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Another democracy bites the dust in West Africa


WORLD Radio - Another democracy bites the dust in West Africa

The recent coup in Niger sets a troubling example for other countries in the region

Supporters of Niger's ruling junta gather at the start of a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference in Niamey, Niger. Associated Press/Photo by Sam Mednick

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the fallout from a coup in West Africa.

Niger is a landlocked country, the vast majority of it covered by the unforgiving Sahara Desert. Over the past twelve years, it emerged as a success story of democratic rule. Personal freedom and prosperity grew under civilian rule under two consecutive democratically elected presidents.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: But that changed on July 26th, when a military coup deposed President Mohamed Bahzoum, thrusting Niger into a tug-of-war between conflicting international interests.

BROWN: Joining us now to talk about the fallout is Joseph Siegle, senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Maryland.

Joseph, welcome.

SIEGLE: Thank you, glad to be part of the program.

BROWN: Glad to have you. Well, let’s start with some background. The crisis in Niger is just the latest in a line of military coups in the region. Help us understand what’s happening in West Africa, and where Niger fits in.

SIEGLE: Well, Niger is part of a disconcerting pattern we've seen in West Africa. Starting almost three years to today, August of 2020, we saw a coup in Mali, a military coup that displaced a democratically elected government. This was followed a year or so later in Burkina Faso, which is another civilian country, neighboring country. We saw a coup in Guinea, along the West African coast, during that timeframe. And then this extra-constitutional seizure of power in Niger. So it's been a pattern of military actors trying to seize power all from elected democratic governments in West Africa.

BROWN: After the coup, there were reports that people in Niger were flying Russian flags. What does Russia have to do with the coup?

SIEGLE: Well, Russia has been a disrupter in West Africa. It doesn't really have a lot of investment or trade going on in the region. But as part of its effort to present itself as a global power with influence across the globe, it has been actively trying to undermine Western influence in Africa. And it has done that in sort of a variety of ways, including through disinformation. So pushing out a lot of false narratives about the evils of French involvement in West Africa, the legacies of colonialism, failures of the United Nations. And this has stirred up a lot of passions and discontent in each of the respective countries that we're talking about, including in Niger. And, and so when this coup took place, you saw some people come out on the streets, waving Russian flags. And so really, it's a reaction to this fomenting of dissent that we've seen through Russian disinformation.

BROWN: The Russian mercenary Wagner Group has reportedly welcomed the coup in Niger. What does it stand to gain from the coup?

SIEGLE: Well, it's true. The leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced his support for the coup soon after it first was announced. And Wagner has been the political spear of Russia's efforts to gain influence in Africa. Wagner, of course, has the paramilitary forces that they deploy, but they're also involved in election interference. They're involved in arms for resources swaps, and they're the ones behind the disinformation. And so it's through this combination of irregular tools that Russia has gained its influence in Africa. And then propping up these military juntas or other illegitimate governments on the continent, who then are beholden to Russia as their main international patron. So this attempted coup in Niger presents another opportunity for Russia to [gain] another partner regime on the continent, and do so at the expense of what had been really growing ties between Niger and the West, growing democratization in Niger, and again, you know, positive developments on the economy and development front.

BROWN: What do you think the prognosis is for the future of Democracy in the African Sahel (suh-HELL) region?

SIEGLE: Well, I believe we're at an inflection point right now because we've seen now this pattern of military actors seizing power, and basically they're challenging the right for civilians to govern democratically. I think that's what's at stake right now. And that's why it's important that West Africa regional body ECOWAS take decisive action to isolate the military junta in Niger and not recognize it, and really force it through a collection of means to back down and return power to the rightfully elected leader in Niger.

BROWN: Is there any aspect of this story that you think the mainstream media is missing or misreporting?

SIEGLE: I think what isn't fully recognized is that this is about a lot more than Niger. This is quickly become about the fight for democracy in the region. Soon after the coup attempt began in Niger, you had the military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso say that they supported the coup attempt and that they would deem it a declaration of war if the West Africa regional body, ECOWAS, intervened to restore democracy in Neesha. And so you have this astounding development of military juntas forming a coalition to push back against democracy in West Africa. // And that's really what's at stake here. It isn't just about the events in one single country; it's really a regional phenomenon now. And you know, how this gets settled in Niger will have implications for the rest of West Africa, and for Africa, because if the coup is accepted and tolerated in Niger, I think it's very likely that we could see half a dozen other coups in Africa, because there are going to be other military actors on the on the African continent who have delusions of grandeur. And they'll see an opportunity that if they can simply depose the sitting president, that ultimately they're going to be accommodated as well.

BROWN: Joseph Siegle is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Maryland. Thank you for joining us.

SIEGLE: Thank you. My pleasure.

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