In African ‘coup belt,’ Western values must now compete

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In African ‘coup belt,’ Western values must now compete

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Amid Western hand-wringing about the string of coups in Africa, some experts say the moment suggests not so much the twilight of Western influence but that African countries have choices and are breaking a dependence on one power.

But the string of coups across the Sahel, culminating in the military takeover in Niger – until this summer the apple of the West’s eye in the sub-Saharan region – is also a setback for President Joe Biden’s foreign policy emphasis on promoting democracy. In some cases, the coups were fomented by Russia’s intent on supplanting Western powers in much of resource-rich Africa. But they all raise questions over who is winning between democracy and autocracy – what Mr. Biden called the century’s signature contest.

Amid the Western hand-wringing, some longtime Africa experts say the current moment suggests not so much the twilight of Western influence, but rather that for Africa, the West is no longer the only game in town.

“Yes, there is a ‘waning of Western influence’ in the sense of a decrease from where things were in the past, but what is really happening is that in Africa it’s no longer ‘our [the West’s] way or the highway,’” says J. Peter Pham, a special envoy for the Sahel in the Trump administration and now distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington.

“For African countries, there are alternatives now,” he adds, “and countries are going to respond to these alternatives … based on their interests and their values.”

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Others caution against equating declining influence with outrightly rejecting that influence.

“No question there is waning influence of the West; there is also a waning influence of Washington, but it’s not because of a rejection of Western values,” says Cameron Hudson, a former CIA Africa analyst who is now a senior associate in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program in Washington.

“What we have now is heightened competition among a growing number of countries to play a role in Africa, where two decades ago we [the West] were the only game in town. And it’s not just Russia and China,” he adds, “but the Turks, the Qataris, the Saudis, and others, all ready to build soccer stadiums and health clinics to get a foot in the door.”

The attraction for African countries is having choices and breaking a dependence on one power.

“The perspective that countries should stick with us is really colonial, but I’m hearing more all the time from Africans that they want the choice,” says Mr. Hudson, who was reached in Nigeria while on a swing through several countries. “They say, ‘We’ll choose the Americans for some things, but we’ll choose others for other things.’ And the attraction,” he adds, “is that they don’t have to have all the strings attached that can come with dealing with one” partner.

U.S. and France diverge

Indeed, one reason France is faring so poorly in Africa is that it has been unable to break its image as the despised colonial power in most of its former colonies. In the eyes of some, the coup in Gabon spells the end of a French sphere of influence in Africa.

“Gabon was the illustration of what was meant by ‘Françafrique,’ so a coup there is really the final nail in the coffin of French influence,” says Ambassador Pham.

Moreover, the tensions that surfaced between the United States and France in the days following the July 27 coup in Niger were a clear sign that Washington, after many decades of deference, is setting an independent course from Paris in Africa.

Even as it joined France in condemning the military takeover in Niger, the U.S. refrained from calling the action a “coup” – a step that would impose a set of actions against the putschists. The U.S. also sent the State Department’s No. 2 diplomat to Niger for talks with the coup leaders – a move French diplomats called “unwise.”

But that approach was just one piece of evidence that the U.S. realizes its interests and chances of diplomatic success are best served by publicly breaking free of its association with France, some experts say.

“What we’re seeing is that Washington is beginning to assert its own vision and perspective into the Sahel instead of simply letting the French lead,” says Mr. Hudson. “Official circles in Washington are finally recognizing what we all saw for a long time,” he adds, “that the French approach in Africa has been very paternalistic, that the rebellion against it has stretched across a broad swath of Africa – and that we are best served by cutting our own path.”

The U.S. has made significant investments in Niger, he says, from development programs and civil society initiatives to military assistance that includes a drone base and about 1,100 mostly special forces on the ground to help battle an Islamist insurgency. “We’re not ready despite the turn of events to cut ties and walk away from all of that,” he says.

Ambassador Pham notes that while the junta in Niger demanded the French ambassador’s departure, and wants 1,500 French troops out of the country – even as the French Embassy in the capital Niamey has been hit with angry demonstrations – the new U.S. ambassador has been allowed to take up official duties and the U.S. Embassy has been quiet.

“The door to the U.S. has not been closed, and I think we’re better off if we keep that door to dialogue open,” he says.

An attraction to military rule

Still, no one is arguing that democracy in the region has the wind in its sails.

“What we’re seeing play out right now is a concerted effort by some factions of the armed forces to assert the preferability of military rule – and to a degree that we haven’t seen in Africa for a quarter century,” says Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “There’s no getting around the fact that this growing willingness to assert a claim to governing by taking power is a step backwards for the continent.”

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What worries Dr. Eizenga is how, in some cases, coup leaders who have no experience governing are finding themselves overwhelmed, especially by deteriorating security conditions, and are turning to outside actors such as Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group to come to the rescue.

He points to Mali, for example, which turned to Wagner after a coup in 2020 to help fight an Islamist insurgency, but which has only seen security conditions worsen.

What the succession of coups does suggest to some is not so much democracy’s demise – surveys of African people consistently show overwhelming support for democratic systems of governance, Dr. Eizenga points out – but instead that democratization is a long process that is more than simply holding elections and boasting an elected leader.

“I’m not arguing that coups are a good thing, but what I am saying is that when we quickly declare coups a backsliding from democracy we have to be able to honestly say that there was a functioning democracy in the first place,” Ambassador Pham says.

One reason the Niger coup was so shocking is that the country had indeed experienced some of the hallmarks of a stable democracy, including the peaceful transition of power from one president to another. But several other countries in the “coup belt” could hardly qualify as democracies, he says.

The hard lesson of Africa’s coups may be that democracy is more than voters displaying an ink-stained thumb, he says, and is only stable when it takes hold across institutions and meets the population’s needs.

“We were all too eager to declare success [with democratization] when coups became less frequent and even seemed they might be a thing of the past,” Ambassador Pham says. “But if we’re ever going to get to stabilized democracies, we’re going to have to stop and work patiently on the institution-building,” he says. “It’ll take time and resources and a willingness to invest in that for the long haul.”


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