The military coup in Niger is only the latest crisis to afflict West Africa. Following a series of putsches in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso; political upheavals in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria; and the escalation of violent extremism in Togo and Benin, the outlook is concerning and requires an urgent reassessment of America’s regional strategy.
Earlier in the summer, protests swept Senegal as President Macky Sall sought an unconstitutional third term and jailed the main opposition candidate on dubious charges. Security forces cracked down on the protests, leaving almost 40 dead. The demonstrations abated when Sall relented under international pressure and announced he would not seek a third term. Then came the stunning announcement that Sall had dissolved the opposition party by decree, spurring another round of protests on Aug. 1.
In June, Sierra Leone’s incumbent president was re-elected, winning just enough votes to avoid a runoff, but election observers were alarmed by statistical inconsistencies in the announced results. That and lack of transparency by the election body have fueled allegations of manipulation.
In February, elections in Nigeria were marred by violence, logistical failures, and a lack of transparency, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in the country’s democratic history. With allegations of malfeasance set to be decided in the courts, the public is waiting to see whether Nigeria’s election body will allow for an independent commission to investigate the election.
As democracy retreats, violent extremism is on the march: Recent terrorist attacks in Togo and Benin show that the Sahel’s conflicts are increasingly drawing coastal West Africa into the fray.
While the context in each country in West Africa is unique, the overall trend of democratic decline and growing instability is clear, and is being exacerbated by ethnic, religious, economic, and environmental pressures. These cross-cutting challenges require a transnational understanding of the region’s problems, and clear-eyed policies to reverse the downward spiral.
Democratic Backsliding and Conflict Contagion
An analysis of data in a recent report from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute shows that over the past five years, nine of 16 West African countries have experienced significant democratic backsliding. In some countries, this regression has taken the form of “constitutional coups,” as regimes have sought to remove term limits and other restraints on executive power. Compared with 2013 and 2014, when Benin and Ghana were considered liberal democracies, the region now has no liberal democracies and few electoral democracies, with most countries considered either electoral autocracies or closed authoritarian regimes.
During the same period, armed conflict has spread throughout the region. From 2018 to 2022, 15 of 16 West African countries experienced an increase in the annual number of conflict incidents, and 12 countries had an annual increase of greater than 50 percent. The trend has continued in 2023: As of July, 12 of 16 countries in the region are on track to meet or exceed the levels of armed conflict they experienced last year.
Military takeovers have also emerged as a major feature of the political landscape in West Africa. The most recent coup in Niger suggests the steady erosion of democracy in the region has amplified pre-existing vulnerabilities. Democratic backsliding and conflict create risks not just internally, but also for neighboring countries, a spillover effect that is increasingly evident in West Africa. The evidence continues to show that consolidated democracy is the strongest source of resiliency to coups. In fact, analysis of historical data from 1946-2022, cross-referenced with regime-type data from V-Dem, reveals that a successful coup has never occurred in a liberal democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, Ghana, Botswana, and South Africa, all considered liberal democracies for long periods of time, never experienced successful coups (or even significant coup attempts) during those periods.
Religion, Ethnicity, and Violent Extremism
West Africa exhibits several acute transnational characteristics that increase vulnerabilities to conflict and democratic backsliding, including religious division. Many countries in West Africa are home to large Muslim and Christian populations, with the former heavily concentrated in the northern regions and the latter in the south. While some countries are overwhelmingly Muslim and some overwhelmingly Christian, a large subset of countries are at least 20 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim.
Despite a history of peaceful religious co-existence in much of West Africa, religious conflict has become more common. Islamist extremism has risen with the sustained promotion of Salafism by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, particularly in Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria. Extreme interpretations of Islam have fueled ideology that is less focused on religious devotion and is more compatible with the tenets of violent extremism.
In line with this trend, data suggests a startling lack of religious trust in the region. According to an Afrobarometer survey of seven West African countries (Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo), an average of 41 percent of respondents expressed little or no trust in people from other religions. This lack of trust has been accompanied by increasing restrictions on religious freedom in 10 of 16 countries in West Africa between 2018 and 2022.
Transnational ethnic conflict has also been on the rise. West Africa boasts several major transnational populations, and the Fulani people are the most notable example, with significant populations in almost every country in the region. About one-third of Fulanis are nomadic, which constitutes the largest group of nomadic pastoralists in the world. Resistant to settling in any one country, they often experience political and social marginalization, and resort to a network of armed militias to protect their interests. The vanishing of grazing routes in much of the region, due in large part to population growth and increased farming, has drawn these pastoralists into conflict with farmers, with violence increasingly playing out along sectarian lines.
