After a short lull during the later half of the 2010s, a new wave of coups, both successful and attempted, has hit West Africa in the past few years. News outlets reported on the events quite thoroughly, describing the regime changes occurring in nations such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The coup forces follow a common pattern: forming provisional military juntas, ending democratic experiments in their respective countries, in the name of national security and stability. 

Specifically, Niger’s 2023 coup d’etat connected a string of nations vulnerable to coups, known colloquially as the “Coup Belt”: a line of countries, starting in Guinea and running eastward all the way to Sudan, which constitutes the longest corridor of military rule on earth. Since independence, the region has remained unstable, prone to rapid regime change backed by military strongmen. This often spills out beyond the belt, creating the constant instability in Western Africa.

ECOWAS & Stability

The main counter to this instability has been the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a bloc that at its peak included fifteen countries, and has grown to be the region’s premier organization for mediating disputes and ensuring stability. This has been done through the use of sanctions and occasional threats of direct military interventions by the bloc, to try and keep existing governments in power. This strategy has proven relatively effective, as government longevity did increase as ECOWAS stepped up its efforts, if at the cost of significant goodwill from citizens, who felt trapped under bad governance. This led to the leadership of the most recent coups to exit the bloc, instead forming their own alliance, named the Alliance des États du Sahel (AES). With these exits, ECOWAS’ defenses against regime change appear to have fallen apart, but why?

The root of the issue appears to lie in ECOWAS’ collaboration with the nation that generated the conditions for this perpetual instability: France. Beyond colonization, France has continued to dominate over its West African colonies even after independence, through both military outposts, as well as the economic stranglehold the nation maintains over much of Africa with the Central African CFA Franc.

The CFA Franc

The Coopération Financière en Afrique (CFA) Franc is the name for two currencies, one in West Africa and the other in Central Africa, both of which are directly pegged to the Euro. The currencies are managed by the Banque de France, representing direct financial control from Paris over former French colonies in Western and Central Africa. Nations using the currency have until recently been obligated to provide half of their foreign exchange reserves to Banque de France, causing many to accuse the system of being neocolonialist. Although the Macron government announced a reform declaring an end to this system, economists say the changes made are only symbolic. Due to its influence over these nations via currency, France has continued to exploit and dominate its former colonies in Africa.

As a result of possible instability from attempting to create a new currency, leaders of CFA Franc nations have allowed the system to continue. However, popular discontent with the system has been increasingly prevalent. For many, the currency has been a gateway for French intervention more directly, as agreements for military deployments and interventions against regimes hostile to Paris are notable since independence. The most recent wave of coups — specifically those in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — has been unified by a desire to remove France’s influence from their nations and the broader region.

From Anti-French to Anti-West

Due to the domineering nature of France’s relationship with its former colonies, many citizens of West African countries have become disillusioned with the idea of liberal Western democracy, as exploitation has continued to occur post-independence. Due to their support of France, countries in the Western sphere of influence are viewed as adversaries by citizens of these nations. Thus, they are willing to support coups that remove rulers who are backed by the Western powers. To supply these coups, military leaders have begun to accept the support of the premier ‘anti-Western’ powers: Russia and China. 

While China’s involvement in Africa is primarily through the sale of arms and economic leverage, Russian influence has expanded significantly in the region via military contracts and diplomatic missions, causing coup supporters to carry Russian flags in marches, along with their own nations’. For maintenance of security, regimes have turned to Russia to supply military advisors, and perhaps even mercenary forces, to maintain order and dissuade interventions from ECOWAS or the French military forces in the region.

This acceptance of Russian influence is a direct result of unequal treatment of African nations by the West, especially France. As growing anti-Western sentiment causes divestment from Western economies, trade between coup-ridden nations and Russia increases. As a result, Russia has gained substantial influence in the region and in Africa as a whole, while support for the West has fallen. This shift has undermined efforts to contain the rise of anti-Western influences globally.

Drawing Conclusions

Because of the actions of nations like France, the liberal democratic values the West wants to universalize are losing support in Africa, harming efforts to achieve global unity on key issues. In a UN vote regarding Ukraine, African nations showed stark division and a large number of abstentions when deciding whether to condemn Russia’s actions.

By continuing to intervene in African affairs, and exploiting favorable regimes for their resources via unequal exchange, France and its allies are pushing African countries into Russia and China’s spheres of influence. If they wish to prevent this, the West needs to make substantial revisions to its relationship with Africa, and reframe their interactions with the intention of helping African nations and their people, rather than a solely self-interested or geopolitical view.

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