Ballot to jackboot: Resurgence of military juntas in W’Africa

By Stephen Angbulu

The unsettling resurgence of coups in West Africa is setting the region back by decades, STEPHEN ANGBULU examines the factors responsible for this

Decades after independence, West African countries are returning to the era of rampant coup d’états that characterised the 1960s and 1970s.

This is as many countries in the region continue to be plagued by legacies of years of war and socio-political issues. Also, there has been significant erosion in the trust level of citizens as leaders continue to fail in addressing pressing developmental needs, leaving millions of Africans in multi-dimensionally poor.

This has led to the toppling of many democratically elected presidents in the region by the military, which often promise better governance but fail to deliver.

On July 26, 2023, the Presidential Guards overthrew the administration of Niger’s President Mohamad Bazoum.

Addressing the country in a broadcast, Col. Amadou Abdramane, flanked by nine other uniformed personnel, announced, “The defence and security forces have decided to put an end to the regime, you know. This follows the continuing deterioration of the security situation, poor economic and social governance.”

After Abdramane’s announcement, the head of Niger’s Presidential Guards, Abdourahamane Tchiani, named himself the head of a transitional government, promising a catastrophic outcome to any external attempt to restore Bazoum by force.

Niger is not a stranger to coups, Bazoum’s ouster came barely two years after a democratic transition of power.

Niger now joins Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso as West African countries that have recorded coups in the last three years.

A history of coups

According to the African Development Bank, Africa has experienced about 240 coups and attempted coups since 1960, with 153 of these occurring in West Africa.

In a 2012 study, published in its Chief Economist Complex, the AfDB revealed that “there was a coup attempt every 55 days in the 1960s and 1970s, and over 90 per cent of African states had a coup experience.”

A 2014 study by a professor of Political Science at Bingham University, Nigeria, Gani Yoroms, revealed that in each decade between 1958 and 2008, West Africa, was labelled a coup-belt and recorded 44.4 per cent of coups on the continent.

The number has dropped, although, since 2019, the region has maintained an average of two coups per year.

ECOWAS kicks

Following the success of the coup in Niger, the Economic Community of West African States, led by Nigeria’s President, Bola Tinubu, kicked against the attack on democracy.

At an extraordinary meeting in Abuja on Sunday, ECOWAS announced sanctions and gave Tchiani seven days to restore Bazoum to office or risk military action.

While recognising Bazoum as the legitimate president, the regional bloc stated its resolution to explore every measure necessary to restore democratic governance in Niger. This, they said, included the use of force.

The President of the ECOWAS Commission, Omar Touray, while reading a communiqué at the end of the extraordinary summit, said, “Such measures may include the use of force. To this effect, the Chiefs of Defence Staff of ECOWAS are to meet immediately.”

ECOWAS leaders also condemned the illegal detention of Bazoum and members of his family and government.

Since assuming the chairmanship of ECOWAS on July 9, Nigeria’s president, Tinubu, has stated that the bloc will not tolerate any attempt by any military to topple any democratic government.

He said, “We didn’t give our soldiers resources, we didn’t invest in them, in their boots, in their training to violate the freedom of the people. To turn their guns against civil authorities is a violation of the principles upon which they were hired to defend the sovereignty of their nations.”

While his tenure coincides with a dark season where four West African states—Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger—are under military rules, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia have had attempted coups. Experts have remained divided about the state of democracies in the region.

A lecturer in International Relations at Curtin University, Australia, Dr Muhammad Dan Suleiman, argued that despite some developments, African democracies could be described as taking one step forward, followed by two back.

Poor governance

According to a former Nigerian Ambassador to Singapore, Ogbole Amedu-Ode, coups in the region are caused by a combination of poor governance, tenure elongations and the changing dynamics of global politics.

He told The PUNCH, “Most democratic governments in Africa do not deliver on what is popularly known as the dividends of democracy. And the first of these is security for the human person in each political community or country. We’ve seen a downward trend in the security situation in West Africa.

“Now, when you add poor governance to a desire to extend tenure in office legally by a constitutional amendment that lacks legitimacy—where legitimacy is defined as the support of the people—then you have a dangerous situation. And this is what leads to these kaki boys coming in.”

He added that the coups would only end when the region comes of age in governance and when leaders can hold each other accountable.

Calls for dialogue

On his part, a former Nigerian High Commissioner in Botswana, Okubotin Cocodia, said military intervention in Niger would be catastrophic. He advised that ECOWAS should negotiate.

He stated, “I don’t think there should be military intervention. Some other countries are under military rule. How much has military intervention helped in the past? It should be negotiations, moral suasion.”

In an interview with The PUNCH, Brig. Gen. Bashir Adewinbi (retd.) said even though ECOWAS possessed the might to sack the junta, dialogue was a more excellent route.

“The issue of whether that is possible or not should not arise. Singlehandedly, Nigeria was in Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan, among others, for similar issues. So, it is doable if the security council of ECOWAS deems it fit to wage war against any country. I do not doubt their ability. But dialogue should still be explored,” he stated.

According to Brigadier General Sura John (retd.), the widespread acceptance that coup perpetrators enjoy from the Niger citizens could frustrate any military incursion.

John said, “This should be seen from two perspectives, the possibility of troops going into a foreign land without having adequate knowledge of the land and the strongholds and how to move around would be an issue.

“Secondly, because the troops would be coming from different countries within ECOWAS, there might be a problem with the language barrier, which could hinder their cohabitation on the field. Another problem is the popularity and acceptance of the military junta amongst the Nigerien people, as we have seen some people stoning politicians. And without the cooperation of the citizens, it’ll be difficult to dislodge the junta.

“Also, from the propaganda that’s being spread concerning the legitimacy of the chairman of the ECOWAS, the military junta’s propagandists are questioning the legitimacy of the presidency of the ECOWAS Chairman in his country because the election tribunal is still ongoing.”

Also, a retired Brig. Gen., who wanted to remain anonymous, argued that the ECOWAS could not set up a standby force in Niger Republic. He cited the ECOWAS Charter which stated that only a sitting president can call for one.

He said, “It is not easy to bring in stand-by forces like it was done in Sierra Leone. People are smarter now. There are a lot of things that must be put in place, which include the insurance of these troops and no country would want their soldiers to go and die in another country.

“It is not as easy as you think. Do not forget that there must be a sitting government that has called them in to come and intervene on their behalf. You don’t just enter a sovereign state like that.

“They should find a way of handing over peacefully. Don’t forget that there are other belligerents in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, among others.”

Meanwhile, Colonel Foluso Saka (retd.) advised that ECOWAS should continue to dialogue with the military junta in the country. He said economic sanction could be deployed should dialogue fails.

He said, “Engaging the military junta in the Niger Republic should be the last option considering the attendant damages. I believe ECOWAS should still dialogue with them and make them see a reason to allow democracy to thrive in the country.

“There could be economic sanctions on the country. We are close to them. We might also feel the effect if the war becomes full-blown. Waging war against them is not the best option for me.”

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