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Why ex-French colonies in Africa seem beset by coups – DW – 08/15/2023

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Political instability in West Africa’s former French colonies has seen a blight of military takeovers. Since 2020, anti-French sentiments seem to have, or at least contributed to, triggering coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and most recently Niger.

Senegalese human rights lawyer, Ibrahima Kane, of the Open Society Foundation, told DW that sentiments seeking a break-away from perceived French influence are real.

“The perception that the French have about our citizens has never changed. They always consider us second-class citizens. They always treat Africans, particularly Francophone Africans, in a certain way. And West Africa, particularly Francophone Africa, wants that situation to change,” he said.

But African affairs analyst, Emmanuel Bensah, who specializes on regional bloc ECOWAS, told DW that anti-colonial sentiments do not fully explain recent coups in the region. 

“There has been a colonial issue with the French and British in West Africa. But that has not meant that each of the member states are taking up to arms with soldiers. You will see the Anglophone countries haven’t picked up arms and yet we are in the same sub-region,” he said.

Niger coup backers rally outside French base

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Losing hope in democracy

Unlike Anglophone Africa, which currently has a comparatively stable political climate, Western-style democracy has not gained solid footing in Francophone West Africa.

“There is a feeling in Francophone African countries that the French always sided with the people in power, regardless of whether they were popular. There is always a very strong connection between France and the government who, in many situations, are not very friendly with their own population,” he said.

“And even in cases where the government is always fighting with its population, France sided with the government. And that perception is very, very high. And they always see the French as the oppressor, or as the friend of the oppressor.”

The same anger is being directed at France-supported, democratically elected governments providing an enabling environment for military interventions, Kane stressed.

In Niger, thousands rallied to support the military junta that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum, echoing discontent for democratically-elected governments.

Nigerian governance analyst, Ovigwe Eguegu, says elected leaders in former French colonies have done very little to improve the living conditions of citizens.

“[They] just focused on the political process…. forgetting that this political process does not really provide the substantive benefits to the citizenry. And that’s why you have these populist coups. These are populist coups, we have to be frank,” he told DW.

Niger’s new prime minister: ‘Why should we be worried?’

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Bad governance

For Eguegu, if people do not see the benefits of a democratically elected government, then there would be very little support for them in times of crisis.

“Why should they just engage in the exercise of voting and nothing changes? For them, the [coups] are seen as a way to shock the system to see if that could lead to a much better outcome,” he said, although Eguegu conceded that military leadership has rarely improved the situation.

“Over and over again, [coups] have proven to not be the solution. As a region, the leaders need to sit down and ask themselves why people are suddenly not so much invested in democratic process.”

Bram Posthumus, an independent journalist reporting on West Africa, puts it more directly: 

“One of the things these coups in succession demonstrate is the quite clear notion that the experiment with Western-style democracy in the Sahel, at least, has been a complete failure,” he told DW.

But in some instances infighting among the ruling political class has triggered these coups. Days before his overthrow, Niger’s ousted president Bazoum was reportedly planning to sack the current coup leader.

Disagreements between soldiers in Burkina Faso triggered a second coup after the military ousted President Roch Kabore in a 2022 coup. 

“A lot of them, if not all of them, were actually the result of personal differences between either a sitting president and the current leader of the junta or indeed members of the military and members of the political class. Niger is a wonderful example,” Posthumus said.

Endemic poverty

Some experts have also blamed the recent coups on the endemic poverty in many former French colonies.

It was only in 2020 that the much-awaited bill to ratify the end of the CFA franc, a West African currency controlled by the French treasury, was adopted by the French Council of Ministers. It has taken 75 years for that to happen.

France has been accused of exploiting natural resources of these countries while struggling to address the daily economic problems of citizens.

Posthumus said with such growing frustrations, citizens often lose trust and patience for democratic processes.

“Democracy didn’t address any of the basic problems people had, be it violence, be it poverty and lack of economic opportunity. And these juntas are very adept at making people believe that they will solve these problems. They will not. Let’s be very clear about this. But the narrative works because democracy, in this way, exercise has been a complete failure,” he said.

AfricaLink on Air — 11 August 2023

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Ineffective civil society and media

Bensah’s concern though is that Francophone Africa is yet to fully develop resilient governance systems or structures and institutions to effectively resolve their developmental challenges. 

“If you look at the countries Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, with each of them, no matter how poor they may be, there’s a civil society actively working on the ground together with a vibrant media that seeks to hold at least the duty bearers accountable,” he said. 

“There’s a lot of reliance on the duty bearers and the policy makers [in Francophone Africa]. Yes, there’s media but civil society is not as vibrant.”

Bensah said whereas Anglophone Africa was making tremendous advances in amplifying different voices, which is lacking in Francophone Africa.

“The challenge has always been because, for the longest time, a lot of things were dictated by France, that did not allow for room for local civil society to grow,” he said.

Insecurity in the Sahel

The continued deterioration of security in most former French colonies in Africa has also fueled recent coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Mali. The Sahel region has been engulfed with all kinds of insurgencies since 2012, starting in Mali.

It spread to Burkina Faso and Niger in 2015 and now states on the Gulf of Guinea are suffering sporadic attacks.

According to the United Nations, the rising insecurity in the Sahel poses a “global threat” as the humanitarian situation there worsens with thousands of people fleeing the violence.

Mali Unruhen Soldaten
European troops have been present in the Sahel for year, but have struggled to contain lawlessness in MaliImage: Sebastien Rieussec/Hans Lucas/IMAGO

Western countries, including France, have unsuccessfully tried to address insecurity in the region. In Mali and Burkina Faso, their military missions have been asked to leave. 

ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is under pressure to stem the tide of coups. But its response has normally involved imposing sanctions.

Reforming ECOWAS

The bloc’s recent decision to activate a standby force for a potential military intervention in Niger has divided regional governments and is problematic for analysts like Eguegu.

“ECOWAS would need to actually redesign its playbook when it comes to dealing with unconstitutional change in government. I think the circumstances around each country determines whether there will be an intervention or not but overall, the bloc would need to put emphasis on why there are coups in the first place.”

Bensah said the bloc should rather help former French colonies strengthen their democratic institutions.

“They [Francophone West Africa] need to identify which civil society organizations they need to start talking to and then invite them to start building the capacity,” he said.

“If we want to build an echo of the people, then we need to do it at the civil society level as well, where there’s a community of practice of civil society across the region who are learning from each other, and then using best practice to improve the lives of the people on the ground.”

Explainer: What is the ECOWAS?

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