The Platform

République du Bénin; Photo illustration by John Lyman

Niger joins a number of other Sahel countries in abandoning democracy.

Members of Niger’s presidential guard besieged the presidential palace in Niamey on Wednesday, July 26, arresting President Mohamed Bazoum.

Abdourahamane Tchiani, a Nigerien military officer and commander of the presidential guard justified the coup as a response to a deteriorating security situation and poor economic governance.

The nations in the Sahel region have increasingly become arenas of coups and chaos, experiencing five military coups over the past three years.

Significant transformations are happening in Africa’s Sahel, particularly the severing of ties with longstanding ally France, stemming from discontent over a worsening security situation in Niger despite a decade-long French military presence that has failed to ensure stability, suppress rebel forces, or combat the persistent threat of terrorism in the region. Additionally, the tragic killing of a group of Nigerien protesters by the French army in November 2021 sparked an increase in anti-French sentiment in Niger, breeding widespread discontent within the military and the general populace.

With neighboring countries Mali and Burkina Faso having expelled France following their recent coups, Niger has lost its principal base of operations for France in the Sahel region.

Interestingly, France had viewed Niger as a stable country within a volatile region, believing that Mohammad Bazoum could cast the West in a favorable light for the Nigerien people.

In a twist of events, the coup in Niger has garnered more popular support than those in its neighboring nations, thereby complicating any potential military intervention by ECOWAS. Even France, heavily impacted by the coup, finds itself hard-pressed to resort to military action against the instigators. The coup will significantly affect the French economy, given Niger’s hosting of a French military base and its status as the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium—a fuel crucial for nuclear power with a quarter of it exported to Europe, especially France.

However, Niger’s coup could shift the regional order in the Sahel. First, an alliance is already forming among Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea—an alliance Niger will likely join. This union is openly antagonistic toward France and seeks to curtail Western influence in favor of fostering partnerships with Russia. Second, this coup may embolden military leaders in regional countries, particularly Nigeria, which is grappling with instability and economic decline. Third, the coup could further destabilize an already impoverished nation and provide extremists with an opportunity to broaden their reach.

Is democracy dying in the Sahel region? Has military rule become the de facto solution? The West’s most significant challenge is containing the Sahel crises and preventing its spread to more countries in West Africa, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and others in the region. This challenge is compounded by popular resistance to Western, specifically French, presence and the expansion of Russian influence in Africa.

The Sahel region is set for increased lawlessness and unrest as military rule, despite its popular support, cannot replace democratic civilian governance based on representation and free elections.

A sense of political awareness must be fostered among the people in the countries of the Sahel region, prioritizing democracy, development, security, and stability.

Khalid Cherkaoui Semmouni is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Rabat Center for Political and Strategic Studies.