Opinion

The new strongmen of the Sahel, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu 

In July 2013, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then Egypt’s army chief, sacked his benefactor and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, President Mohammed Morsi, in a military coup, installed himself as military ruler of the country and suspended the country’s constitution. 11 months later, at the end of May 2014, the General proclaimed himself the elected ruler of Egypt, winning 93% of the votes in an election with a pre-determined outcome in which he was the only candidate with any chance of being declared winner.

 

The African Union, which had previously decided that coup plotters should not use the benefit of their incumbency to confer democratic legitimacy on themselves, quickly embraced General Sisi, even making him Chair of their Assembly of Heads of State and Government in his first term four years later.

 

In the decade since the overthrow of President Morsi until the beginning of this year, the continent has witnessed at least 21 attempts by the military to take over power in various countries, of which at least eight were successful. The successful military coups began with the overthrow of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2017. Guinea has witnessed one such coup while Sudan, Mali, and Burkina Faso have seen two each.

 

Since 1950, 45% of coups and attempted coups worldwide have occurred in Africa. Since 2013, 62.5% of successful coups on the continent have been in West Africa. In October 2021, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, described this trend as “an epidemic of coups.”

 

But not all the coups in Africa have been by the military. The continent’s count of coups now also must include the overthrow of constitutions by civilian rulers elected under them. Take Guinea (Conakry), for instance, where former President, Alpha Conde, who was term limited, decided to make himself life president. In April 2020, he organized a civilian coup in the form of a violent referendum in which scores were killed, manufactured entirely with the pre-determined outcome of enabling him transform his expired presidential tenure into a life presidency.

 

All this happened with the blessing of Africa’s regional institutions, including the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, who first gave a clean bill of health to the referendum and then certified the pre-determined election that followed in October 2020 as kosher, even before the results were announced.

 

When longtime strongman and president of Chad, Idris Deby Itno, was killed by rebels in April 2021, the military in Ndjamena took the opportunity to topple the constitution and install his son, a General, as new president. The African Union whose executive arm is headed by a loyal acolyte of the Deby military-political family in Chad, took it upon itself to invent a justification for the coup in Chad, claiming that it was necessitated by a security imperative imposed by an attack by “foreign mercenaries”. The AU did not see fit to extend the same rationale to Burkina Faso, whom it suspended at the beginning of February 2022 after a coup, despite the fact that the country had been under prolonged assault by foreign jihadists.

 

Over the years, therefore, the continent’s regional institutions, including ECOWAS and the AU, have shown a marked lack of fidelity to the principles of democratic governance. Despite a much touted prohibition against coups, they have developed an unhealthy habit of certifying crooked elections and legitimizing indefinite presidential tenure. This makes it impossible to take them seriously when they condemn military coups. By the time, for instance, the military overthrew Alpha Conde in September 2021, both the AU and ECOWAS had long sacrificed their ability to condemn the coup with any credibility or authority.

 

Almost exactly on the decade-long anniversary of General Sisi’s coup in Egypt, presidential guards in Niamey, the capital of Niger Republic, sacked the government of President Mohamed Bazoum in a palace coup, bringing to an end, the country’s tortured experiment in elective government which began in 2000. It was Niger’s fifth successful coup in 50 years, an average of one every decade. Two weeks before this coup, on 12 July, the AU launched the Africa Governance Report, 2023 with a focus, ironically, on coups in Africa.

 

General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who has now been announced as Niger’s latest strongman, was supposed to be in charge of protecting the man whom he has overthrown. His reasons for leading the coup reprises a familiar litany by the region’s putschists, at the top of which is rising insecurity. Al Jazeera has rightly described this as the “go to reason” for all recent coup plotters in Africa’s Sahel. The military takeover in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali, justified on similar grounds, have made no significant dent on the Islamist violence and tide of insecurity in both countries. The outcome is unlikely to be different in Niger.

 

The installation of soldiers as the new rulers in Niamey consummates a takeover of the Sahel – from the Atlantic Coast in Conakry to the Gulf in Port Sudan – by military strongmen. It is the latest in a blowback against the international strategy of securitizing responses to stability and migration in North Africa through support for convenient authoritarianism in the Sahelian corridor. Ironically, the biggest loser in this turn of events, has been France, which has done the most in evolving, supporting, and promoting this strategy.

 

Six weeks before the coup in Niamey, the European Union on 8 June announced military assistance “worth €4.7 million to support the Nigerien Armed Forces with military equipment designed to deliver lethal force in full respect of relevant international law.” According to the EU, “the assistance measure will strengthen the operational capacities of the Nigerien Armed Forces by facilitating the mobility, presence and security of the land forces in the most insecure areas of Niger.” It is uncertain whether any of the equipment delivered under this programme of assistance was deployed in this coup. However, the symbolisms are at best wretched and it is difficult for the EU to escape the imputations that must flow from the optics.

 

The international response to the events in Niamey, meanwhile, has been somewhat confusing. ECOWAS, led by Nigeria, has been vociferous in its condemnation and has scheduled an extraordinary summit in Abuja on Sunday, 30 July, (as this column goes to press) to deliberate on the situation. For its part, the Peace and Security Council of the AU in a communique on 28 July frowned at the “alarming resurgence of military coups” and asked Niger’s military “to immediately and unconditionally return to the barracks.”

 

Around the region, however, many question the authority of both institutions on this subject matter, holding them complicit for a series of squalid elections around the continent and for the rich supply of members of the AU’s rulers who lack any credibility on the subject matter of upholding democratic legitimacy.

 

Beneath an appearance of unanimity in condemnation of the coup in Niamey from around the world, however, there lurk a significant divergence in the details. France, for instance, has announced that it will decline recognition to the new strongmen in Niamey. By contrast, the United Nations – which has still not found time on its agenda for the war in Sudan – has asked them for an “immediate and unconditional” release of deposed president, Bazoum, implying limited recognition of sorts. The United States has made a similar demand.

 

When they meet on 30 July in Abuja, Heads of State of the ECOWAS are likely to announce a familiar menu of measures, including suspension of Niger from the Community, likely to be followed shortly thereafter by similar measures by the African Union. In 20 years, the African Union has implemented such measures in at least 14 member countries. That has not stemmed the rising attraction of coups on the continent.

 

If anything, there is recent evidence that Africans in many countries are increasingly open to the return of military rule under certain conditions. This is a tragic turn of events. The continent can still stem this tide but, to do that, Africa’s institutions can no longer afford to certify crooked elections or approbate presidents who manufacture ways to stay in power until the day after eternity. What is good against the soldiers must be good also for their civilian wannabes.

 

*A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu

 

 

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