Democracy on the brink in Africa
16 Aug 2023|

The new military governments across Central and Western Africa enjoy a surprising strength of public support, according to research published by the United Nations Development Programme two weeks before the latest coup in Niger.

The UNDP had sought to understand what was driving the breakdown of democratic government in the region. Over the past three years, there have been military coups in Sudan, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and now Niger.

The research concluded that while the immediate trigger for a military takeover is usually particular to national political circumstances, the common ‘proximate’ causes include deteriorating domestic security and dissatisfaction with corruption and poor government.

Deeper structural causes include the weakness of democratic institutions, the historical strength of militaries and the failure of economic development to deliver improvements for the majority of the population.

‘Democracy is at an inflection point on the continent, confronted by its own shortcomings and incompleteness,’ the study warns.

The UNDP polled 5,000 people across Sudan, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea—all with recently installed military governments—and contrasted the results with a survey of 3,000 people in Ghana, Gambia and Tanzania, each of which has a democratically elected government.

Among the military-run nations, 47% thought the change of government would have a positive effect on the country, while 35% thought it would be negative. Among democratic governments, only 37% thought the latest election would bring positive results against 41% who thought it would be negative.

‘Time for change’ was cited as the most important reason for supporting a military takeover (44%). Other priorities were ‘better governance’ (15%) and ‘security’ (21%)’, the UNDP study reported.

In military-run governments, 49% said they were excited about their country’s future direction, compared with only 25% in democratic governments. The study notes that after shutting down the constitutionally established legislature, four of the five military regimes had established transitional councils that were, to some degree, reflective of the country’s diversity.

All engaged in some sort of dialogue with political and social stakeholders to build a degree of consensus around management of the transition. ‘Each has consciously invoked the spirit and message of previous revolutionary leaders to inspire a sense of historic opportunity and change among young supporters,’ the study says.

The UNDP cautions that the popular support could prove ephemeral, noting, for example, that the popular demonstrations in support of Guinea’s Colonel Mamady Doumbouya following his 2021 coup had turned into clashes between protestors and security forces a year later. Burkina Faso’s Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, who seized power in January 2022, was deposed by his own military colleagues after eight months.

The support for the military was stronger in Mali, Guinea and Chad than in Burkina Faso or Sudan, where a majority said the change of government has had a negative effect.

However, the findings undermine the notion that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, subscribed to not only by Western democratic evangelists but also by the Organization of African Unity and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The latter has threatened military intervention against Niger unless it restores the democratically elected Mohamed Bazoum to office.

Bazoum’s election in 2020 had been the first democratic transition of power in Niger since it gained independence from France in 1960, though democratically elected governments have become widespread across sub-Saharan Africa since 1990. Since 2011, 28% of all general elections in the region have resulted in an opposition victory.

However, the UNDP comments that formal democratic processes, such as the framing of constitutions and parliamentary elections, are often not matched by any real public accountability:

‘Elections have served as triggers for conflict as “zero-sum” political and identity politics fuse, and rivalries are readily instrumentalized by actors who harness factionalized discontent related to political, economic and/or social grievances. Perceptions of overly politicized electoral management bodies have also led to electoral results being contested. This, again, has morphed into widespread social protests in multiple countries. The capture of the electoral process by longstanding incumbent regimes is well documented.’

Governments in the Sahel region have been challenged by the rise of jihadist groups, which use violence against unarmed civilians as a tactic. The UNDP sees the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi in Libya in 2011 as the catalyst for this.

‘A “unique ecosystem” of forces (or what has also been termed a “security traffic jam”) has seen over 21,000 uniformed personnel deployed across the Sahel to address multiple and intersecting political, economic, security, humanitarian and environmental crises … [T]hese missions may have added to rising levels of regional violence and political instability, particularly by fuelling the narratives used by non-state armed groups to attract recruits.’

Extreme poverty, sometimes coexisting with the generation of great mineral-resource-generated wealth, has also created the conditions for the overthrow of governments.

Niger, a land-locked country the size of the Northern Territory with a population the same size as Australia’s, is among the world’s poorest nations. The Sahara Desert covers 80% of the country. It has the world’s youngest population, with an average age of 14.8 years. The average length of schooling is just two years.

The remarkable Afrobarometer, which intensively polls all African nations, shows that 69% of Niger’s citizens don’t have electricity and a further 25% say the electricity they do have never or rarely works. Asked to cite Niger’s biggest problem, 25% say lack of food, followed by 16% who cite lack of water and 15% the lack of physical security. Only 1.3% cited corruption and 0.1% mentioned their democratic rights.

The UNDP is pessimistic about the outlook, noting that coup leaders were drawing inspiration from each other, encouraging them to ignore regional institutions like ECOWAS and the African Union. ‘The findings suggest that coup risk may yet spread.’ As the research was being finalised, the democratic government of Gambia put down an attempted coup. The military leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso have warned that any military intervention in Niger by ECOWAS would be seen by them as an act of war.

The UNDP notes that during the Cold War, military coups occurred as the result of countervailing efforts by either the East or West to maintain influence, triggered by events that signalled apparent gains by the other side.

Over the past three years, the collapse of democratic governments in Africa has been the product of internal stresses. However, there is abundant potential for global geopolitics to play out across the continent.

The US, the EU and France have all suspended humanitarian aid to Niger, while ECOWAS has imposed severe sanctions, including freezing its central bank assets. Russia’s Wagner Group is offering security assistance to the new ruler, General Abdourahmane Tiani, and it is already in Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Chad. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is making a concerted effort to strengthen relations with African nations.

China, which has investments in Niger’s oil and uranium sectors and was offering the former government an industrial park, has called for a peaceful resolution in the wake of the coup. It initially condemned the 2021 coup in Guinea, where it has the major holding in the massive Simandou iron ore project, but soon reached an accommodation with the new regime. Its major concern has been to secure its investments and gain commercial advantage.