a brief period in the 1990s and early 2000s when democracy was seen as spreading across the continent, there has been a steady downward trend in political conditions. Over the past five years, one-third of Africa’s population lives in countries where enjoyment of rights and political participation have deteriorated.
In the absence of an honest electoral system, the periodic recourse to elections by incumbent authoritarian leaders has in fact served to discredit the democratic process. With prominent opposition figures removed forcibly from the electoral process and election commissions of doubtful integrity set up by incumbent leaders, the populace is compelled to participate in what has been called “choiceless” democracy. Hence, people have largely welcomed the removal of long-standing rulers by the armed forces because they see the call for elections by external organisations and governments as attempts to reinstate authoritarian rule.
In order to explain the frequent coups d’etat in Africa, in a recent paper titled “The Domino Effect of Libya’s Collapse: Masked Scripts of African Coups”, the distinguished academic Costantinos Berhutesfa Costantinos argued that for over two millennia the African state “has exhibited an enhanced degree of coercive power, resulting in a pervasive military ethos” and leading to what he called “self-labelled military oligarchies”. This political culture, nurtured over the centuries, he argued, has prevented the development of a democratic ethos across the continent; instead, what has emerged as the central influences in African polities are ethnicity and the assertion of narrow group rights that have led to “political partisanship and deadly internal strife”.
This argument has a superficial allure but, on reflection, is not convincing. Surely, political evolution in Africa has not been particularly different from historical developments in Asia and Latin America, which have also experienced elite military hierarchies, the primacy of group identities, as also the painful and destructive experience of colonial rule; despite this, large parts of the latter regions have thrown up successful democratic systems. The explanation for Africa’s fixation with coups d’etat has to be sought elsewhere.
Wellsprings of instability
Most African states have a fragile state order defined by poor governance, weak institutions, and deep economic inequalities even in states that are well endowed with natural resources. As Costantinos noted , this has made them particularly vulnerable to “the forces of lawlessness, mercenaries, petty arms traders, narco-traffickers and smugglers”, whose activities have encouraged domestic and regional conflicts; state-sponsored plunder of colonialism, Costantinos has said, “has been replaced by the privatisation of plunder and exploitation”.
The principal beneficiaries of this weak state order have been the authoritarian rulers who have remained in power through deeply flawed electoral systems and have enjoyed the backing of a kleptocratic elite that has also benefited from the same flawed electoral system to retain political influence and enjoy returns from the plunder of state resources. The state order, albeit weak, is also violent in the face of challenges to the ruling authority, which views itself, as an observer notes, “as a hammer and any problem at all, a nail”.
In recent years, the fragile state order and the absence of good governance have also encouraged the proliferation of transnational extremist groups that benefit from the free availability of weapons to carve out their own territorial spaces where the writ of the central authority does not run.
The long-standing authoritarian rulers also enjoy the support of external powers—in the Sahel, it has been France, the former colonial state, that has been the principal influence behind regional thrones. They are backed by French political and military support, and French corporations have enjoyed privileged access to regional natural resources and obtained the best national development and defence contracts from incumbent rulers. The French military presence has also helped keep tyrants in power and leads the fight against domestic dissidents and extremist groups that threaten the ruler or country.
In recent years, the US has expanded its political and military presence in different parts of Africa to combat extremist groups and confront the challenges posed by the proliferating presence of Russia. The US’ focus has largely been on promoting its security interests rather than strengthening the countries’ democratic governance structures, civil societies, and economies; their fragility, as Robbie Gramer noted in Foreign Policy, has in fact encouraged the rise of extremist groups. As an observer has pointed out: “Partnerships and military assistance with illiberal undemocratic countries have delivered little, if any, sustainable security improvements; and, in many cases have prompted further instability and violence by building the capacity of abusive security forces.”
