Since 2020, six African countries have experienced a total of eight coups d’état. With the exception of Gabon, all occurred in the Sahel, the semi-arid band stretching across the continent between the Sahara Desert to the north and the tropical savannah to the south. The conventional narrative of “Africa Rising,” which had only recently replaced that of the “Hopeless Continent,” might be in need of revision or at least qualification.
What emerges is a complex portrait of the players. While African governments face challenges arising from a crisis of state legitimacy, the French are unpopular and ineffective, the Chinese now more guarded than previously, the Russians opportunistic, and the hopes for “African solutions for African problems” have not materialized. There is thus an opening and a need for the United States to lead its regional and international partners to engage Africa in new initiatives.
Nearly every African country has made impressive economic gains since the year 2000. In the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the International Monetary Fund, seven of the twenty fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa: Ethiopia, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Djibouti, Ghana, and Guinea. Expand the aperture to the thirty fastest-growing economies over the same period and six others join the list: Niger, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo, Togo, and Kenya.
Even coming out of the pandemic shutdown, some of the poorest African countries bounced back with élan, with Niger notching up 6.9 percent GDP growth in 2022, followed closely by South Sudan and the DRC with 6.5 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively.
Admittedly, the starting points of many African countries are relatively low and for some the boom has been driven by fickle commodity prices. Nevertheless, many of the gains are rooted in long-term trends such as demographics. By 2050, one in four workers in the world will be an African; some of the world’s fastest-growing urbanization rates means lower basic infrastructure costs and concentrated consumer markets. Another positive trend is technology usage – the rapid expansion of mobile telephony and internet, five times global averages over the last decade.
Moreover, global efforts to lower carbon emissions and combat climate change have heightened the continent’s importance, driving demand for resources found in Africa. For example, cobalt is the key ingredient in the manufacture of electrodes for rechargeable batteries. Currently about 70 percent of global supply of this metal is sourced to the DRC, much of it controlled by Chinese firms (as noted by Joshua Meservey in the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.)
Poor Governance and Impatient Publics
If economic prospects are positive in general, politics remain uneven. As I noted in a 2021 speech to a ministerial conference two months after the coup in Mali: “The heart of the crisis in the Sahel is one of state legitimacy—[lacking is] a perception by citizens that their government is valid, equitable, and able and willing to meet their needs… Absent states’ commitments to meeting their citizens’ needs, no degree of international engagement is likely to succeed.”
Two examples will serve to understand the range of the recent convulsions.
In Guinea, President Alpha Condé had been elected in 2010 and again in 2015, but both times the voting was marred by fraud, ethnic baiting and intimidation. In 2020, facing a two-term limit imposed by the constitution, he staged a referendum in which almost 90 percent reportedly approved abolishing term limits and extending the presidential mandate from five to six years. Even if one doesn’t condone the 2021 coup in Guinea, one can understand why the overthrow of such a regime might be broadly welcomed by the population as indeed was the case.
The situation was different In Niger, where the recently ousted president did have democratic bona fides. President Mohamed Bazoum was elected in 2021 with 55 percent in a poll with roughly 70 percent voter participation, and assumed office in the country’s first-ever peaceful presidential transition. Furthermore, Bazoum’s government genuinely tried to make delivery of services a centerpiece of its agenda. Nevertheless, the harsh reality is that African citizens—especially, but by no means exclusively, the continent’s youth bulge—have lost patience and are unwilling to wait for benefits to eventually trickle down to them from political and economic elites.
The End of Françafrique
The coup in Niger was followed by mass anti-French protests, including some that turned violent. This mirrored similar outbursts after earlier coups in Burkina Faso and Mali, where the new authorities subsequently kicked out French military personnel deployed to counterterrorism operations.
Social media campaigns, both in the leadup to the coup and in its immediate aftermath, specifically “portrayed Bazoum as a vassal of the West, and Niger under Bazoum’s leadership as being ‘directly dependent on France’ and ‘part of the remnants of the French neo-colonial empire.’” Not surprisingly, the junta now ensconced in Niamey canceled five defense and security agreements that previous governments had signed with the former colonial ruler, formally invoking the provisions for withdrawal from the treaties. In addition, it has declared the French ambassador in Niger persona non grata and ordered him and his wife to leave the country. The French press has reported that its government has begun to quietly negotiate the withdrawal of the approximately 1,500 French military personnel deployed in Niger.
