While most of the world looked to Eastern Europe as the next frontier of democratic development in the late 20th century, a simultaneous—albeit far less renowned—promise of freedom was generating excitement across West Africa. In the decades following the end of the Cold War, West Africa was the region of the continent making the most progress toward democracy. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) restructured its mandate in July 1993 and again in 2001 to promote free and fair elections, even introducing a protocol mandating “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.”
These affirmations of democracy, straight out of the dreams of US Secretaries of State, were more than just empty assurances. ECOWAS successfully restored the democracies of Mali in 2012, Burkina Faso in 2015, and The Gambia in 2016, ousting regimes established by military coups against previous democratic leaders. No change in power in West Africa between 2015 and 2020 was undemocratic. The West had finally won its war of attrition against authoritarianism in West Africa–or so it thought.
In reality, the war was far from over. In 2019, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal saw extreme drops in their freedom scores—a measure of civil liberties and political rights as calculated by Freedom House, an NGO—despite having “democratic” governments. Elections were marred by politically driven prosecutions of opposition party leaders, failures to enact electoral reform, and internet shutdowns—the first signs of democratic backsliding. Then, in rapid succession, six successful coups swept across West Africa. In the last three years, Niger, Guinea, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso all replaced their presidents with military dictatorships.
What about the last three years explains this rapid unraveling of democratic norms and institutions in West Africa? A flailing fight against extremism in the Sahel, a sub-saharan region extending from Senegal to Sudan, is partly to blame. Heavy-handed, Western-backed military offensives have sown disruption and discontent in the region and undermined liberal principles. The Nigerian government, for instance, used instability as a justification for new laws threatening free speech, alongside punitive military campaigns against Boko Haram which killed almost as many civilians as Boko Haram did. Such policies did irreparable harm to the image and support of liberal democracies in the eyes of their constituents.
Beyond internal struggles, grander geopolitical factors are also helping to fell West African democracies. No longer must ECOWAS contend solely with rogue military juntas—coup-makers now enjoy the backing of other regional dictatorships, Chinese investment, and Russian paramilitary forces. Taken together, these forces dampen ECOWAS’s threats of intervention and mitigate the impact of sanctions.
American, British, and UN efforts to prevent the “spread” of coups and political instability have proved futile. Condemnations and sanctions failed to touch the authoritarians who brought an end to their nation’s democratic institutions. Further threats from ECOWAS of military intervention, closed borders, and suspended electricity in Niger did little to bring about the restoration of President Mohamed Bazoum’s democratic rule after a coup this past July.
What many Western readers might find most surprising is not the rapid succession of coups across the region in such a short time, but that these military takeovers are largely supported by West Africans. Recent polling on the July 2023 coup in Niger, for example, shows that 60 percent of respondents from Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast, all currently headed by democratically elected leaders, believe the coup was justified as a result of corruption and diminishing economic growth. Further, there is little public appetite in those nations for military intervention or sanctions against the new junta, whose agenda remains enigmatic. The data also note a strong degree of Russian and Chinese appeal in West Africa, especially in authoritarian regimes like Mali, where over 71 percent of respondents viewed Russia as their nation’s most trusted partner.
Disillusionment with democracy—potentially as a symptom of disdain towards Western institutions writ large—is on the rise worldwide. The share of Africans who believe democracy is the best form of government dropped from 75 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2023. This lack of confidence in democracy is not unfounded: Even in the United States, arguably the heartland of modern democracy, 62 percent of citizens reported dissatisfaction with “democracy in their country.” It’s not surprising, then, that West Africa—where democratic leaders oversaw periods of rising extremism and corruption—has found itself forging a new path in an effort to appease an unhappy citizenry that feels disappointed by “democracy.”
Unsurprisingly, China has tried to capitalize on this anti-democratic shift in West Africa. Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party has taken it upon itself to fight against the current international system, which is entrenched in liberal values and touts the superiority of democratic governance.
