Are bad elections fuelling Niger-type violent takeovers?

Tuesday August 08 2023
niger demos

Protesters hold placards denouncing Economic Community of West African States during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey on August 3, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


The Nigerien coup this past week jolted leaders in the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), who have threatened sanctions, called for dialogue and asked for a reversal of illegal takeovers.

But whether any of the moves influence the coup leaders in Niamey is generating debate on just why coups like those of Niger are becoming popular even among civilians.

Niger became the fourth country in the West African belt to depose an elected leader since Covid-19.

And some civilians poured in the streets to celebrate, just as it had been seen in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso all of whom are now under military leaderships in spite of condemnations from the African Union and Ecowas.

This week, Ecowas military chiefs were held up in a three-day meeting from Wednesday.

Read: W.Africa army chiefs agree on plan for possible Niger intervention


In the Nigerian capital of Abuja in response to the directive of the authority of heads of state and government during an extraordinary session on Sunday, where West African leaders-imposed sanctions on Niger and warned of taking measures, including the use of force, to restore constitutional order.

Gen Christopher Musa, Nigeria’s defence chief, who is the president of the Ecowas Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff, told the media at the beginning of the meeting that decisions to be taken would have far-reaching implications for the Ecowas region while calling for “collective attention and a united response” to restore democratic governance in Niger.

“The events that transpired in one of our countries (Niger) on July 26 have reverberated across our borders, affecting us all ... We must face the challenges of restoring democratic governance in Niger head-on, drawing on our shared experiences, wisdom, and collective resolve,” Musa said.

Uncomfortable democracy

On Thursday, Ecowas said it had sent a delegation to Niamey to “expeditiously resolve” the crisis that has seen the country’s Mohamed Bazoum president also detained by his own guards. Nigerien military later installed Abdourahamane Tiani who had led the guards as the new leader of the National Council for the Safeguard of Homeland.

Read: West African delegation fails to resolve Niger crisis

Experts warned that the coup as this in Niger may fuel future plans by elites uncomfortable with democracies, allowing external elements that traditionally limit liberties to interfere.

“I think the development in Niger is elite driven, hence elite centred. But yes, it may challenge people to think differently,” said Dr Hawa Noor Z, a Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies, University of Bremen, in Germany.

Fortuitous outcome

“I am, however, not quite optimistic because Russia that purports to support the coup has a history of working with state elites with questionable records.” Moscow had, in the wake of the coup, condemned it, although Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also used it to accuse the West of looking the other way when coups happened in areas, they were uninterested.

In Africa, however, the recent trend of coups has led experts to question whether it symbolises fatigue from routine unfair elections.

“The jackboot era has been replaced by politics of the ballot with almost all AU member states holding regular multiparty elections,’’ Prof Khabele Matlosa, said in his contribution to a book The African Union at 20 African: Perspectives on progress, challenges and prospects published two years ago to celebrate the continental body’s progress.

Read: Self-funded, free and fair polls ideal tool for silencing the guns in Africa

Prof Matlosa, of the Centre for African Diplomacy and Leadership at the University of Johannesburg, said that since 2002, there have been “retired heads of state who have left office after serving mandatory two terms, independent courts that have overturned fraudulent elections, civilians toppling regimes and wide expansions of democratic spaces.”

He said, however, that the continent has also witnessed a setback caused by attitude some leaders clinging to it by removing term limits and manipulating electoral processes and attempting to shrink the democratic spaces.

Only 38 percent of African countries have upheld presidential term limits and those lacking them are sliding into instability, and result in military coup as supposed corrective measures.

Despite its several instruments to discourage unconstitutional change of governments, the AU and Ecowas have remained unable to prevent unfair elections nor underhand bids to twist constitutions. Has the AU endorsed “coups by other means?”

Since 2007, the AU has often rejected any illegal takeover of power. This week, it condemned the Nigerien military.

Forfeiting legitimacy

According to Prof Matlosa, the same AU has also endorsed and accepted ‘good coups’ as espoused by its Peace and Security Council (PSC) which recognises the right of “our people to peacefully express their will against oppressive systems”.

The report of PSC apparently on a “good coup” adopted is within the threshold of the AU’s observation of the “descent of the governments into total authoritarianism to the point of forfeiting its legitimacy”.

The other conditions for acceptance of unconstitutional change of government include “absence or total ineffectiveness of constitutional processes for effecting change of government; popularity of the uprisings in the sense of attracting significant portion of the population involving people from all walks of life and ideological persuasions; and the absence of involvement of the military in removing the government as well as the peacefulness of the popular protests”.

Read: Irony of West Africa coups over cycle of jihadist violence

Those ‘good coups’ have been seen in Egypt, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Mali and Guinea and Chad. In all these countries, the AU cautioned the countries to return to civilian rule. Observers say it wasn’t tough enough.

Prof Akin Olayiwola, a political scientist, described the resolutions of AU as a pat in the back.

“There is no excuse for any coup. A government can only be changed through a democratic process. A government installed through either free or unfair election remains legitimate as long as the winner had been sworn in and cleared by the judiciary,’’ added Festus Idigo, constitutional lawyer in Abuja, explained.

“The soldiers are employees who constitute a very tiny segment of the polity and cannot lord it over the people, Dr Idigo said.

A people in need

He explained that the principles of African Peer Review Mechanism measuring constitutionalism and rule of law should be respected.
The principles are respect for law, respect for and enforcement of human rights, public participation in governance, effectiveness of the bureaucracy, accountability of the executive, independence and accountability of the legislature, independence and accountability of the judiciary and access to justice.

Dr Olayinka Ajala, senior lecturer in international relations at Leeds Beckett University, UK, said coups were indications that the military had not fully embraced democracy.

Military incursion into politics is an indictment and failure of regional organisations such as Ecowas and AU.

Read: African leaders driven from power since 2010

Nigeria’s former Commonwealth Secretary General, Mr Emeka Anyaoku, said it is disheartening that Africa is witnessing coups in this modern era.

In spite of the grandstanding, the UN on Wednesday called for unhindered access to all people in need in Niger.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) and its partners said all parties must continue respecting humanitarian principles to allow humanitarian workers access to all people in need in all parts of Niger.

Nigerien junta say they have authorised humanitarian operations by road, but agencies were concerned of potential impact of sanctions and the suspension of financial aid to Niger. OCHA said 4.3 million people in Niger, mostly women and children, need humanitarian aid.

Additional Reporting by Aggrey Mutambo