The cries of “contagion”, “epidemic” have died down after Gabon became the latest in a string of countries to suffer a military takeover. As the Sahelian dust begins to settle, we see that this string of coups brings to an end two long-standing trends and points to a new direction.
First, it ends 32 years of slow but consistent democratisation of the Sahelian countries – a political trend that has been in train since 1991 as the end of the Cold War brought about a massive geopolitical shift. As a journalist covering the region at the time, I recall the jubilation that year at the popular ousting of Moussa Traore, Mali’s military dictator, ending 23 years in power of this junior officer. Traore’s popular ousting had followed on from the removal of West Africa’s other military dictator in Benin and of the recidivist military interventionist, Denis Sassou Nguesso, in the Republic of Congo a year earlier. Now Mali is once again under military rule, having had three coups since 2012.
A pattern is emerging where the military juntas give themselves transitional titles. The coup leaders – many of whom know each other, ironically, through extensive military training in France – appear to be working in concert. In Burkina Faso, the military ruler, Captain Ibrahim Traore, calls himself the transitional leader. The military juntas that have taken power claim their intervention is temporary and that their objective is to support ‘institutions’ and that they – the military – oversee a return to democratic rule.
The next step is to quickly appoint a civilian government. In Gabon, General Brice Oligui Nguema, who ousted President Ali Bongo, nevertheless appointed Bongo’s former Prime Minister, Raymond Ndong Sima, an economist, as “transitional Prime Minister” and appointed a co-founder of opposition coalition Alternance 2023 to head up the Senate. Similarly, within days of taking power, Niger’s military junta leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, appointed a civilian who is also an economist and technocrat as Prime Minister.
Next is to immediately start negotiations with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) or the Economic Community Central African States (ECCAS) to stave off any military intervention and limit sanctions. In Guinea, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, who took power in September 2021, said his mission was to rewrite the Constitution, change the electoral system, tackle corruption and hold “free, credible and transparent elections”. Ecowas rejected his initial plan of a 36-month transition, and it is now reduced to 24 months. But supporters of Niger’s ousted President, Mohammed Bazoum, have lambasted these “transitions’ as a timetable for looting.
Secondly, the coups end – finally – France’s political, economic and military dominion in the region. Mali’s military rulers’ decision to ask France and its military to leave marks the end of the long tail of France’s colonialism. The Niger junta claims that France is using sneaky and delaying manoeuvres in discussions over the withdrawal of French soldiers from Niger as part of a plot with Ecowas to intervene to release Bazoum. The hostility to France is palpable and nothing that President Emmanuel Macron or French diplomats say appears to ease it. West African analysts say France’s military bases created a two-tier military. French troops’ pay and conditions were far better than those of regional armies. The presence of the French and US military has created a two-tier economy, increasing hostility. The putschists have capitalised on that sentiment and have publicly embraced the emerging foreign policy trend as so-called non-aligned. Traore, in a declaration of this new nationalism, said it was to count on none but ourselves. Mali’s Defence Minister said the junta’s mission was to take back control of the country’s destiny.
Meanwhile, the regional shuttle diplomacy continues, led by Ecowas, which junta leaders have sought to characterise as Western puppets. Sources close to the Ecowas mission are despondent, decrying the hasty decision of Ecowas political leaders – led by Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu – to put military intervention on the table so forcefully without taking their own democratic institutions in their respective countries into account. In Nigeria, the Senate, a powerful democratic body resoundingly rejected the idea from the outset. The sources say the Ecowas leaders should have privileged the diplomatic route from the start. An anti-coup troika comprising the Presidents of Guinea-Bissau, Benin and Nigeria will head to the Nigerien capital in the next weeks. But the military junta leaders are not that welcoming. Traore was reportedly very hostile to Ecowas representatives and Tchiani has refused to meet Ecowas emissaries as well as international representatives of the US. This has invariably weakened Ecowas and has limited its options to imposing sanctions.
Though Ecowas is weakened politically, its sanctions are beginning to bite and to hurt both the military and business. Ecowas has frozen the reserves of junta-led countries and has closed borders to the West African landlocked countries, forcing the military to look to long trans-Saharan routes for imports of essential goods. In Burkina Faso, the military has approached mining companies directly to buy gold with which to trade. In Gabon, the newly appointed Oil Minister has sent a note to oil companies to provide a list of all payments made to the State between 2020 and 2023 to see if they correspond to Treasury statements. On the Paris bourse, shares in companies with interests in West and Central African mining assets have slumped. In Niger, uranium miner Orano (formerly Areva) has suspended its activities because of the closure – due to Ecowas sanctions – of the land border, thus suspending exports to France and Canada.
Against this backdrop of the new sovereignty or new nationalism is the unchecked islamist insurgency led by Islamic State refugees from Syria and Iraq, Maghrebian Al Quaida supporters and a resurgent Tuareg secessionist rebellion. Tuareg secessionists lay claim to parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya.
As the juntas isolate themselves from regional structures and as Islamist and secessionist rebels fill the vacuum that departing French and United Nations troops will leave, the Sahelian military regimes may yet have to face emerging Islamist-backed Tuareg secessionist demands.