It is from these wellsprings that a new military leadership has emerged in the Sahel to lead coups to unseat discredited rulers. They promise a “second scramble for independence” based on providing real freedom from domestic tyranny and external control. Ironically, many of the officers who led the recent coups are US-trained: 15 such officers were involved in 12 coups during the so-called “war on terror” in Africa. These include the recent coups in Burkina Faso (2022), Chad (2021), Guinea (2021), Mali (2020 and 2021), and Niger (2023).
Besides benefiting from US training, coup leaders have also honed their military experience by participating in UN peace missions. Thus, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who led the coup in Niger, had served in UN missions in Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. As Jamie Levin and Nathan Allen pointed out in Foreign Policy, with Western countries increasingly shying away from UN peacekeeping missions, peacekeepers are coming from African nations such as Niger, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda.
Observers believe these peacekeeping missions can have the effect of encouraging authoritarian rule by helping build stronger armed forces. Niger, for instance, is contributing over a thousand troops to peacekeeping missions, even as the US has spent $500 million in the last 10 years on training and enhanced military capability for Niger’s armed forces.
Two recent developments have further complicated the regional security scenario. One, the rulers’ propensity to outsource national security to foreign security organisations, the most important of which is the Russian Wagner Group. Made up of several thousand mainly Russian fighters, as also mercenaries from Syria, Serbia, and Lebanon, Wagner is active in Libya and Sudan and has expanded its presence in Mali, Chad, and Niger.
The other development has been the active involvement of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the politics (and feuds) of countries in North Africa and the Sahel, often in association with Wagner. The two Gulf states have shaped the politics of regional states to suit their interest, which is to combat political Islam as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. In association with Wagner, they have actively intervened politically and militarily in different countries to back one faction against another, thus exacerbating local conflicts and promoting regional instability.
The US views the Wagner Group as the instrument of Russian interests and has organised itself to push back against expanding Russian influence in different parts of Africa. Thus, in addition to the already serious issues that have made the continent insecure and unstable, several African states are now becoming arenas of big power competition, with the attendant inflow of weaponry and resources.
The roots of instability
These aspects of the African imbroglio are examined as follows. In 2011, domestic opposition and Western military intervention ended the three-decade-old Gaddafi regime in Libya. Since then, the country has been awash with hundreds of well-armed militant groups that have established enclaves across the country. The country is governed by two administrations, one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk, that are in competition with each other. While Tripoli (with an avowed Islamist affiliation) has the backing of Qatar and Türkiye, Tobruk is supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which are closely associated with the Wagner Group.
Libya’s political fragility and military stalemate have encouraged militants, many linked to extremist groups, to spread across the Sahel and wreak havoc in Mali and Chad. Chad’s long-time ruler, Idriss Deby, was killed in 2021 while fighting rebels who had crossed over from Libya, leading to a military takeover headed by his son Mahamat Deby.
Recent developments in Sudan have made the regional scenario even more murky. After subverting the country’s nascent democratic process in October 2021, the two generals, al-Burhan and Dagalo, consolidated their authority with the support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. But, inevitably, they fell out, and from March 2023, each mobilised his own forces to take exclusive control of the country.
While al-Burhan enjoys Saudi and Egyptian support, Dagalo is supported by the UAE and the Wagner Group. Al-Burhan represents the conventional military leader who promises national unity, governance, and economic development but who delivers, according to Gashaw Ayferam in his Carnegie comment, “a culture of rent-seeking, cronyism, kleptocracy, and commodification of public office for personal gain”. The armed forces in Sudan also dominate the corporate sector, controlling about 250 companies in defence, banking, gold and rubber mining, and agricultural production.
Dagalo is the disruptive, destructive militant who bases his support on ethnic affiliation, harsh actions against enemies, and control over gold mines and smuggling routes that fund his militia and enrich him personally. In Foreign Policy, the distinguished commentator Alex de Waal, described the RSF as “an employment bureau, a protection racket, and a commercial conglomerate”.