The rise of violent extremism has also revealed vulnerabilities to recruitment among these communities. In some countries, Fulanis are motivated to join jihadist groups after experiencing state-sponsored violence (carried out by state forces, paramilitaries, and foreign mercenaries), while also being drawn to their invocation of potent historical narratives.
West Africa is the only region in the world where the global explosion of violent extremism witnessed in the early 21st century has maintained its momentum. Violent extremist organizations such as Boko Haram, ISIS-West Africa Province, ISIS-Sahel Province and JNIM now conduct operations in nearly half the region’s countries. In Nigeria, ISIS-West Africa Province continues to expand operations beyond its traditional base in Borno in the North East to states in the North West and North Central regions. JNIM, a Salafi Jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, has made significant inroads among Fulani communities and other rural populations since 2017, and has expanded from Mali to Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, and Benin. As of mid-2023, deaths from jihadist violence in Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso are on track to surpass 2022 levels.
Regional Economic Disparities and Foreign Authoritarian Influence
Countries in Coastal West Africa also suffer from severe disparities in economic development between their northern and southern regions: In Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire, poverty rates in northern states average double the rates in southern states.
This north-south regional disparity can compound ethnic and religious cleavages, especially where it fuels the perception of deliberate marginalization. Afrobarometer surveys of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo indicate that this problem is worsening: As of 2022, on average, 19 percent of respondents believe their ethnic group is treated unfairly by the government, an 8-point increase from 2021.
Instability has also left West Africa increasingly susceptible to the malign influence of Russia and China. While Russia’s role in the Niger coup remains unclear, Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin hailed the coup, and Russia stands to gain if Niger turns away from the West like other authoritarian regimes in the region. In a telling incident, after Niger’s coup, protesters waving Russian flags attacked the French Embassy.
China and Russia have capitalized on instability in the region to increase their influence. Arms shipments is one example of this. Available data indicates that imports of heavy weapons from China to countries in West Africa more than tripled between 2020 and 2022 compared with 2017 to 2019. Similarly, West African imports of heavy weapons from Russia between 2020 and 2022 nearly doubled compared with 2017 to 2019. This does not include illicit arms transfers to Mali and other countries. China also has ramped up predatory lending and cooption of strategic assets in West Africa since 2011 and is now financing seaport development projects in eight West African countries.
Analysis of public perceptions, however, may indicate decreasing authoritarian influence in some areas. Data from Afrobarometer for eight countries in the region surveyed in 2016 and again in 2022 shows that the percentage of respondents reporting that China had “a lot of influence” on their country’s economy fell significantly in six of eight countries. And public support for democracy in the region remains rock solid. In these same eight countries, a strong majority of respondents (74 percent on average) reported that democracy is preferable to any other system of government.
Re-Thinking the Problem
Addressing West Africa’s downward spiral requires strategies drawn from an understanding of the links that connect democratic backsliding, poor governance, and conflict, and the set of transnational pressures faced across the region.
Providing legitimate channels for West Africans to pursue interests and address grievances is the surest way to stem the tide of conflict and extremism. While the road to democracy may be long and troubled in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger, the rest of the region has an opportunity to change the trajectory of democratic backsliding before authoritarianism is consolidated.
Upcoming elections in Ghana and Senegal are important inflection points, and the international community should invest in promoting electoral integrity and use all available leverage – including sanctions and conditions on election funding – to ensure credibility. The strong position that ECOWAS has adopted in response to the Niger coup is an example of how backsliding can be confronted in a concerted multilateral fashion, although this approach has yet to deliver tangible results in Niger.
Democracy is the region’s best defense against authoritarianism and conflict, and the unyielding support among West Africans for democracy, as shown in Afrobarometer’s surveys, is a major asset in this struggle. Therefore, when elections do not meet the expectations of the public, or when democracy is eroded by increasingly autocratic ruling parties, the international community must stand with the people and their democratic aspirations.
The international community should also avoid fixating solely on coups and the need for complex post-coup transitions at the expense of countering the underlying democratic backsliding in the region. The tendency of countries post-coup to embark on marginal reforms should not be confused as a signpost of impending democratic transition. Over-optimism about democratic transition in Sudan is a case in point.
