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For Gabon and Niger to return to democracy, France must relinquish control

By Ogechukwu Egwuatu

Sadly, recent military coups in West Africa enjoy popular support. ECOWAS threatening to intervene in Niger has whipped up anti-French and anti-Western sentiment. To give democracy a chance to return, France must back away.

Following a coup d’état in Niger in July, Gabon soon became the next West African nation whose government has fallen to a military takeover at the end of August. France has finally given in to the junta’s demands and withdrawn its ambassador for Niger, but it has not taken similar steps in Gabon. Unfortunately, for countries like Gabon and Niger to stand a chance of reverting to democracy, France must relinquish its lasting political control over parts of west Africa.

With country after country falling to military rule and the people supporting the military takeovers as they are tired of the socio-economic crises they face, corruption and Western influence, continued French presence in the region impedes the road to democracy for these countries. France must realise that leaving the region is the only way to create a stable democracy and stop the growing influence of the military and Russia.

Gabon’s coup came just a week after the sitting president Ali Bongo was proclaimed the winner of the elections, which were set to extend the Bongo family’s 56-year rule. Gabon is the fifth country in the Sahel to fall to military leaders in the latest wave of coups which have swept through the region in the past 18 months.

The spread of military rule in the region is disturbing. Despite the appeal that the military juntas seem to have to people in these countries as a solution to current problems and a beacon of hope for true independence, military rule is unlikely to bring the respite they need.

Coups tend to pave the way for these countries to create stronger ties with Russia in their bid to decouple from France, leading to the problem of Russia’s increasing influence in the region. Russia has expressed no interest in respecting democracy and national sovereignty. The current war in Ukraine and Russia’s occupation of territories in Georgia and Moldova attest to the fact that partnering with Russia will most likely lead to more authoritarian rule in these countries.

It is worth mentioning that Western influence in the country hasn’t led to much progress. Niger receives almost US$2bn in aid each year. That has not done much to improve the state of the country. It remains one of the lowest ranked countries on the United Nations’s Human Development Index with heavy reliance on foreign aid as well as persisting problems with insecurity, food insecurity, poverty, corruption, long-sitting rulers and widespread discontent among the population. International aid has failed; only local solutions can solve these countries’ domestic challenges.

Democracy cannot be restored without the support of the people. In Niger especially, coup leaders enjoy support from the population due to anti-French sentiments. Since the military takeover, there have been a number of anti-French protests in the country, most recently threats by protesters to storm the French military base and Embassy in Niger. Even in countries with less support for military rule, anti-French sentiments gather enough support to favour military rulers over democratic heads of state, who are viewed as puppets of the West.

The current debacle does not do much to improve the image of France and Western relations in Africa. ECOWAS threatening to invade Niger has drawn attention and support for the military among citizens of the bloc. They view the threat of military action from ECOWAS in Niger as ECOWAS being a puppet of the West and the conflict becoming another neocolonial proxy conflict. This means even if France were to succeed in deposing the military junta and restoring President Bazoum or another friendly face to power, any new head of state would be seen as a colonial figurehead greatly undermining their democratic legitimacy from day one.

After recalling its ambassador, France has finally begun withdrawing its troops from Niger. This is the right decision and it should have been taken sooner. While it will be painful in the short term, the restoration of sustainable democracy in the region can only be achieved by the citizens of these countries. Societal change comes first from a shift in ideas among the people and cannot be enforced by outside influence.

France’s insistence on remaining in the region would only fuel anti-French sentiments which in turn lead to more support for the junta and Russia. For people to get behind democratic rule, it needs to be free of all appearances of colonialism. As such, France must let go and not let itself become the poster child for anti-Western narratives.

Unfortunately, France leaving still cannot guarantee the restoration of democracy in the region. However, France’s continued presence in the region would be a roadblock on the path to democracy. If France cares about democracy in Africa, it should withdraw completely from Niger, Gabon, and any other country with rising anti-French sentiments. The people of Niger have shown that they want a change in their society. Hopefully, they will eventually want that change to extend to the restoration of democracy. We should be there to support them when that time comes.

Ogechukwu Egwuatu is a fellow with Young Voices Europe and a Nigerian writer and campaigner, based in France.