Democracy Crumbling in African Countries Once Ruled by France

In Senegal, the president tried to cancel an election. In Niger, a military coup d’état toppled an elected president, who eight months later is still imprisoned in the presidential palace. In Chad, the leading opposition politician was killed in a shootout with security forces. And in Tunisia, once the only democratic success story of the Arab Spring rebellions, the president is steering the state toward increasing autocracy.

Democracy is in trouble in former French colonies in Africa. And the two ways it is being subverted — by the elected officials entrusted with upholding it, or by coup plotters overthrowing governments — are manifestations of the same malaise, according to some experts.

After they won independence from France in the 1960s, nascent states modeled their constitutions on France’s, concentrating power in presidents’ hands. And France maintained a web of business and political ties with its former colonies — a system known as Françafrique — often propping up corrupt governments. These are among the reasons analysts cite for the democratic crisis in these countries.

While a majority of Africans polled still say they prefer democracy to other forms of government, support for it is declining in Africa, while approval of military rule is on the rise — it has doubled since 2000. That shift is happening much faster in former French colonies than in former British ones, according to Boniface Dulani, the director of surveys for Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan research organization.

“People have been disillusioned with democracy,” he said.

The ground has been primed for military takeovers. Eight of the nine successful coups in Africa since 2020 have been in former French colonies — the only exception is Sudan, a former British colony. Former French colonies have been “champions of coups” as well as champions of a hollow pretense at “constitutional order” and democracy, said Ndongo Samba Sylla, coauthor of a new book on France and its former African colonies.

“Ordinary people, they’re against your constitutional order,” Mr. Sylla said. “We call this a despotic order.”

None of the nine African countries ranked as “free” by Freedom House, a pro-democracy group, is a former French colony. And half of the continent’s 20 former French colonies received the group’s worst ranking: “not free.” All of them scored lower on Freedom House’s freedom scale in 2023 than in 2019, except Djibouti and Morocco, which stayed the same, and Mauritania, which after decades of military rule recently started holding elections.

And military rule is back, though junta leaders often speak the language of democracy, calling themselves “transitional governments,” promising elections and appointing civilian ministers.

Guinea, which has been ruled by the military since soldiers stormed the presidential palace in 2021, was supposed to hold elections this October. But in February, soldiers gathered at that same palace to issue a decree that threatened to delay any election.

“The government is dissolved,” one soldier declared, as 19 other junta members and armed soldiers stood behind him in uniform on the palace’s red-carpeted staircase.

Senegal was long seen as an exception to this anti-democratic trend, but in February, President Macky Sall shocked the country by indefinitely postponing the election for his successor, only three weeks before polling was set to begin.

His administration has adopted tactics used by others intent on staying in power across Francophone Africa: shutting down the internet, banning demonstrations, killing protesters and throwing opposition politicians into jail.

Senegal’s constitutional court reinstated the election, which is now set for this Sunday. And Mr. Sall has just released two key opposition leaders from prison — one a presidential candidate.

Of course, democratic backsliding is not confined to former French colonies in Africa. From the United States to Brazil, and Hungary to Venezuela, democracy has faced challenges in many countries globally. And African countries with no historical link to France are not exempt: Leaders in Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, for example, brook no dissent.

But what the former French colonies have in common are political systems heavily influenced by France’s with extremely strong presidential powers, which their institutions struggle to keep in check, said Gilles Olakounlé Yabi, the founder and chief executive of the West Africa Citizen Think Tank.

“That legacy is still very present,” he said.

In Benin in 2021, President Patrice Talon was re-elected after changing the electoral rules to make it impossible for anyone except his supporters to run for office. The 91-year-old Cameroonian president Paul Biya has been in power since 1982, after scrapping term limits. Togo’s politics have been controlled by the same family since 1963, despite calls for electoral reform. In Ivory Coast, the incumbent president, Alassane Ouattara, won a controversial third term in 2020 with 94 percent of the vote, in what opposition members called a “sham election.”

Mr. Yabi calls the malaise “hyperpresidentialism” and has long argued that countries should adopt more detailed constitutions to strengthen checks and balances and rein in individual leaders.

There are non-Francophone countries that suffer from “hyperpresidentialism,” too, Mr. Yabi said. But former British colonies in Africa tend to have stronger parliaments and judicial systems that limit presidents’ powers.

The Sahel, the arid strip south of the Sahara, has seen a succession of coups. Five years ago, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso all had presidents who were repressing the opposition, muzzling the press or trying to change constitutions. Now they’re under military rule.

Sweeping change took place across Africa in the 1960s, when countries won independence from their colonial rulers, and again at the dawn of multiparty democracy in the 1990s that followed decades of either single-party or military rule.

The region is in another “defining moment,” said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who is focused on the Sahel. This time, it’s about whether democracy will return to the junta-led countries, which have all promised elections in 2024 but show few signs of organizing them.

Many people living under military rule say elections aren’t a priority. Juntas win popularity by criticizing France, throwing out French soldiers and media groups, and partnering with Russia — even as citizens struggle to make ends meet, partly as a result of regional sanctions imposed on junta-led countries.

“It’s hell,” admitted Abdoulaye Cissé, a motorcycle delivery man in Bamako, the Malian capital, recently. But he doesn’t want elections because the junta is working hard, he said. “We have to try to support them and give them a little time,” he said.

For Mamadou Koné, a security guard in Bamako, the junta represents “a first attempt by African leaders to completely free themselves from colonial oppression.” Rising prices and food shortages are just part of the “heavy price to pay for freedom,” he said.

France’s influence on the continent has changed and waned in recent decades, most recently focusing on fighting jihadists in the Sahel. But the perception that it still pulls the strings is real, analysts say, and drives politics across Francophone Africa.

Certain presidents and regional organizations seen as French allies are tarnished by association, like the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, a confederation of countries that is often accused of condemning military coups but not power grabs by sitting presidents. When the Niger coup happened, ECOWAS threatened to invade; when Senegal’s president canceled the election, it only released a statement encouraging him to hold elections.

The leader of the junta in Burkina Faso, who became the world’s youngest president when he seized power in 2022, recently said the civilian presidents of countries in the ECOWAS alliance were coup plotters like himself.

“There are plenty of putschists in ECOWAS,” Capt. Ibrahim Traoré said in December, wearing a red beret and desert camouflage as he sat on a gilt chair once occupied by his civilian predecessor. “They have never obeyed their own rules.”

Many West Africans agree, and are more open to the military variety of putschist than they used to be.

In Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, the juntas are often seen as representing the people and their interests, while elected leaders are cast as Western — and especially French — pawns.

“There is a sense that France really intervenes quite a lot in the region, and that a lot of these leaders are basically puppets of France,” said Mr. Dulani, of Afrobarometer. “Part of this disillusionment with democracy is the extent to which people think that the democratic governments are serving the interests of France more than their own.”

Mamadou Tapily contributed reporting from Bamako, Mali.

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