Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum gather to show their support for him in Niamey on July 26, 2023
A western ally falls: Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was ousted in a coup in July last year, sparking demonstrations in Niamey — the people above backed Bazoum . . .  © AFP via Getty Images

Mohamed Bazoum, a quietly spoken schoolteacher-turned-politician, spent the beginning and end of 2023 in the presidential palace in Niamey, the dusty capital of Niger. While he started the year as president, he ended it as a prisoner.

In July, Bazoum was ousted in a coup d’état mounted by the head of his presidential guard, Abdourahmane Tchiani, following a pattern familiar in the Sahel — a semi-arid strip stretching nearly 6,000km, just below the Sahara.

With a series of coups in the region since 2019 — two in Sudan, one in Guinea, two in Mali, and two in Burkina Faso — military governments have shot themselves to power in an unbroken belt of countries across the continent.

Niger’s coup was swiftly followed by one in Gabon, on the Atlantic coast of central Africa, though international outcry was limited over the overthrow of the Bongo family, which had run Gabon since 1967.

The coups show a disenchantment with democracy, which, gamed by political elites, has largely failed to bring development and opportunity. It is clear, says Ken Opalo, associate professor at Washington DC’s Georgetown University, that “ritual electoralism and governance reforms do not constitute a magical portal to a well-ordered society.”

Niger was an important domino to fall, given France and the US had cultivated Bazoum as an ally, to help fight a spreading Islamist insurgency in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. Niger had also helped slow the flow of migrants heading towards Europe.

Protesters hold a Niger flag during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey on August 3, 2023
. . . the demonstrators above and right came out in support of the Niger coup © AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Niger’s National Council of Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) protest outside the Niger and French airbase in Niamey on August 30, 2023
© AFP via Getty Images

But, in just 18 months, French troops have been expelled from Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, ending France’s pretensions as a regional military power.

Zeinab Badawi, a Sudanese-British journalist and author of the forthcoming book, an African History of Africa, speaks for many who deplore the idea of a “new scramble for Africa” — a phrase with inevitable colonial overtones. However, the diminishment of France in the Sahel has coincided with intensified competition for influence in Africa.

The presence of Russia has been a growing Sahel feature, with the Wagner mercenary group, founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, embedded in the Central African Republic and Mali. What will happen following Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash in August remains unclear.

In Sudan’s civil war, which erupted in April, one side is backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the other is supported by UAE. The fighting pits Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese armed forces and de facto head of state, against Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, who controls the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group.

In commercial terms, though, the picture is more promising, in spite of the disappointing performance of the largest of Africa’s economies, notably Nigeria and South Africa. A trade and investment push by the likes of Turkey, India, Brazil, and the Gulf states is an indication of outsiders courting favour in Africa in order to cement deeper ties.

Although a bubbling debt crisis — after sovereign defaults by Zambia, Ghana and most recently Ethiopia — has dented its investment appetite, China remains a strong economic presence.

Such factors give African leaders greater confidence in their potential political clout, both with emerging powers of the Global South and with Europe and the US.

William Ruto, Kenya’s president, has already sought to negotiate a better financial deal for Africa. The Nairobi Declaration, signed by the 54 African nations in September and presented at the recent COP28 climate change conference in Dubai, urged richer countries not only to do more to cut emissions, but also to remake the global financial architecture. That, the declaration says, should involve a massive transfer of resources to a continent obliged to adapt to a climate crisis not of its making.

William Ruto, Kenya’s president, delivers his closing speech in front of African leaders on day three of the Africa Climate Summit (ACS23) outside the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023
Kenya’s President William Ruto has sought to negotiate a better financial deal for the continent © Fredrik Lerneryd/Bloomberg

Most African governments have sought to maintain an independent position on the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. “African countries should be very, very careful about taking a side,” says Nasir El Rufai, former governor of Nigeria’s Kaduna state. “We should try to do what India is doing: think through what is in our own interest.”

African economies have, in general, been slower to bounce back from Covid-19 than those elsewhere. The Economist Intelligence Unit expects aggregate growth among Africa’s nations of a modest 3.2 per cent next year, but the pattern is mixed. The EIU also forecasts 12 of the top fastest-growing 20 economies in the world will be African with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo among them.

That is partly a function of demography. Africa’s population is set to nearly double to 2.5bn by 2050, when one in four people on earth will be African.

As such, the continent’s young people are its most vital asset, yet also its most neglected. “In Africa we have the semblance of an education system,” says Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, former deputy president of South Africa and former UN under-secretary general, the result being too many children finish school without the skills to compete in the global economy. “Our most important resource is not our cobalt or our gold,” she argues. “It’s our youth.”

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