Earlier, Dagalo had inveigled himself into the UAE’s good books by providing his militants to fight in Yemen against the Houthis. Dagalo is now a valued ally in the UAE’s regional game plan. Besides combatting political Islam, the UAE is pursuing significant geopolitical interests in the region: it controls numerous ports and islands in South Yemen, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Horn of Africa. Some months before the present conflict in Sudan, the UAE had contracted for a $6 billion project on the Red Sea in east Sudan that would include a new port, an airport, and a road to the rich agricultural area in north Sudan.
The UAE and Wagner’s backing has also expanded the Sudan conflict to neighbouring countries. Walsh has written in The New York Times that the UAE has set up an airfield in a remote part of Chad to airlift anti-tank missiles provided by Wagner to Dagalo, while surface-to-air missiles have been shipped from the Central African Republic and have deprived al-Burhan’s army of air superiority. Walsh reported that the UAE obtained Chad’s support by providing a “loan” of $1.5 billion to its President, Mahamat Deby.
The greatest harm that Dagalo has done in the region is to revive ethnic killings in Darfur. According to several reports, the RSF, backed by local Arab militia, has been attacking the non-Arab population in Darfur, the region where Dagalo perpetrated atrocities in the earlier fighting from 2003 to 2011. De Waal has said that the RSF “is the true heir to the notorious Darfurian Arab militia known as the Janjaweed that perpetrated a genocide in the region two decades ago”.
Since April last year, several towns in Darfur have come under RSF control. There are fears that even if the army prevails in the rest of the country, it will be well-nigh impossible for it to regain control over Darfur. De Waal has called the RSF fighters a “looting machine” who, in every town they overrun, “go on rampage, killing hundreds of people, raping women, and burning and pillaging houses…. Residents who cannot escape are forced to become sex slaves or slave labourers.”
The unresolved political and military divide in Libya, the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan in neighbouring states, the savage fighting in Darfur, and the soft border between Chad and Sudan—all of these developments suggest that the military takeover in Sudan in 2021 and the ongoing conflict in the country have destabilised the Sahel and contributed to two coups, in Burkina Faso and Niger.
- The coup d’etat in Niger in July 2023 marked the sixth successful change of government in two years in the Sahel, the swathe of territory just south of North Africa.
- Commentators Melvis Ndiloseh and Alexander Hudson said the recent coups were a “new model of coup” in that they were led by young military officers, were less violent, and in most cases enjoyed considerable public support.
- The rulers’ propensity to outsource national security to foreign security organisations like the Russian Wagner Group has complicated regional security.
- Commentator Ebenezer Obadare said the “decolonial discourse”—the rejection of Western philosophies and frameworks and the view that the “West is essentially toxic”—is now central to African academic thinking, policymaking, and diplomacy.
The coup in Niger
The military takeover in Niger in July 2023 reflects several of the factors, discussed above, that have provided fertile soil for the armed forces to remove the incumbent President: the dislike of France as an imperialist power, the US’ focus on its own security interests instead of strengthening governance, and both powers backing a leader viewed across the country as a corrupt and tyrannical Western puppet. The coup is also seen as providing a platform for big power competition. Not surprisingly, commentators have referred to the coup’s “outsized global impact” (Carnegie), and the coup itself as “a turning point for Africans” and “the Sahel’s last straw” (Foreign Policy).
On July 26, 2023, President Mohamed Bazoum’s government was overthrown and he was placed under military detention. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demanded the President’s immediate release and restoration to power, and threatened military action. The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, whose leaders had come to power through recent coups of their own, stated that military intervention in Niger would lead to a joint military response from them. The ruling junta in Niger, headed by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, accused France of using its troops to destabilise the country and called for the removal of the French ambassador and troops.
Both France and the US are heavily invested in Niger. France had led the fight against extremist groups in the Sahel from 2013, with its role expanding across Mali and Burkina Faso, and later to Niger. However, as extremist violence continued unabated, there was increasing hostility towards France, which was seen as propping up unpopular regimes while failing to get rid of extremists. Rina Bassist has written in the news website Al-Monitor that Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have now formed an “anti-French alliance”; in December, their Foreign Ministers began work on shaping a confederation.