Analysis of 30 coups in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1991 to 2022 shows that in 70 percent of cases, coups were followed by marginal improvement in regime type in an average of five years. A return to democracy was achieved in only 50 percent of cases and took an average of 9.5 years. It is clearly more difficult to achieve democracy following the complete closing of political space, suggesting that efforts may be better spent preventing the closing of political space where it still exists – in countries like Ghana, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.
Fortunately, we know that democratization can be contagious. Therefore, the best strategy to facilitate democratic transitions in the region’s autocracies may be to change the democratic trajectory of the neighborhood.
While coordinated security arrangements will be critical to improve regional stability, such efforts have encountered challenges. One example is the 2017 Accra Initiative – a joint security arrangement between Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Niger – aimed at improving coordination among the neighbors to stem the spillover of violent extremism from the Sahel. The initiative has been slow to produce results. A planned joint task force of 10,000 soldiers is yet to materialize, and the initiative’s international backers remain reluctant to invest more resources. These failures are likely driven by a combination of factors, including lack of clear conditions for resource commitments, the COVID pandemic, and the fact that four of the initiative’s six signatories – Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger – have experienced dramatic democratic deterioration.
The international community should also be cognizant of the danger of allowing new low-grade conflicts to fester, such as the emergent conflict with JNIM in northern Togo and Benin. Once the threshold is crossed into war, conflicts may become intractable, lasting a decade or more. Minimizing this risk requires preventing human rights abuses, limiting the number of actors involved in conflict, and providing legitimate political alternatives to those who might otherwise be incentivized to support insurgency.
The Way Forward
Encouragingly, the strategic importance of West Africa has been recognized by American and international policy initiatives. For example, five of the nine countries of focus selected under the U.S. Global Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS) are in West Africa. The strategy astutely aims to address “…transnational challenges, which disrupt ways of life, economies, and whole societies” and recognizes that “…democratic governance and respect for human rights are increasingly under threat as violent extremists and practitioners of oppression assert their authoritarian will through coercion and violence.”
Leveraging the SPCPS should be a key component of the effort to change the region’s trajectory. The 10-year time horizon and regional outlook are a welcome departure from the traditional U.S. approach of shorter-term, country-focused programming, but the U.S. must ensure that these core concepts are not lost as programs are implemented on the ground. For example, some country-specific programs that deal with transnational issues could be scaled up to regional-level programs. While more complex from a bureaucratic perspective, regional programs are far more likely to have real impact on transnational issues.
The Biden administration’s 2022 Africa Strategy also shows a way forward, committing the United States to “…stem the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers by working with allies and partners… to respond to democratic backsliding and human rights abuses, including through a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions.” However, the use of sanctions in response to recent democratic backsliding in West Africa has often been limited. For example, during the 2023 elections in Nigeria, the U.S. pledged to use sanctions to deter violence and malfeasance, yet relied on secret visa bans instead of public sanctions. Moving forward, accountability should be strengthened, and the U.S. should use public sanctions against named individuals – including party and government officials – responsible for political violence or malfeasance, especially in critical upcoming elections.
The U.S. and its international partners should facilitate and invest in security agreements between the region’s democracies. The failure of the Accra Initiative highlights the risks to security arrangements made without clear conditions and divorced from democratic imperatives. Security arrangements should also be conditioned on avoiding tactics of repression that fuel violent extremism.
Transnational ethnic issues must also be addressed. Fulani marginalization and vulnerability to violent extremism is a reality that cannot be effectively addressed through compartmentalized country strategies. A transnational strategy is necessary to address marginalization, support political inclusion, and encourage smart policy initiatives including the establishment of ranches for grazing and effective transnational management of water resources.
The U.S. and the international community must also support robust policies aimed at reversing declines in religious freedom and the growth of religious intolerance. Available tools such as sanctions and U.S. State Department designations of Countries of Particular Concern in relation to religious freedom should be deployed proactively. The pernicious influence of countries that export religious extremist ideology also should be actively countered. As the above-mentioned public opinion surveys and other evidence has shown, such beliefs are antithetical to the tolerant religious traditions of West Africa, and the overwhelming preference of West Africans to live in free and open democratic societies.
Despite the obvious and growing challenges in West Africa, there are sources of resilience. To be effective, regional approaches must draw on this strength and utilize leverage and assistance to combat democratic backsliding, reduce support for violent extremism, and address critical transnational pressures. Moreover, these approaches must be implemented while the window of opportunity remains open – an opportunity that seems more fleeting every day.