Written by Zoe Nakoma


The recent surge in coups in West and Central Africa has become a cause of concern. There has been a significant increase in the last years, with eight successful coups since 2020. The latest coup in Niger, which occurred in July 2023, has sparked a wave of apprehension among media, analysts, and citizens alike about the future of West Africa, calling for a closer examination of the root causes of coups (Nigma and Kasambala, 2023; Mensah, 2023). One of the identified causes is the perception of interference by Western powers. The Malian colonel and interim Prime Minister Abdoulaye Maigaat, at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), accused the French of ‘neocolonial, condescending, paternalistic and revanchist” politics” (DW News, 2023). What level of responsibility, blame, or role can one place on France and the Western allies?

The following article examines the extent to which France played a significant role in impeding democratic progress. Through thorugh analysis, this article will argue that the French prioritised stability over the long-term self-determination and development of West and Central African countries. This is based on the understanding that, fundamentally, the lack of democratisation has led to the wave of coups. Both physical and structural violence, from violent extremism to non-distributive policies, have hindered democratic progress and vice versa. On top of this, coups have become a pattern of power transition and have created a cycle that is extremely hard to break. This article will make three main points: the French support for 1) the African elite class, 2) centralisation of economic interest, and 3) counterinsurgency campaigns have contributed to the rise of instability and coups in West and Central Africa.

The African elite class

For far too long, corruption, elitism, and inequality have been pervasive issues in Western and Central African countries. Despite the economic development, an Oxfam Report (2019) argues that the majority of Nigerians, Ghanaians and Malians do not experience any of this wealth. On top of this, corruption has been on the rise in Mali since 2015, and Equatorial Guinea has been under the leadership of the longest-serving president currently in the world (Transparency International, 2023). These problems have obstructed social mobility and have made it difficult for democratic governments to form and thrive.

Colonisation has left a legacy of an unrepresentative governance structure due to an unfulfilled decolonisation process. The French have helped maintain this system through their continued elite class support. It started with post-independence agreements in the early 1960s, followed by Cold War dictatorship support and still involves today, for example, the relationships with Chad’s Déby family, whose governments had been accused of torture and rigged elections (Human Rights Watch, 2021).

This continued presence of France in its former colonies is described as ‘Françafrique’, which is sustained through personal ties to elites (Powel, 2017; Andjembe Etogho et al., 2022). Taking place more informally today through business links, the corruption case involving Vincent Bolloré, a French businessman and media tycoon and the leaders of Guinea and Togo shows that the disruption of democracy still takes place (RFI, 2018). The scholarly explanation of French support for this elite class varies from neo-colonialism to regional power status. On the one hand, some scholars refer to the ‘comprador bourgeoisie’, an elite class that maintains its colonial ties at the expense of democracy (Ejiogu & Mosely, 2017). On the other hand, some argue that the French and African governments’ foreign policies are driven by realist considerations of their respective interests (Siradga, 2014). Nevertheless, all agree that France favours regional stability and asserts its position within it rather than promoting democratisation (Powel, 2017).

In contrast, the countries that have reformed their governments from colonial governance (e.g. Botswana) have seldom experienced coups (Mahmoud & Taifouri, 2023). This is not to say that former French colonies have not progressed democratically or that it is unique to France. Former British colonies (Sudan, 17 and Sierre Leone, 10) have experienced more coups since independence than French former colonies (Cheeseman & Mbulle-Nziege, 2023). However, the recent coups have placed the French’s continued support for the allied elite class in the limelight, even amidst a new African Strategy based on development and human rights (Mahmoud and Taifouri, 2023).

Economic interests

No matter what explanation scholars take, the French are driven by economic interest to sustain relationships with former colonies. Until the 1990s, France was the largest exporter to its former colonies; while France is a G20 country, many of these countries continue to struggle with poverty. This economic inequality and the continued extractive system are cited as the cause of economic instability and armed violence, with some directly linking the neo-colonial financial system to terrorism (Ejiogu & Mosley, 2017).

For example, some analysts argued that France’s interests in Niger’s minerals drove the French initiation of Operation Barkhane and their subsequent response to the Niger Coup. Niger supplies one out of three electric lamps in France (Mahmoud & Taifouri, 2023). However, this reasoning might be exaggerated or too deterministic (Powell, 2017), but considering the EU Critical Mineral Act or the recent Chancellor Scholz visit to several African countries, economic interests are shaping relationships. While it is not necessarily problematic for foreign countries to engage in economic agreements, what is more concerning is the stark contrast between Niger’s electricity shortage and France’s supplied Niger-fueled electricity (Mahmoud & Taifouri, 2023).

The clearest example of a continued colonial relationship that has disproportionately benefited the French is the CFA Franc, the currency used by several African countries. The lack of monetary independence has various adverse effects, from European business advantage to reduced regional trade. The proposed currency reform does not alter the fixed exchange rate, thus creating an illusion of change (Mattheis, 2022; Andjembe Etoghno et al., 2022). However, the CFA France dominance is not as straightforward. For some, decolonisation seems unfinished due to the lack of monetary sovereignty; for others, the difference between the Franc and the dollar makes little difference financially (Signe, 2019; Assa, 2022).

