Why it matters to rethink West Africa’s democratic future

Why it matters to rethink West Africa’s democratic future

The democratic ideals and practices that have been sustained in West Africa within the past three decades appear to be fading away, given the surge in military coups in recent years.


Countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon are cases in point. This democratic decay or backsliding, as some experts have described it, seems to be getting out of control.

Two reasons could help explain the worry by observers of the current situation in West Africa. First, the concern about the fragmentation of ECOWAS given the decision by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to withdraw from the regional bloc and the likely negative impact the departure might cause the region.

Second, the growing popular support for these coups and the adverse effect this disturbing trend will have on democracies as ideals or principles worth defending. Admittedly, the ongoing storm of democratic decline in West Africa, especially in the Sahel region, appears to have taken many experts by surprise, given how the region has been studied and analysed within the last three decades on critical issues of nation-building, state institutions, democratic progress, and the prospect of a stable democratic future for West Africa. The opposite seems to be the emerging reality for the region, which explains why we are making the case for scholars, policymakers and ordinary Africans to rethink what the future of

West Africa’s democracy might look like. We discuss these issues within the context of two standpoints with recommendations. 

Coups and the Fragmentation of West Africa

First, as many in the region are aware, ECOWAS is being fragmented and heading towards an uncertain future of disunity and mistrust following the decision by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to withdraw from the regional bloc in a joint statement issued on January 28, 2024.

The risky and seemingly unwise decision by these military regimes was their response to the severe sanctions that were imposed on Niger in July 2023, and the demand by ECOWAS for the reinstatement of President Mohamed Bazoum, who was overthrown by the military.

While ECOWAS had earlier condemned the coups that took place in Burkina Faso and Mali, the threat by leaders of the regional bloc to use force against Niger prompted the juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali to warn ECOWAS of their preparedness to defend Niger from any military attack on the country.

The juntas noted that any use of force against Niger would be “tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.” Three unusual geopolitical dynamics were on display here.

The simultaneous withdrawal of three member states from the 15-nation bloc, the threat from ECOWAS to use force against a member state, and the coordinated response from the two regimes to defend Niger in any military attack from ECOWAS.

From a geopolitical standpoint, these developments are not only unprecedented but totally out of the norm for ECOWAS, which has been largely guided by the principles of Pan-Africanism, African solidarity and regional unity, regardless of the political ideology and differences among member states.

The unprecedented nature of the hard politics being played by these key actors is not only risky for the stability of the region, but a wedge of mistrust is also being created within ECOWAS.  

Others have also expressed concern about the long-term effects of the fragmentation of ECOWAS, given the lack of progress from these regimes to initiate a genuine return to constitutional order.

While some of the sanctions have recently been lifted on these countries by ECOWAS for a meaningful dialogue to deal with the problem, the rift between the juntas and ECOWAS seems to be widening, as these regimes have created a new security alliance (defence pact) known as the Alliance of Sahel States (AES).

Additionally, the three regimes have also severed diplomatic ties with France, their former colonial power, as the BBC has reported. Niger is also asking the US to withdraw its troops from the country. 
While the relations between the juntas and their Western democratic allies have continued to deteriorate, these regimes are, on the other hand, strengthening their relations with Russia and China. In fact, Russia’s interests in the Sahel region are geopolitical and economic.

The region is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and uranium, which have a very high strategic value. The region’s location also makes it a crucial transit point for illicit trade, including arms, drugs and human trafficking, which provide a significant source of revenue for extremist groups.

It is clear that the political stability of the region or better put, the predictability idea, when it comes to the democratic future of West Africa, might be a mirage and, therefore, demands a serious rethinking of how a future democratic landscape of West Africa might look like.  

Unfulfilled promises of democracy

The second standpoint to be discussed relates to the growing popular support for these coups and the effect this disturbing trend might have on the collective idea and value of democracies that are worth defending.

While the popular support for coups is not a new phenomenon in the region, the trend has become worrisome in recent years. For many experts, the surge in military coups and the popular support for them is part of broader governance challenges facing West Africa and the rest of Africa.

Challenges such as flawed democratic structures, weak and opaque state institutions, corruption, mismanagement and the inability of governments to deliver public goods to the people partly account for the increasing dissatisfaction across the sub-region about the value of democracies. Others describe the rising dissatisfaction as the unfulfilled promises of democracy itself.


In other words, democracy appears not to be delivering to the ordinary people as expected. This is where the challenges of faulty democratic structures, weak institutions, corruption and mismanagement come into play to help us better understand the debates on the unfulfilled promises of democracy.

Why democracies matter to West Africa’s future 

While the idea or argument of unfulfilled promises is a fair one to articulate, it also raises a further question that must be emphasised. That is, democracy appears not to be delivering for the people, or simply put, failing the people.

But are military coups the answer to failing democracies? Or does a military regime provide a suitable alternative for Africa’s future? We argue that democracies can be slow and messy, but defective democracies need to be properly diagnosed and treated with incremental reforms and policy changes and not be totally removed by military adventurists in the name of fighting for the people.  

Conclusion and recommendations

There is no question that West Africa is currently at a crossroads, given the surge in military coups and the damage a permanent fragmentation can cause ECOWAS and its broader impact on the peace and stability of the subregion.


The surge in coups is also likely to negatively impact fractured or the most fragile democracies in the region. The popular support for these coups is another source of concern as these trends will erode the collective value of the ideals of democracy in the next generation of West Africans.

We are also reminded of the growing ties these regimes are forging with authoritarian regimes such as Russia and the likely impact on the democratic future of the region. It is important to stress that the countries that have experienced coups in recent years, especially in the Sahel, are among the poorest in the world. These countries also had difficulties in deepening their democratic values, norms and cultures within the past three decades. 

ECOWAS is not so effective in dealing with the current crisis. Leading countries such as Ghana and Nigeria need to take the lead in working with other leaders to resolve the crisis.

ECOWAS also needs to be pragmatic by maintaining its position on the importance of promoting democracy in West Africa, while also employing its seasoned diplomats and top military officers to strategically negotiate with the juntas to initiate political reforms.


It must be made clear that West Africa is not going back to the military eras of the 1960s and 1970s. The juntas are aware that their so-called regime alliance in the Sahel will not survive time.

It is, therefore, in the best interest of ECOWAS for its 15-member states to be intact in the broader interest of promoting peace and stability in the region. There is no question that Africans, for that matter West Africans, value and cherish what democracy offers in terms of civil liberties, freedom and fundamental human rights as opposed to the restricted tenets of authoritarian regimes.

At the same time, the inability of democracy to deliver socio-economic gains offers a persuasive explanation for the rising political dissatisfaction with how democracy is currently being practised in Africa. Democratic governance should be the future of West Africa.  

The writers are an Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for African Studies at Kent State University in Ohio, USA, and a Governance Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Ghana, a regularly columist of Daily Graphic, respectively

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