Bazoum, the ousted President, came to power in April 2021, the first civilian transfer of power in the country since 1960. He took over from Mahamadou Issoufou, under whom he had served as Interior and Foreign Minister. However, from the outset, his election was disputed. Bazoum was specifically chosen by his predecessor to succeed him; his path to power was eased by Issoufou arresting the main opposition candidate on trumped-up charges. When the election result was announced in February 2021 declaring Bazoum elected, there were widespread public demonstrations decrying the rigged election.
In power, Bazoum lost public confidence further by moving closer to France: the latter obtained a new military base in the country and, in late 2022, deployed a further 1,000 troops in the country, while providing the President with new grants of €70 million for food imports and development.
The US also made Niger its important ally in the Sahel. It set up a drone base at the Libyan border to monitor developments there, and another airbase for intelligence operations, while deploying 1,000 troops in the country. The US also made Niger the largest recipient in West Africa of State Department assistance, providing nearly half a billion dollars to support the Nigerien economy.
Both France and the US failed to see the Nigeriens’ increasing disenchantment with their President. Hannah Rae Armstrong, writing in Foreign Affairs, stated: “[F]or decades, France has used corrupt and sometimes even illegal practices to secure cheap access to Nigerien uranium for its nuclear power industry.” The expanding French military presence fuelled further popular dissatisfaction. Throughout 2022, public demonstrations demanded the departure of French soldiers. Bazoum, under pressure, removed his Army Chief of Staff and, just before the coup, was going to sack Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, who led the pre-emptive coup and quickly co-opted the armed forces as well.
While France and ECOWAS insisted on Bazoum’s restoration, the US took a more moderate stance: it refused to describe Bazoum’s ouster as a coup, which would end all US assistance, and called the situation a “crisis”. It sought the release of the President, not his reinstatement, thus accepting that he had been ousted. By end-September, France, too, moderated its position by agreeing to recall its ambassador and withdraw its troops, a serious setback for the former all-powerful colonial state.
The coup in Niger has led to some soul-searching among commentators. Ebenezer Obadare wrote in Foreign Affairs about the popular anger across the Sahel “at France’s continued sway over its former colonies”, as also about France’s counterterrorism policies that failed to control jehadi groups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. He recalled the numerous anti-France rallies across West Africa and attacks on French military convoys and even its embassies in Burkina Faso and Niger. These were in response to widespread perceptions of continuing French power and influence in its former colonies and its close ties with the ruling families.
The coup in Niger also drew attention to the US’ security-focussed approach to Africa. In a recent report, the former US diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford pointed out that “US policy in Africa has for too long prioritised short-term security to the detriment of long-term stability” by focussing on military and security assistance. Commentators have also discussed how, in support of its security agenda, the US provided military training to the very people who carried out coups d’etat against Western interests.
Big power competitions
The US now faces a new challenge in Africa: the expanding influence of Russia across the continent and its close ties with the leaders of recent coups d’etat in the Sahel. Russia has emphasised that, in the Sahel, it has a different approach from that of France and the US. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Niger coup, the then head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, exulted: “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers. With colonisers who are trying to foist their rules of life on [Nigeriens] and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago.”
That Prigozhin had read the Nigerien mood right was confirmed when the coup leaders stated: “Imperialist and neocolonialist forces are no longer welcome on our national territory. The new era of cooperation, based on mutual respect and sovereignty, is already underway.” Russia seeks to represent that “new era of cooperation”, heralded by Russian flags being waved enthusiastically on Nigerien streets after the coup.
Russia’s robust outreach to Africa started in 2014 when, following the annexation of Crimea, Western sanctions began to hit Russia and encouraged it to diversify its economic ties and broaden its geopolitical space. Senior Russian officials began to visit different African countries, signing economic, defence, and security agreements, while writing off billions of dollars in African debt. These engagements were institutionalised in the Russia-Africa summit, which met in 2019 and in July 2023.