Furthermore, the rising geopolitical competition will not see the external actors doubling down on their trading policies. The rising geopolitical competition between the West and the East will place the African continent, once again, in the middle of a power struggle. Dubbed the new ‘scramble for Africa,’ China’s investment and Russian military presence most likely informed the French and Western States’ economic and military assistance. There has always been a competition between powers over African land and investment. Italy and France have been actively trying to out-compete each other in North Africa (Recher, 2019). However, such policies as the Global Gateway in response to the Belt and Road Initiative place European interests at the forefront. As Klass (2023) argues, the struggles of Nigeriens have already been overlooked as the world is viewing the coup as a ‘geopolitical chess game.’

French counterterrorism strategy

Finally, the French and Western interests in the region have been set on counterterrorism as an immediate concern of their security, which has led to an emphasis on military assistance and intervention. Violent extremism and armed non-state actors are a huge concern in the region and part of the deep insecurity that prevents the countries from economically and politically developing. Violence has substantially increased in the last year, with casualties in the Sahel region raised by seventy per cent from last year (King, 2023). However, the negative impact of France’s role has come from the ‘failed state’ narrative, militaristic approach, and flawed interventions that have not resulted in nation-building or decreased violence (ibid; Powell, 2017).

French and European interventions have had a Eurocentric and top-down approach, perpetuating a failed state narrative. This narrative has been convenient for European security and economic interests, but fails to address the root causes of the conflicts and crises it seeks to resolve (Powell, 2017; Coggins, 2015). It starts by describing the Sahel as ‘ungoverned lands’ and ends with linking failed states to terrorism. According to Coggins (2015), the link to terrorism is much more complex, and weak states with political tensions are more likely to experience domestic terrorism. Thus, a focus on politics and the democratic process should be considered in counterterrorism strategy rather than a straightforward intervention approach, which the failed state narrative runs on (ibid).

However, even with improved human security discourses and the decline of direct military interventions, newer perspectives, such as bottom-up peacebuilding or ‘African solutions to African problems’, are still riddled with European interests and a security lens (Beswick, 2010). For example, the strides that the ‘local turn’ on peacebuilding has made by incorporating local voices in decision-making has simultaneously prevented the acknowledgement of colonial legacies and continued symmetries between the North and the South from a true ‘local turn’ (Jonas, 2022).

More so, as Beswick (2010, 742) suggests, African states are ‘fulfilling roles deemed necessary for maintaining international security…’ like border control or terrorism cooperation to receive donor aid or development assistance. It shows that European interest comes first. For example, the Niger Coup dismantled the French entire new African strategy along with their anti-terrorism campaign. In response, Michèle Peyron, head of the French parliament’s friendship group with Niger, argued that this would result in terrorism flourishing and impact migration routes to Europe (Toosi & Caulcutt, 2023). Clearly, this ‘friendship’ is one-sided and is centred on French interests.

To counter, the European Union has sponsored democratic reform assistance and sent civilian missions to monitor elections. This array of assistance has had varying success; however, its objective primarily addresses the causes of instability (Pirozzi, 2015). The European Union is the world’s most significant provider of development aid, but scholarship argues that its policies have been securitised, which entails a greater emphasis on security concerns and decreased traditional development assistance (Furness et al., 2020; Bergmann, 2017). For example, the European Union’s conflict prevention policy has seen a significant increase in capacity-based assistance, such as counterterrorism activities, with the decline of dialogue support mechanisms (Mustasilta, 2022). As a result, national militaries are supported to improve the state’s capacity to fight organised crime and terrorism, which has tipped the imbalance of military power in several countries. For example, Rwanda’s military was strengthened in the name of ‘African Solutions’, but their military activity in the DRC has contributed to furthering instability rather than solving violence in the region (Beswick, 2010).

On top of all of this, the various counterterrorism campaigns have been largely unsuccessful. It is crucial to consider the difficulty of counterinsurgency operations and the level of success of Operation Barkhane, for example, in Mali (O’Connor, 2023). Nevertheless, the several identified causes of failure of counterterrorism in West Africa stretch from operational errors to a lack of resources; however, the most identified failures come down to a misunderstanding of the situation and tackling the symptom rather than the cause of violent extremism (Doxsee et al., 2022). The result is continued violence and anti-french sentiment, leading juntas to name inadequate government security policies as reasons for their coups (Andjembe, 2022; Mattheis, 2021).


The primary causes of the coups are always immediately domestic, and a European perspective can deny local agency and lead to generalisations (Klaas, 2023). West and Central Africa have seen substantial political progress; however, the African Barometer survey shows worrying signs of democratic slideback. One cannot ignore the anti-French sentiment and France’s regional status in both military and economic sense and through its soft power (ibid, Mattheis, 2021). With the rise of coups, this article showed the role France has played in the continuation of unrepresentative elites, economic instability and failed counterinsurgency operations that have halted democratic reform, thus, contributing to the increase in coups. With the rise of geopolitical competition, a race for vital green transition minerals, and increasing populist demands of migration control, the French and Europeans need to re-centre their foreign policy towards a normative outlook.


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