The French may have made things worse by failing to rescue longtime allies like Niger’s Bazoum or Gabon’s Ali Bongo Ondimba, both deposed while French troops stationed in their countries stood by. (The French may have been belatedly sensitized to the shift in public attitudes against them.) In the case of the former, Le Monde has even confirmed an allegation by the putschists that the now-deposed government asked it to intervene to rescue the president in the early hours of the coup, but French authorities did not authorize the operation. The subsequent coup in Gabon only underscored the total dénouement of what was once known as la Françafrique: if a garrison of some 400 French troops cannot prevent the overthrow of Bongo fils who, like his late father before him, has been a staunch ally of France, why would any government want to risk incurring the wrath of anti-French populist sentiment by having them around?
As Michael Shurkin, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who has long followed France in Africa with considerable sympathy, recently wrote:
Whether this anti-French sentiment is fair or not is entirely beside the point. Ties with France have now become a kiss of death for African governments… How we got here is a long story that goes back to colonization, all the way through the decades following decolonization in 1960—and there is plenty of blame to go around. We must include the strategic errors made by French leaders too, from 1960 through to the present, as well as the economic and political relationships that have arguably hindered African countries’ economic and political development. And French President Emmanuel Macron’s famous tin ear has often made things worse… However one wishes to apportion the blame, though, the reality is that French involvement, well-intentioned or not, has become counterproductive.
China’s and Russia’s Limits
Over the last three decades, Beijing became an important player in Africa. Its commercial links across Africa burgeoned, reaching $251 billion in bilateral trade in 2021. At the same time, political and security interests likewise expanded. African states constitute the largest regional bloc in many international organizations, becoming integral to Beijing’s long-term grand strategy of promoting its version of “democracy in international relations”—that is, a more multipolar political and economic global order.
However, China faces its own economic problems and has drastically tightened the previously free-flowing taps to many African countries. In a new twist, one Chinese parastatal construction company even invoked the coup in Niger as a pretext to stop construction on the $800 million Kandadji hydroelectric dam, although work on the $4 billion, 2,000-kilometer pipeline between the Niger’s Agadem oilfield and the Port of Seme terminal in Benin by subsidiary of state-owned China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) still continues.
Russia also has some influence in Africa, largely through the ongoing mercenary services of its Wagner Group, despite the demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin shortly after visiting the Central African Republic and Mali. The Kremlin will want to see the network he created survive and continue to exploit opportunities in Africa. And there will undoubtedly be demand for its services. But such services can also be turned into a threat to the regime. The junta in Niger has thus far not welcomed Russian assistance, despite Prigozhin’s offer of Wagner Group help.
The Failure of “African Solutions”
When the coups occurred in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued condemnations but to no effect. Its newly inaugurated chair, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, took a hard line on the recent coup in Niger, giving the putschists a one-week deadline to return Bazoum to the presidency. When the deadline came and went, a summit of ECOWAS heads of state authorized the call up of a “standby force” to restore constitutional order and, in the meantime, slapped a raft of sanctions on Niger, including ordering a closing of borders with the country.
The problem with sanctions is their need for uniform enforcement. Three ECOWAS members, including two bordering Niger, are already under sanctions for their own coups. Thus the regional bloc effectively split on Niger sanctions. Furthermore, the bellicose threats from ECOWAS had the effect of galvanizing popular support within Niger for the junta. Finally, the African Union Peace and Security Council only agreed to “take note” of the ECOWAS military threat without assembling its own military force. Thus ECOWAS finds itself in the unenviable diplomatic position of searching for a face-saving way to climb down.
A Need for American Leadership
The coup in Niger has led to an open rupture with its former colonizer, France, but not with its other major Western security and economic partner, the United States. Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Niamey and met with members of the junta. To date, there have been neither anti-American protests nor calls for the departure of the approximately 1,000 US military personnel deployed in country, although the Pentagon recently confirmed the consolidation of its personnel to an airbase in Agadez, away from the base in Niamey that is shared with French forces.
In the context of Africa’s economic potential, and its current crisis of poor governance, insecurity, and fragile regimes, there is an opening for American leadership. America should convene its regional and international partners who are willing to invest in the continent’s future by having a pragmatic stake in its present.