Russia’s interaction with most African states has had a substantial security and defence content, largely through arms supplies: Russia is the largest weapons provider to Africa, meeting about 40 per cent of the continent’s imports. The 2023 Russia-Africa summit agreed to set up a permanent security mechanism to combat terrorism and extremism on the continent. This will fill the gap created by the French withdrawal from this sector after its failures against extremist groups in the Sahel.
Private military companies have been a vital part of Russia’s security engagement with Africa.The most important of them, the Wagner Group, has supported local leaders with armed protection, provided anti-insurgency operations and training, and run media campaigns to boost the standing of leaders. In return, Wagner has become largely self-sufficient by obtaining concessions for extractive industries, including gold, diamonds, and uranium. An American report estimated that in 2022 Wagner earned $2.5 billion from gold mined in Africa. Wagner has evolved organisationally through setting up networks of commercial entities and putting in place diverse business links, many of which are active in Africa.
Outlook for the Sahel
Recent reports suggest that, even without Prigozhin, Wagner will remain active in Africa in support of Russian interests. Its role is expected to be led by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, indicating a more direct role of the Russian government in managing its operations. In an article published in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in December 2023, Todd Prince said that a force called “Africa Corps” could replace the Wagner Group in Africa. He added there were strong indications that one could soon see an expanded Russian presence in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Both the US and France have responded to the Russian challenge by announcing new approaches to Africa in which priority will be given to political, economic, and social interactions, rather than security exchanges.
In February 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron toured four African states and announced a transformation of France’s ties with Africa with “a new, balanced, reciprocal, and responsible relationship” based on the expressed needs of the African partners. This would include reduced presence of military personnel and co-management of French military bases (except the one at Djibouti).
It is not clear how effective these new approaches will be given that for most African leaders regime security and national security have been priority concerns—areas where Wagner had traditionally scored over its Western counterparts. Wagner, for instance, offered attack helicopters and ammunition to Mali when France was reluctant to do so, largely due to concerns about increasing domestic violence and aggressive dissident movements.
Again, national security concerns are largely associated with attacks by extremist groups, which have proliferated due to weak central authority and low levels of governance, particularly in the outlying areas of different countries. According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, 48 per cent of all terrorism-related deaths worldwide have taken place in Africa, three of the top 10 countries being Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. All of them saw military coups recently and all of them are seeking a strong Wagner presence.
Finally, overt Western challenges are likely to be viewed in Africa as a revival of a “New Cold War” in which no African state wishes to take sides. Nor are there too many takers for the new approach from France and the US. As Mathieu Droin and Tina Dolbaia wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in August 2023: “Russia’s influence in Africa is here to stay. In fact, the Kremlin’s play book on the continent will most likely be recalibrated rather than overturned.”
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The African reluctance to accept at face value the new approaches from France and the US is perhaps symptomatic of a much deeper change in Africa. Ebenezer Obadare pointed out that France’s numerous military interventions in the region, as also major operations in the Central African Republic and Mali, were seen in Africa as “imperialism by another name”. He asserted that the “decolonial discourse”—the rejection of Western philosophies and frameworks and the view that the “West is essentially toxic”—is now central to African academic thinking, policymaking, and diplomacy.
Echoing this perspective, in the context of the Niger coup, the distinguished columnist Howard French noted in Foreign Policy that the role of foreign powers—the US, France, Russia, and China—has now become less immediately important in African affairs. He believes that, albeit haltingly, Africans are increasingly taking charge of their own futures: by defining their own approaches within their organisations (and setting up temporary coalitions) and developing their own initiatives, political and military, to serve their interests. Thus, while engagements with foreign powers will continue, the terms of the relationships will be set by African states themselves.
As Africans increasingly shape their own destinies, the coup in Niger could be the “turning point” for Africans that Howard French envisages, and the recent coups d’etat could provide the bases for a real “second scramble for independence” for the continent.
Talmiz Ahmad, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.