On July 26, 2023, the democratically elected president of Niger, Mohammed Bazoum, was deposed in a coup by the country’s military. West African leaders roundly condemned the coup and quickly imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Niger. They called for the immediate release of Bazoum, who has been detained by the military since the takeover.
A few days after the coup, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued an ultimatum to the junta leaders to restore constitutional order within one week. ECOWAS chiefs threatened to use military force to reinstate the deposed president if their demands were not met. With the passage of the deadline and no hope yet of a resolution, West Africans are holding their collective breath waiting to see what happens next.
The events in Niger are also being watched closely from afar due to their geopolitical implications. Bazoum is said to have been a close ally of the West, in particular France and the U.S. Both countries have had military presence in Niger for the past several years to support their counter-terrorism missions in Africa’s Sahel region. As has been the case historically, Russia competes with the West for influence in the region. At present, that influence is exerted mostly via the presence of the Wagner Group, the Russian private military force. Wagner currently provides security services to military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the rulers similarly came to power through recent coups.
Senior government officials from the U.S. and other Western countries have echoed the calls of West African leaders for the restoration of constitutional order in Niger. Not only do those appeals continue to fall on deaf ears, it has since emerged that there are tens of thousands of ordinary Nigeriens who actually support the coup leaders.
One might be tempted to dismiss those sympathizers as poorly educated and misguided, but the show of support shouldn’t come as a surprise to any close observer of African politics. Also, significant numbers of West Africans are against the proposed military intervention in Niger. They see no sense in having their national soldiers fight on the orders of politicians who, in their eyes, are in many ways worse than the junta leaders.
Somehow, the conduct of regular elections has become broadly seen as enough to consider a country democratic. The reality is that in much of Africa, these elections are increasingly being viewed as a waste of time. Invariably, the people who assume power through elections quickly turn corrupt and unaccountable. They loot public resources with impunity. Whatever institutions exist to check the political elite tend to be hopelessly corrupt themselves. This has led to widespread frustration in many countries, and there have been recent instances where some citizens have openly called for the overthrow of their elected governments.
There is an alarming erosion of faith in democracy as a suitable form of government on the continent. Increasing numbers of people are calling for democracy to be ditched and replaced with some other model that they think would be more effective and accountable. It is unclear exactly what these people have in mind, but it sounds from listening to some African commentators that they would prefer some form of autocratic rule.
I lived for a period in the Soviet Union and therefore know what life under a non-democratic government looks and feels like. Familiarity breeds contempt, so African frustration with the so-called democracy that has not delivered for them is quite understandable. And it is sometimes natural to hold romantic views about the unfamiliar. But anyone who finds autocracy attractive should take a look at today’s Russia and realize how dangerous it is for any nation to put its fate in the hands of one man—or a small group of men.
One of the most important things we all cherish as humans is the freedom to determine our own destinies. That, in my view, makes democracy the natural form of governance in any human society. It is a system that gives the governed a say in who governs them, what they can expect from their governors, and how to hold them to account. However, the champions of democracy have failed miserably in one respect. They have completely and consistently been silent about what it takes to build a real democracy.
In her 1979 seminal essay in Commentary Magazine, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote: “In Britain, the road from the Magna Carta to the Act of Settlement, to the great Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1885, took seven centuries to traverse. American history gives no better grounds for believing that democracy comes easily, quickly, or for the asking.”
A lot of the frustration we see everywhere nowadays, and the disdain people show towards democracy, are due to the fact that its proponents have simply gone around the world giving people the impression that it is a form of government that can be had simply by asking. As Kirkpatrick notes, building a durable democracy is a long, arduous, and methodical process that requires patience and takes enormous sacrifice.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the eminent social scientist and former U.S. Senator from New York, said that the central conservative truth is that culture, not politics, determines a society’s success. In their excellent book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson placed a large emphasis on strong institutions as the bedrock of well-functioning societies. The main weakness—a major one—of the book, in my view, is their downplaying of the importance of culture. Every single one of the dysfunctional countries in Africa has institutions—legislature, judiciary, civil service—but they exist in name only. It is culture that makes institutions work. A society can have any number of institutions and laws on its books, but if it has a culture of general disrespect for rules and laws, widespread apathy and rampant indiscipline, it will inevitably malfunction.
The recent developments in Niger present a useful opportunity for democracy’s proponents to pause and take a serious look at where they have gone wrong. For any democratic system to endure, it must be homegrown, not imposed by outsiders. And the people in societies that aspire to live under representative forms of government must learn the hard truths that Kirkpatrick enumerated in her essay. Failing to do that will only deepen the disaffection with democracy, and elections will continue to feel like a mere spinning of wheels.