From a school in Tanzania educating military leaders on how to cement long-term rule to over 20 billion dollars put towards Nigerian oil investments and rail lines, China is waging its own coup against American influence. From its Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) expanded military operations and political leadership education programs, it is clear that China seeks to redesign political and social structures. Just as the United States sought to propagate its values across the region, China is now fomenting democratic backsliding as a mechanism to remodel West African states after itself.
For decades, the West—through institutions like the IMF—painted liberal democracy as the only structure of government that would advance free speech, bring accountability to governance, and, most importantly, promote economic growth. The failure of these goals to materialize has forced West Africans, still searching for development and stability, to turn toward alternative sources of hope—particularly predatory Chinese investment.
Consider pre-coup Niger, whose “democratic” election in 2016 was “plagued with irregularities including vote buying, underage voting, and rigging of election results,” according to Freedom House. The main opposition candidate was disqualified in the 2016 and 2020 elections, preserving the incumbent regime. That an election occurred does not mean that it was democratic, nor that it served the will of the people in any regard: The now deposed ruling party was named the “parents, amis (friends), and connaissances (acquaintances)” regime for the rampant nepotism it promoted. All 10 of the wealthiest individuals in Niger were members of the ruling party or a supporting party. In a nation with economic growth on par with autocracies such as neighboring Mali and minimum wages stagnant at 45 euros a month, it is no wonder that tens of thousands of Nigeriens, filling entire stadiums, turned out to support coup-maker General Abdourahamane Tiani. Contrary to Western conceptions of military coups as despicable and oppressive, many at the heart of the event actually felt liberated.
It remains highly unlikely that the new Nigerien regime will fare any better at reducing corruption or inequality than the last, but the previous iteration of government certainly was not the “example for democracy” French President Emmanuel Macron and other Western leaders made it out to be.
Yet it is precisely the troubling tale of colonization, political violence, and failed democracy that makes representative government so important for West Africa. Though far from perfect, enfranchisement remains the best way to promote popular demands without violent rebellion, hold leaders accountable, and promote equitable economic growth. Instead of rigid structures lending power to strong presidents and Western proxies, West African democracy needs to center on the values of free speech, voting access, economic mobility, and accountability that citizens were originally promised 30 years ago. These are the very ideals that citizens stand to benefit from, and want to see materialize—not another French military base.
The Biden administration’s 2022 strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa emphasizes those ideals: democratic and economic development over military or security ties. Yet, with an $800 billion Pentagon budget dwarfing the budget of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development combined, an American realignment toward democracy will take more than a strategy memo—it will take unprecedented sums of money for election infrastructure and humanitarian aid. Enabling truly democratic leaders across West Africa to address the most important issues for voters, such as unemployment, water supply, food shortages, health, and education is the only way to restore public faith in democracy—the key to any enduring republic.
All the while, China will continue to use West Africa as a pawn in its quest for global hegemony. Its ostensibly “no-strings-attached” investment in oil refinement and rail projects will stifle the potential for a democratic triumph in West Africa. Not only will Chinese influence promote and prop up authoritarian regimes in exchange for loyalty, but BRI debt traps will continue to primarily be contractors tied to the government—corruption at its finest.
West Africans need assistance on their journey toward liberal democracy, and if the West continues to package selfish military installations as “aid,” West Africa will continue turning toward China for salvation. This will cost the United States power on the global stage as it gears up for the coming of a second cold war, and it might just make West Africa independent of the influence of either superpower in the future. Thus, if Western countries remain serious about living up to their stated democratic values and countering Chinese autocratic influences in West Africa and beyond—without revoking the sovereignty of such nations—they must revolutionize how “democracy” is marketed and implemented.
As Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo noted, West Africa is at a crossroads for democracy: “Even with two decades of democratic elections in the ECOWAS Community, our Member States still remain works-in-progress as democracies. Out of duty towards our children and grandchildren, we must not give up.”