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Niger Coup: Domino Theory in Action?

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Opinion Piece

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The last “bastion of democracy” in the Sahel region was toppled following a coup d'état in Niger on 26 July 2023. Members of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum’s guard revolted, detaining him and making this the region’s most recent coup amongst a wave that has overthrown governments in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Guinea.

Crowds of coup supporters have since descended into the streets of the capital of Niamey, protesting outside the French embassy waving Russian flags and holding up banners reading “Down with France and its allies”. Echoing the anti-Western sentiments of putschist leaders and supporters in neighbouring nations, the Niger junta has rapidly developed an ideological justification for its usurping of power. However, geopolitical competition in Africa between the West and Russia is not the only reminder of Cold War attitudes.

The wave of successive military coups across the Sahel region requires an explanation, one that can be found in Cold War America’s failed anti-communist crusading foreign policy.

Domino theory posited that a successful communist uprising in one country would increase the chances of successful uprisings in neighbouring countries. In Southeast Asia, American administrations perceived the fall of Vietnam and its neighbours to communism as the beginning of a potential red wave, swooping from Indochina to Australia. Consequently, resulting in failed military interventions and support for anti-communist regimes that engaged in brutal suppression, all in the hope of preventing a chain reaction of political upheaval.

This is not to argue that a solution for a restoration of democratic stability in the Sahel can be found in Western military intervention; containment foreign policy interpretations of the theory were disastrous. But the theory itself remains solid.

The first dominos to fall were Guinea and Mali; rampant social unrest produced by Islamist insurgencies and weak democratic institutions resulted in numerous military interventions into the political sphere. Military officials taking advantage of security crises left large stretches of borderlands unprotected, and so Islamist militant groups took advantage.

Neighbouring Burkina Faso was next to fall with up to 40% of its territory occupied by Islamist groups expanding their territories beyond Mali and Guinea. Military intervention against democracy was not only normalised by neighbouring coups but supported by Burkinabe citizens who saw hope through direct action. As such Burkina Faso was hit by two coups in 2022.

At the heart of this issue is Operation Barkhane, a French-led military intervention against Islamist terror groups in the region. Despite large-scale deployment of French and allied troops - 5,500 troops at its peak - the operation has been an objective failure. Jihadist insurgency initially emerged in Mali, sweeping through much of the Sahel despite the superior firepower of French forces. Paris failed to comprehend the complexities of the insurgencies, perceiving them simply as “terrorists”, ignoring its own responsibility for the source of conflict.

Rural insurgencies are the product of infrastructure depravity, instead of aiding the development of its former colonies, Paris has instead focused on securing its own resource extraction sites in the Sahel. Lack of development was compounded by an iron grip over the CFA franc - a shared currency in the Sahel - restricting independent economic decisions whilst reminding the people of the Sahel that their former masters remain. Combined with continued French backing of corrupt governments and you have millions deprived of jobs in a region already scarce of food and opportunity.

So, can we really blame the Sahel for its rising Francophobia? After all, blame should really lay at the feet of France for this crisis of coups.

For all of Paris’s denunciation of coups, their words have little meaning. After Chadian President, Idriss Déby, was killed in 2021, military officials seized power, dissolving the National Assembly and replacing the Constitution. This allowed Déby’s son, Mahamt, to seize power and indefinitely suspend elections through a “constitutional coup”. France in turn has maintained a strong defence of the regime, rewarding Mahamt’s loyalty to French foreign policy with Western international backing. Such moves are as detrimental to destroying democracy in the region as the anti-French military coups, France holds significant responsibility for normalising military action against open politics.

And yet despite this, France has hypocritically responded to the coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea - and undoubtedly Niger - with sanctions. Lobbying her allies to isolate these nations. This isolation only serves to worsen anti-French sentiment, whilst pushing these governments into the arms of Russia. Wagner forces have replaced French troops in providing security, welcomed in Mali and Burkina Faso as “liberators” to high public approval.

In turn, Wagner warlord, Prighozin, has referred to Niger’s coup as the “former colonisers” being punished by the people of Africa. France’s mistreatment of the Sahel has produced an anti-Western perspective that views Russia as brothers in arms, evident from the sea of Russia flags in the streets of Niger. Whilst Wagner may be brutal and self-serving, so are the French. For the people of the Sahel, if they are to be taken advantage of regardless let it not be by their former masters.

Shared political insecurity and hatred towards a common enemy have produced mirroring events, whilst the West ignored the plights of Malians, they took matters into their own hands. As their coup successfully toppled the despised, pro-French Boubacar Keïta, their neighbours looked for inspiration. With each successful coup common rhetoric was shared, anti-democratic action was legitimised, and young radical colonels toppled governments from Conakry to Niamey.

Presently sanctions and isolations only drive these military conspirators into backing each other to maximise collective security. Immediately following the coup in Niger, the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso declared their commitment to defend Niger against possible foreign intervention.

Extremist insurgencies are still rising, with a full-scale withdrawal of French troops from the region and their replacement with Russian mercenaries, Africa once more is becoming a geopolitical battleground between the West and Moscow. By allowing Paris total influence over the Sahel, America and Europe have tarnished relations with the Sahel people. The project of regional liberal democracy has come crashing down, in its place is a vicious cycle of coups driven by discontent and anger.

A cycle that has knocked down nations one by one.


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