A key lesson from the Niger crisis: Africans, not global powers, will plot the continent’s path


A key lesson from the Niger crisis: Africans, not global powers, will plot the continent’s path

The assumption is that Moscow and Washington will dictate events. Regional leaders don’t accept that, and therein lies hope

A “coup belt” now extends across the African continent, running along the Sahel region that bisects north and sub-Saharan Africa. On 10 August, Niger, where the democratically elected president was deposed by a military junta, became the last link that completed the corridor of countries run by coupsters. It is the ninth coup or attempted power grab in west and central Africa since 2020. This might appear at first glance as a retrenchment, the thrusting of African countries back into military rule and weak democratic cultures, with a dash of Russian mischief to complete the picture of a fragile region at the whim of local strongmen and meddling. The reality is much more complicated, and perhaps even oddly hopeful.

Let’s first address that which is not entirely true. Much has been made of Russian intervention in the region, primarily through the activities of the Wagner group. Wagner, in terms of troop deployment, is indeed present in Africa, but only concentrated in a few countries: Central African Republic, Mali and Libya. The rest of Wagner’s active military presence is fluid and inconsistent in loyalty, as mercenary deployment often is: providing support, arms and training to governments and insurgencies alike. The organisation’s main concern appears to be a sort of economic piracy, forging partnerships with local militias and governments to extract and skim off the yield of natural resources: gold in Sudan, oil in Libya, diamonds and uranium in Central African Republic.

To achieve these ends, Wagner deploys not just firepower and manpower, but nestles within the soft power of the Russian state. All Eyes on Wagner, a project that tracks the outfit’s activities through open source information and witness accounts, told me that Wagner is assisted by the Russian non-profit organisation the Foundation for National Values Protection, which claims to monitor perceptions of government among the citizenry so as to better shape and “get a feel” for what works in certain countries. The result is that Wagner is skilled in the sort of propaganda and targeted local outreach that portrays it as the representative of benign foreign powers, a contrast to the US and ex-colonial European forces. “A gift from Yevgeny Prigozhin” is how food parcels of rice, sugar and lentils distributed to poor people are labelled. Two weeks ago, Putin proposed to liberate African countries from neocolonialism. In Niger, pro-coup demonstrators assembled waving Russian flags and chanting “down with France”. This is not to understate Wagner’s and by extension Russia’s influence, but these are enablers, rather than causes, of the spate of coups since 2020. And their presence galvanises US attention and diplomatic scrambling, further establishing the impression that these coups are somehow proxy skirmishes for power on the part of foreign regimes, obscuring the real dynamics on the ground.

That perspective of Africa as merely a weak link in the global security chain has also overemphasised Islamic terrorism in the Sahel as a contributing factor. The presence of jihadist groups in the region has historically elicited a classically narrow militarised response from western powers that have deployed troops in Niger and greater west Africa. But this provides no solution for, or understanding of, the fact that increased terrorist activity, like the coups themselves, is a symptom of demographic and economic trends across the region rather than a primary trigger for democratic instability.

Which brings us to the varied reasons behind these coups. Unsettling as they are to foreign interests, they are, for the most part, hyperlocal and a long time coming. Weak states, strong military and paramilitary forces, the climate crisis that has disrupted ways of living and a demographic bulge that has resulted in large populations of young people with poor economic prospects, all combine to empower government takeover and sow widespread despair and a sense of loss of agency that young, charismatic strongmen can exploit.

It is easy to collapse these reasons into the fatalistic conclusion that parts of Africa that share these patterns are simply condemned to cycles of violence. But often these structural problems sit alongside homegrown efforts to build and nurture democracy that endure, despite the challenges.

Niger itself was a good news story, with its now deposed president coming to power in a democratic election in 2021 that was Niger’s first peaceful transition of power since independence, one that successfully saw off a coup attempt before the president took office. In Sudan, on the far east of the coup belt, a popular uprising against Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship agitated so hard for civilian governance that a 2021 coup was launched to forestall that popular demand and proceeded to cut off Sudan from the rest of the world and hobble its economy, before plunging the country into war between different military factions.

The result is the hopeful prospect, even though it may not seem like it, of coups no longer being allowed to pass as business as usual on the continent. There is a realisation among heads of state and regional organisations that democratic governments must be encouraged – the normalisation of overthrowing democratically elected governments by force creates a contagion effect and is disruptive to all of the continent’s prospects.

As it stands, the airspace of Libya in the north of Africa, Niger in the west and Sudan in the east is closed to commercial flights, creating a triangle that cargo and passenger traffic must thread. Over the past three months, air traffic into Africa from Europe has been forced to recalibrate flight paths twice, as countries became unsafe to fly over. The stakes are high, no longer just when it comes to security, but economic stability. The outcome of these continent-wide risks is that the Niger coup has drawn a response from Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States), which is unprecedented. The organisation has threatened military action if the coup is not reversed. A meeting to thrash out details of that on Saturday was cancelled. But the threat, and the resolutely strong censure, remain.

Last week, after the coupsters refused to stand down, hoping that Ecowas would blink first, west African leaders activated standby forces, with President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria warning that “no option is taken off the tables”. “If we don’t do it,” he said, “no one else will do it for us” – a clear-eyed declaration that Moscow, Washington, Paris and London have nothing to offer African countries and that their concerns for democracy ring hollow as they do little but pursue narrow interests in the region.

It is “an unavoidable reality”, writes veteran Africa correspondent Howard French, that “Africans will ultimately make or break their continent’s geopolitical landscape – and foreign interlopers, however muscle-bound they may appear, are ultimately fated to play a secondary role.” Amid stale cold war framings, western military calculations about jihadist contagion and fretting about loss of influence on the part of ex-colonial powers, Niger’s coup and those that preceded it may in fact plot a path to a future in which it finally becomes clear that Africa’s stability will not be forged in the Pentagon or on heated analysis panels on cable news, but on its own terms and through its own mechanisms, once it faces its worst fears and opts for self-preservation.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist.

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